Wade recalls the moment when he heard about the death of James Halliday, the creator of a multiplayer game named the OASIS. The ordinary TV broadcast was interrupted with a short film entitled Anorak’s Invitation, in which Halliday recites the “highlights” of his will. He transforms into Anorak, his OASIS avatar, and announces that he’s hidden an Easter egg in OASIS. The first person to find it will inherit his entire fortune and estate. He recites the first clue about the Easter egg’s location, and wonders aloud if he’s made the hunt too difficult. He announces the beginning of the hunt, and the video ends.
Before long, a subculture is born. Those who participate in the hunt are known as “gunters”; although there are always some gunters boasting that they are on the edge of a breakthrough, years pass and nobody finds anything, and most people lose interest in the hunt. Suddenly, in 2045, Wade—an 18-year-old living in a trailer park on the outskirts of Oklahoma City—appears on the scoreboard. He will now tell the story of what happens next.
Wade wakes up to the sound of gunshots. When it gets cold he stays in his Aunt Alice’s trailer with fifteen other people. Wade’s parents were both refugees. His father was killed while looting a grocery store during a blackout. His mother, Loretta, was an OASIS telemarketer and sex worker. She was also a drug user, and when the narrator was 11 she died after shooting up a “bad batch of something.” Ever since the energy crisis pushed refugees into the major cities, multi-level “stacks” of trailer parks like the one in which Wade lives started appearing around urban areas. Wade has a “hideout”—an abandoned van—in which he keeps his belongings, attends school, and plays the OASIS.
Wade named his OASIS avatar Parzival, but at school he must use his real name. Wade is not looking forward to graduating; he doesn’t have enough money to attend college, so his only option is to become a full-time gunter. In sixth grade he transferred to an OASIS school on the planet Ludus, where all OASIS schools are located.
A corporation named Innovative Online Industries has hired professional oologists (egg-hunters) nicknamed “Sixers” to find the Easter egg on its behalf. The IOI hopes to take control of the OASIS and aggressively monetize it, charging users a monthly fee. Wade reads the blog of a gunter named Art3mis, confessing that he has a “massive cyber-crush” on her. He instant messages his friend Aech and they arrange to meet in Aech’s chat room, the Basement. Wade, Aech, and another avatar named I-r0k quiz each other on trivia.
The OASIS is shaped like a Rubik’s Cube, with 27 cubed “sectors.” Travelling across one sector at the speed of light is expensive and takes 10 hours. Avatars can gain experience points—XPs—by completing quests and fighting NPC villains. However, these don’t exist on Ludus. With difficulty Wade has managed to raise his avatar to the third level by briefly hitching rides to other planets and earning XPs there; however, no gunter is considered serious until they reach the tenth level.
Wade’s favorite class is Advanced OASIS studies, which he finds easy because he knows everything there is to know about Halliday. He explains that Halliday was a highly eccentric genius obsessed with video games, sci-fi and fantasy, and the 1980s. He is thought to have been autistic. Gregarious Games, a company Halliday cofounded with his friend Ogden Morrow, was rebranded in 2012 as Gregarious Simulation Systems (GSS), at which point it released its only product, the Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation—the OASIS. As Earth became more and more afflicted by poverty, famine, and chaos, people ended up spending most of their time in the OASIS.
One day in Latin class, Wade has a breakthrough about the meaning of the Limerick, the first clue in the hunt, and realizes that the Copper Key might be hidden on Ludus. He is stunned to see that the Tomb of Horrors is only 70km from his school and he manages to travel there by pretending he is going to his school’s football game. Everything goes well until he encounters the demi-lich, Acererak, who challenges him to a joust. Wade beats him, and Acererak transforms into Halliday’s avatar, Anorak, to give Wade his reward: the Copper Key. Wade also receives 50,000 XPs, raising his avatar to the tenth level.
Wade’s next mission is to journey to Halliday’s recreation of his childhood home in Middletown, Ohio. As Wade is leaving the Tomb of Horrors, he sees Art3mis, who has failed to defeat Acererak. Wade lies and pretends Acererak beat him too. Art3mis realizes he’s lying and is furious at first; however, they part ways on friendly terms.
In Halliday’s childhood bedroom, Wade discovers the First Gate, a portal which opens to deep space. He jumps through and lands inside a vintage video arcade, and soon realizes that he is in a simulation of the 1983 film WarGames. He has been transformed into Matthew Broderick’s character in the movie, and must play the role correctly based on memory. He successfully reaches the end of the movie, at which point the scoreboard updates, showing that he has now completed the first gate. However, Wade is exhausted. He takes off his visor and goes to sleep in his hideout for 12 hours.
Wade awakes to discover that Art3mis has now passed the First Gate too. Morrow is interviewed on the news, his first appearance in years. Halliday and Morrow had a falling out years ago, but no one knows why. Wade receives sponsorships from companies who will pay him in XPs. He receives an email from Nolan Sorrento, the Head of Operations at IOI, offering to recruit him as a Sixer.
Wade connects with Sorrento via chatlink, a communication tool that allows him to travel to the IOI headquarters in hologram form. Sorrento explains the vast system the Sixers have developed to find the egg and offers Wade the position of Chief Oologist. When Wade refuses, Sorrento offers him $5 million on the spot in exchange for explaining how to get through the First Gate, but Wade again declines the offer. Finally, Sorrento reveals that he knows Wade’s true identity and that he has wired Aunt Alice’s trailer with explosives. He threatens to kill Wade, but Wade still refuses and logs out of the OASIS. Back in his hideout, he hears a nearby explosion.
That night, Wade attends a private chatroom meeting in the Basement with the top four avatars on the OASIS scoreboard: Art3mis, Aech, Daito, and Shoto. Aech brings up the idea of forming an alliance, but Daito and Shoto refuse and abruptly leave. Over the next few days, hundreds of Sixers pass through the First Gate. Wade uses his first endorsement check to buy himself a bus ticket to Columbus. During the journey, Wade logs into the OASIS and buys himself a new identity, Bryce Lynch. He arrives at his new apartment in Columbus and vows not to leave it until he finds the egg.
In a chat, Wade reveals to Art3mis that he has a crush on her. She agrees to tell him a few things about herself, but then logs off and says they can’t talk again until one of them finds the egg. However, when Wade emails her, she responds, and they begin hanging out. Wade graduates from high school and works on bringing his avatar up to the highest level, 99. One day, he has a breakthrough and realizes that the latest clue—the Quatrain—has something to do with Cap’n Crunch cereal. Soon after, he and Art3mis kiss for the first time.
Wade receives an invitation to Morrow’s 73rd birthday party at the Distracted Globe, a zero-gravity dance club. He and Art3mis dance together, and he confesses that he is in love with her. Art3mis dismisses him, emphasizing that they don’t actually know each other in reality and that their relationship has led them to neglect the hunt. Suddenly, Sixers begin shooting up the club; Morrow vaporizes them and the party resumes, but Art3mis leaves.
Wade sets up shop on an asteroid on Sector Fourteen, which he has bought and named Falco. He has been living in Columbus for five months, and it has been eight weeks since he last spoke to Art3mis. He and Aech are no longer friends, although he has managed to strike up a friendship with Daito and Shoto. Using his fake identity, he has also managed to get a job doing low-level OASIS technical support. One day, at the end of a shift, he discovered that Art3mis has obtained the Jade Key.
The Sixers are now in possession of an artifact called Fyndoro’s Tablet of Finding, which will help them with the Hunt. Wade flies his starship, the Vonnegut, to a planet named Archaide, which is a museum of old arcade games. To his surprise, Wade finds a recreation of Happytime Pizza, a pizza place Halliday frequented as a child. Inside, there is a Pac-Man machine, which Wade realizes contains another Easter egg. However, while he is playing, he sees that Aech has overtaken him on the scoreboard. Wade manages to get the new high score on Pac-Man, and at the same moment receives a message from Aech with a clue that leads him to the Jade Key, which is situated on a nearby planet called Frobozz. Wade successfully locates the key and narrowly avoids an encounter with a group of Sixers. The violent clashes between gunters and Sixers that ensues is known as the Battle of Frobozz. During the action, Shoto finds the key, but in almost the same moment, Daito is killed.
Sorrento clears the Second Gate and rises to first place on the scoreboard. Wade watches with horror as dozens of Sixers find the Crystal Key. Shoto visits Wade and explains that it is not just Daito’s avatar that’s dead. The Sixers killed Daito himself, framing it as a suicide. After Shoto leaves, Wade has another breakthrough, realizing that the next gate has something to do with the 1982 film Blade Runner. He flies the Vonnegut to a planet called Axrenox, where he enters one of the countless copies of the Tyrell Building that exist in the OASIS. He uses the Jade Key to enter a bowling alley, where he enters a recreation of an old video game named Black Tiger. He hears the clue about where the Crystal Key is in the lyrics of a song by Halliday’s favorite band, Rush. He travels to Syrinx, a deserted planet, and enters the Temple of the Syrinx. Wade realizes he has to play a song on the guitar, and once he is done, the guitar transforms into the Crystal Key.
Wade realizes that the Third Gate must be hidden inside Castle Anorak on the planet Chthonia, “the gunters’ Mecca.” The whole army of Sixers are already there, along with countless gunters. Everyone thinks the hunt is almost over. Wade emails Art3mis, Aech, and Shoto, telling them how to find the Crystal Key. He vows to find the Third Gate or “die trying.”
IOI police descend on Wade’s apartment in Columbus to arrest him for overdue payments on his visa card. Wade enters the OASIS and orders his computer to self-destruct just before the police break into the apartment. They take him to 101 IOI Plaza, where he is to be indentured. He is given the job of OASIS Technical Support Representative II and is forced to sign an indenturement contract. During the day, Wade works obediently, but at night he secretly plans to infiltrate the Sixer’s database and destroy the shield they’ve created over Anorak’s castle. Having hacked into the database, he learns that the Sixers plan to kill Art3mis and Shoto after they find the egg. Working quickly, he downloads data from the Sixer database and wipes his own debt. He escapes the IOI prison by wearing the uniform of maintenance-tech worker he bought on the black market.
Wade buys new clothing and a gun. He then goes to the Plug, a place where he can privately log into the OASIS that is not owned by IOI. Once he is logged in, Wade emails all the major news networks with evidence of how IOI had killed Daito, tried to kill Wade, and planned to kill Art3mis and Aech. He then logs into the Basement, where Aech, Art3mis, and Shoto are waiting. Together, they realize that Halliday designed the Hunt so that three avatars would have to face each other at the Third Gate. Wade shows the others an email he plans to send to every single gunter, asking them to come together and fight the Sixers as a team. Suddenly, Og appears, offering to help. He reveals that he promised Halliday to protect the hunt, and offers to house Aech, Ar3mis, Shoto, and Wade at his home in Oregon for the final battle.
On the way to Oregon, Wade meets Aech for the first time in real life and discovers that she is actually an African-American teenage lesbian whose real name is Helen. At Morrow’s mansion, the team enter the OASIS, where every avatar is heading to Castle Anorak. There, the gunter-Sixer battle takes place. Shoto’s avatar is killed and Wade’s is seriously injured. However, he manages to keep going and kill Sorrento’s avatar. He meets Aech and Art3mis at the Third Gate, but just as they are about to enter, there is a massive explosion and their avatars all die. Just as Wade is convinced he is about to see “Game Over,” he learns that he has an extra life. Aech and Art3mis’ avatars remain dead, though he can hear them speaking to him.
Wade must play another vintage video game, Tempest, while the “whole world” watches. He eventually achieves the highest score and is instantly transported into the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which he reenacts with joyful ease. Wade then appears in a simulation of Halliday’s office, and realizes that the Easter egg must be hidden in this room. After several tries, he manages to log onto Halliday’s computer and retrieves the egg. Halliday appears and tells him that he is now in charge of OASIS, that his avatar is immortal, and that he can have anything he wants. Wade kills the remaining Sixers and resurrects Art3mis, Aech, and Shoto’s avatars.
After logging out of the OASIS, Wade goes to find Art3mis, who tells him that her real name is Samantha. He confesses his love for her again, and they kiss.