Everyone my age remembers where they were and what they were doing when they first heard about the contest. I was sitting in my hideout watching cartoons when the news bulletin broke in on my video feed, announcing that James Halliday had died during the night.
I’d heard of Halliday, of course. Everyone had. He was the videogame designer responsible for creating the OASIS, a massively multiplayer online game that had gradually evolved into the globally networked virtual reality most of humanity now used on a daily basis. The unprecedented success of the OASIS had made Halliday one of the wealthiest people in the world.
At first, I couldn’t understand why the media was making such a big deal of the billionaire’s death. After all, the people of Planet Earth had other concerns. The ongoing energy crisis. Catastrophic climate change. Widespread famine, poverty, and disease. Half a dozen wars. You know: “dogs and cats living together … mass hysteria!” Normally, the newsfeeds didn’t interrupt everyone’s interactive sitcoms and soap operas unless something really major had happened. Like the outbreak of some new killer virus, or another major city vanishing in a mushroom cloud. Big stuff like that. As famous as he was, Halliday’s death should have warranted only a brief segment on the evening news, so the unwashed masses could shake their heads in envy when the newscasters announced the obscenely large amount of money that would be doled out to the rich man’s heirs.
But that was the rub. James Halliday had no heirs.
He had died a sixty-seven-year-old bachelor, with no living relatives and, by most accounts, without a single friend. He’d spent the last fifteen years of his life in self-imposed isolation, during which time—if the rumors were to be believed—he’d gone completely insane.
So the real jaw-dropping news that January morning, the news that had everyone from Toronto to Tokyo crapping in their cornflakes, concerned the contents of Halliday’s last will and testament, and the fate of his vast fortune.
Halliday had prepared a short video message, along with instructions that it be released to the world media at the time of his death. He’d also arranged to have a copy of the video e-mailed to every single OASIS user that same morning. I still remember hearing the familiar electronic chime when it arrived in my inbox, just a few seconds after I saw that first news bulletin.
His video message was actually a meticulously constructed short film titled Anorak’s Invitation. A famous eccentric, Halliday had harbored a lifelong obsession with the 1980s, the decade during which he’d been a teenager, and Anorak’s Invitation was crammed with obscure ’80s pop culture references, nearly all of which were lost on me the first time I viewed it.
The entire video was just over five minutes in length, and in the days and weeks that followed, it would become the most scrutinized piece of film in history, surpassing even the Zapruder film in the amount of painstaking frame-by-frame analysis devoted to it. My entire generation would come to know every second of Halliday’s message by heart.
Anorak’s Invitation begins with the sound of trumpets, the opening of an old song called “Dead Man’s Party.”
The song plays over a dark screen for the first few seconds, until the trumpets are joined by a guitar, and that’s when Halliday appears. But he’s not a sixty-seven-year-old man, ravaged by time and illness. He looks just as he did on the cover of Time magazine back in 2014, a tall, thin, healthy man in his early forties, with unkempt hair and his trademark horn-rimmed eyeglasses. He’s also wearing the same clothing he wore in the Time cover photo: faded jeans and a vintage Space Invaders T-shirt.
Halliday is at a high-school dance being held in a large gymnasium. He’s surrounded by teenagers whose clothing, hairstyles, and dance moves all indicate that the time period is the late 1980s.* Halliday is dancing, too—something no one ever saw him do in real life. Grinning maniacally, he spins in rapid circles, swinging his arms and head in time with the song, flawlessly cycling through several signature ’80s dance moves. But Halliday has no dance partner. He is, as the saying goes, dancing with himself.
A few lines of text appear briefly at the lower left-hand corner of the screen, listing the name of the band, the song’s title, the record label, and the year of release, as if this were an old music video airing on MTV: Oingo Boingo, “Dead Man’s Party,” MCA Records, 1985.
When the lyrics kick in, Halliday begins to lip-synch along, still gyrating: “All dressed up with nowhere to go. Walking with a dead man over my shoulder. Don’t run away, it’s only me.…”
He abruptly stops dancing and makes a cutting motion with his right hand, silencing the music. At the same moment, the dancers and the gymnasium behind him vanish, and the scene around him suddenly changes.
Halliday now stands at the front of a funeral parlor, next to an open casket.† A second, much older Halliday lies inside the casket, his body emaciated and ravaged by cancer. Shiny quarters cover each of his eyelids.‡
The younger Halliday gazes down at the corpse of his older self with mock sadness, then turns to address the assembled mourners.§ Halliday snaps his fingers and a scroll appears in his right hand. He opens it with a flourish and it unfurls to the floor, unraveling down the aisle in front of him. He breaks the fourth wall, addressing the viewer, and begins to read.
“I, James Donovan Halliday, being of sound mind and disposing memory, do hereby make, publish, and declare this instrument to be my last will and testament, hereby revoking any and all wills and codicils by me at any time heretofore made.…” He continues reading, faster and faster, plowing through several more paragraphs of legalese, until he’s speaking so rapidly that the words are unintelligible. Then he stops abruptly. “Forget it,” he says. “Even at that speed, it would take me a month to read the whole thing. Sad to say, I don’t have that kind of time.” He drops the scroll and it vanishes in a shower of gold dust. “Let me just give you the highlights.”
The funeral parlor vanishes, and the scene changes once again. Halliday now stands in front of an immense bank vault door. “My entire estate, including a controlling share of stock in my company, Gregarious Simulation Systems, is to be placed in escrow until such time as a single condition I have set forth in my will is met. The first individual to meet that condition will inherit my entire fortune, currently valued in excess of two hundred and forty billion dollars.”
The vault door swings open and Halliday walks inside. The interior of the vault is enormous, and it contains a huge stack of gold bars, roughly the size of a large house. “Here’s the dough I’m putting up for grabs,” Halliday says, grinning broadly. “What the hell. You can’t take it with you, right?”
Halliday leans against the stack of gold bars, and the camera pulls in tight on his face. “Now, I’m sure you’re wondering, what do you have to do to get your hands on all this moolah? Well, hold your horses, kids. I’m getting to that.…” He pauses dramatically, his expression changing to that of a child about to reveal a very big secret.
Halliday snaps his fingers again and the vault disappears. In the same instant, Halliday shrinks and morphs into a small boy wearing brown corduroys and a faded The Muppet Show T-shirt.* The young Halliday stands in a cluttered living room with burnt orange carpeting, wood-paneled walls, and kitschy late-’70s decor. A 21-inch Zenith television sits nearby, with an Atari 2600 game console hooked up to it.
“This was the first videogame system I ever owned,” Halliday says, now in a child’s voice. “An Atari 2600. I got it for Christmas in 1979.” He plops down in front of the Atari, picks up a joystick, and begins to play. “My favorite game was this one,” he says, nodding at the TV screen, where a small square is traveling through a series of simple mazes. “It was called Adventure. Like many early videogames, Adventure was designed and programmed by just one person. But back then, Atari refused to give its programmers credit for their work, so the name of a game’s creator didn’t actually appear anywhere on the packaging.” On the TV screen, we see Halliday use a sword to slay a red dragon, although due to the game’s crude low-resolution graphics, this looks more like a square using an arrow to stab a deformed duck.
“So the guy who created Adventure, a man named Warren Robinett, decided to hide his name inside the game itself. He hid a key in one of the game’s labyrinths. If you found this key, a small pixel-sized gray dot, you could use it to enter a secret room where Robinett had hidden his name.” On the TV, Halliday guides his square protagonist into the game’s secret room, where the words CREATED BY WARREN ROBINETT appear in the center of the screen.
“This,” Halliday says, pointing to the screen with genuine reverence, “was the very first videogame Easter egg. Robinett hid it in his game’s code without telling a soul, and Atari manufactured and shipped Adventure all over the world without knowing about the secret room. They didn’t find out about the Easter egg’s existence until a few months later, when kids all over the world began to discover it. I was one of those kids, and finding Robinett’s Easter egg for the first time was one of the coolest videogaming experiences of my life.”