The Almanac contained thousands of references to Halliday’s favorite books, TV shows, movies, songs, graphic novels, and videogames. Most of these items were over forty years old, and so free digital copies of them could be downloaded from the OASIS. If there was something I needed that wasn’t legally available for free, I could almost always get it by using Guntorrent, a file-sharing program used by gunters around the world.
When it came to my research, I never took any shortcuts. Over the past five years, I’d worked my way down the entire recommended gunter reading list. Douglas Adams. Kurt Vonnegut. Neal Stephenson. Richard K. Morgan. Stephen King. Orson Scott Card. Terry Pratchett. Terry Brooks. Bester, Bradbury, Haldeman, Heinlein, Tolkien, Vance, Gibson, Gaiman, Sterling, Moorcock, Scalzi, Zelazny. I read every novel by every single one of Halliday’s favorite authors.
And I didn’t stop there.
I also watched every single film he referenced in the Almanac. If it was one of Halliday’s favorites, like WarGames, Ghostbusters, Real Genius, Better Off Dead, or Revenge of the Nerds, I rewatched it until I knew every scene by heart.
I devoured each of what Halliday referred to as “The Holy Trilogies”: Star Wars (original and prequel trilogies, in that order), Lord of the Rings, The Matrix, Mad Max, Back to the Future, and Indiana Jones. (Halliday once said that he preferred to pretend the other Indiana Jones films, from Kingdom of the Crystal Skull onward, didn’t exist. I tended to agree.)
I also absorbed the complete filmographies of each of his favorite directors. Cameron, Gilliam, Jackson, Fincher, Kubrick, Lucas, Spielberg, Del Toro, Tarantino. And, of course, Kevin Smith.
I spent three months studying every John Hughes teen movie and memorizing all the key lines of dialogue.
Only the meek get pinched. The bold survive.
You could say I covered all the bases.
I studied Monty Python. And not just Holy Grail, either. Every single one of their films, albums, and books, and every episode of the original BBC series. (Including those two “lost” episodes they did for German television.)
I wasn’t going to cut any corners.
I wasn’t going to miss something obvious.
Somewhere along the way, I started to go overboard.
I may, in fact, have started to go a little insane.
I watched every episode of The Greatest American Hero, Airwolf, The A-Team, Knight Rider, Misfits of Science, and The Muppet Show.
What about The Simpsons, you ask?
I knew more about Springfield than I knew about my own city.
Star Trek? Oh, I did my homework. TOS, TNG, DS9. Even Voyager and Enterprise. I watched them all in chronological order. The movies, too. Phasers locked on target.
I gave myself a crash course in ’80s Saturday-morning cartoons.
I learned the name of every last goddamn Gobot and Transformer.
Land of the Lost, Thundarr the Barbarian, He-Man, Schoolhouse Rock!, G.I. Joe—I knew them all. Because knowing is half the battle.
Who was my friend, when things got rough? H.R. Pufnstuf.
Japan? Did I cover Japan?
Yes. Yes indeed. Anime and live-action. Godzilla, Gamera, Star Blazers, The Space Giants, and G-Force. Go, Speed Racer, Go.
I wasn’t some dilettante.
I wasn’t screwing around.
I memorized every last Bill Hicks stand-up routine.
Music? Well, covering all the music wasn’t easy.
It took some time.
The ’80s was a long decade (ten whole years), and Halliday didn’t seem to have had very discerning taste. He listened to everything. So I did too. Pop, rock, new wave, punk, heavy metal. From the Police to Journey to R.E.M. to the Clash. I tackled it all.
I burned through the entire They Might Be Giants discography in under two weeks. Devo took a little longer.
I watched a lot of YouTube videos of cute geeky girls playing ’80s cover tunes on ukuleles. Technically, this wasn’t part of my research, but I had a serious cute-geeky-girls-playing-ukuleles fetish that I can neither explain nor defend.
I memorized lyrics. Silly lyrics, by bands with names like Van Halen, Bon Jovi, Def Leppard, and Pink Floyd.
I kept at it.
I burned the midnight oil.
Did you know that Midnight Oil was an Australian band, with a 1987 hit titled “Beds Are Burning”?
I was obsessed. I wouldn’t quit. My grades suffered. I didn’t care.
I read every issue of every comic book title Halliday had ever collected.
I wasn’t going to have anyone questioning my commitment.
Especially when it came to the videogames.
Videogames were my area of expertise.
My double-weapon specialization.
My dream Jeopardy! category.
I downloaded every game mentioned or referenced in the Almanac, from Akalabeth to Zaxxon. I played each title until I had mastered it, then moved on to the next one.
You’d be amazed how much research you can get done when you have no life whatsoever. Twelve hours a day, seven days a week, is a lot of study time.
I worked my way through every videogame genre and platform. Classic arcade coin-ops, home computer, console, and handheld. Text-based adventures, first-person shooters, third-person RPGs. Ancient 8-, 16-, and 32-bit classics written in the previous century. The harder a game was to beat, the more I enjoyed it. And as I played these ancient digital relics, night after night, year after year, I discovered I had a talent for them. I could master most action titles in a few hours, and there wasn’t an adventure or role-playing game I couldn’t solve. I never needed any walkthroughs or cheat codes. Everything just clicked. And I was even better at the old arcade games. When I was in the zone on a high-speed classic like Defender, I felt like a hawk in flight, or the way I thought a shark must feel as it cruises the ocean floor. For the first time, I knew what it was to be a natural at something. To have a gift.
But it wasn’t my research into old movies, comics, or videogames that had yielded my first real clue. That had come while I was studying the history of old pen-and-paper role-playing games.
Reprinted on the first page of Anorak’s Almanac were the four rhyming lines of verse Halliday had recited in the Invitation video.
Three hidden keys open three secret gates
Wherein the errant will be tested for worthy traits
And those with the skill to survive these straits
Will reach The End where the prize awaits
At first, this seemed to be the only direct reference to the contest in the entire almanac. But then, buried among all those rambling journal entries and essays on pop culture, I discovered a hidden message.
Scattered throughout the text of the Almanac were a series of marked letters. Each of these letters had a tiny, nearly invisible “notch” cut into its outline. I’d first noticed these notches the year after Halliday died. I was reading my hard copy of the Almanac at the time, and so at first I thought the notches were nothing but tiny printing imperfections, perhaps due to the paper or the ancient printer I’d used to print out the Almanac. But when I checked the electronic version of the book available on Halliday’s website, I found the same notches on the exact same letters. And if you zoomed in on one of those letters, the notches stood out as plain as day.
Halliday had put them there. He’d marked these letters for a reason.
There turned out to be one hundred and twelve of these notched letters scattered throughout the book. By writing them down in the order they appeared, I discovered that they spelled something. I nearly died of excitement as I wrote it down in my grail diary:
The Copper Key awaits explorers
In a tomb filled with horrors
But you have much to learn
If you hope to earn
A place among the high scorers
Other gunters had also discovered this hidden message, of course, but they were all wise enough to keep it to themselves. For a while, anyway. About six months after I discovered the hidden message, this loudmouth MIT freshman found it too. His name was Steven Pendergast, and he decided to get his fifteen minutes of fame by sharing his “discovery” with the media. The newsfeeds broadcast interviews with this moron for a month, even though he didn’t have the first clue about the message’s meaning. After that, going public with a clue became known as “pulling a Pendergast.”
Once the message became public knowledge, gunters nicknamed it “the Limerick.” The entire world had known about it for almost four years now, but no one seemed to understand its true meaning, and the Copper Key still had yet to be found.
I knew Halliday had frequently used similar riddles in many of his early adventure games, and each of those riddles had made sense in the context of its game. So I devoted an entire section of my grail diary to deciphering the Limerick, line by line.
The Copper Key awaits explorers
This line seemed pretty straightforward. No hidden meaning that I could detect.
In a tomb filled with horrors.
This line was trickier. Taken at face value, it seemed to say that the key was hidden in a tomb somewhere, one filled with horrifying stuff. But then, during the course of my research, I discovered an old Dungeons & Dragons supplement called Tomb of Horrors, which had been published in 1978. From the moment I saw the title, I was certain the second line of the Limerick was a reference to it. Halliday and Morrow had played Advanced Dungeons & Dragons all through high school, along with several other pen-and-paper role-playing games, like GURPS, Champions, Car Wars, and Rolemaster.
Tomb of Horrors was a thin booklet called a “module.” It contained detailed maps and room-by-room descriptions of an underground labyrinth infested with undead monsters. D&D players could explore the labyrinth with their characters as the dungeon master read from the module and guided them through the story it contained, describing everything they saw and encountered along the way.