The young Halliday drops his joystick and stands. As he does, the living room fades away, and the scene shifts again. Halliday now stands in a dim cavern, where light from unseen torches flickers off the damp walls. In the same instant, Halliday’s appearance also changes once again, as he morphs into his famous OASIS avatar, Anorak—a tall, robed wizard with a slightly more handsome version of the adult Halliday’s face (minus the eyeglasses). Anorak is dressed in his trademark black robes, with his avatar’s emblem (a large calligraphic letter “A”) embroidered on each sleeve.
“Before I died,” Anorak says, speaking in a much deeper voice, “I created my own Easter egg, and hid it somewhere inside my most popular videogame—the OASIS. The first person to find my Easter egg will inherit my entire fortune.”
Another dramatic pause.
“The egg is well hidden. I didn’t just leave it lying under a rock somewhere. I suppose you could say that it’s locked inside a safe that is buried in a secret room that lies hidden at the center of a maze located somewhere”—he reaches up to tap his right temple—“up here.
“But don’t worry. I’ve left a few clues lying around to get everyone started. And here’s the first one.” Anorak makes a grand gesture with his right hand, and three keys appear, spinning slowly in the air in front of him. They appear to be made of copper, jade, and clear crystal. As the keys continue to spin, Anorak recites a piece of verse, and as he speaks each line, it appears briefly in flaming subtitles across the bottom of screen:
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
As he finishes, the jade and crystal keys vanish, leaving only the copper key, which now hangs on a chain around Anorak’s neck.
The camera follows Anorak as he turns and continues farther into the dark cavern. A few seconds later, he arrives at a pair of massive wooden doors set into the cavern’s rocky wall. These doors are banded with steel, and there are shields and dragons carved into their surfaces. “I couldn’t playtest this particular game, so I worry that I may have hidden my Easter egg a little too well. Made it too difficult to reach. I’m not sure. If that’s the case, it’s too late to change anything now. So I guess we’ll see.”
Anorak throws open the double doors, revealing an immense treasure room filled with piles of glittering gold coins and jewel-encrusted goblets.* Then he steps into the open doorway and turns to face the viewer, stretching out his arms to hold open the giant double doors.†
“So without further ado,” Anorak announces, “let the hunt for Halliday’s Easter egg begin!” Then he vanishes in a flash of light, leaving the viewer to gaze through the open doorway at the glittering mounds of treasure that lay beyond.
Then the screen fades to black.
At the end of the video, Halliday included a link to his personal website, which had changed drastically on the morning of his death. For over a decade, the only thing posted there had been a short looping animation that showed his avatar, Anorak, sitting in a medieval library, hunched over a scarred worktable, mixing potions and poring over dusty spellbooks, with a large painting of a black dragon visible on the wall behind him.
But now that animation was gone, and in its place there was a high-score list like those that used to appear in old coin-operated videogames. The list had ten numbered spots, and each displayed the initials JDH—James Donovan Halliday—followed by a score of six zeros. This high-score list quickly came to be known as “the Scoreboard.”
Just below the Scoreboard was an icon that looked like a small leather-bound book, which linked to a free downloadable copy of Anorak’s Almanac, a collection of hundreds of Halliday’s undated journal entries. The Almanac was over a thousand pages long, but it contained few details about Halliday’s personal life or his day-to-day activities. Most of the entries were his stream-of-consciousness observations on various classic videogames, science-fiction and fantasy novels, movies, comic books, and ’80s pop culture, mixed with humorous diatribes denouncing everything from organized religion to diet soda.
The Hunt, as the contest came to be known, quickly wove its way into global culture. Like winning the lottery, finding Halliday’s Easter egg became a popular fantasy among adults and children alike. It was a game anyone could play, and at first, there seemed to be no right or wrong way to play it. The only thing Anorak’s Almanac seemed to indicate was that a familiarity with Halliday’s various obsessions would be essential to finding the egg. This led to a global fascination with 1980s pop culture. Fifty years after the decade had ended, the movies, music, games, and fashions of the 1980s were all the rage once again. By 2041, spiked hair and acid-washed jeans were back in style, and covers of hit ’80s pop songs by contemporary bands dominated the music charts. People who had actually been teenagers in the 1980s, all now approaching old age, had the strange experience of seeing the fads and fashions of their youth embraced and studied by their grandchildren.
A new subculture was born, composed of the millions of people who now devoted every free moment of their lives to searching for Halliday’s egg. At first, these individuals were known simply as “egg hunters,” but this was quickly truncated to the nickname “gunters.”
During the first year of the Hunt, being a gunter was highly fashionable, and nearly every OASIS user claimed to be one.
When the first anniversary of Halliday’s death arrived, the fervor surrounding the contest began to die down. An entire year had passed and no one had found anything. Not a single key or gate. Part of the problem was the sheer size of the OASIS. It contained thousands of simulated worlds where the keys might be hidden, and it could take a gunter years to conduct a thorough search of any one of them.
Despite all of the “professional” gunters who boasted on their blogs that they were getting closer to a breakthrough every day, the truth gradually became apparent: No one really even knew exactly what it was they were looking for, or where to start looking for it.
Another year passed.
The general public lost all interest in the contest. People began to assume it was all just an outlandish hoax perpetrated by a rich nut job. Others believed that even if the egg really did exist, no one was ever going to find it. Meanwhile, the OASIS continued to evolve and grow in popularity, protected from takeover attempts and legal challenges by the ironclad terms of Halliday’s will and the army of rabid lawyers he had tasked with administering his estate.
Halliday’s Easter egg gradually moved into the realm of urban legend, and the ever-dwindling tribe of gunters gradually became the object of ridicule. Each year, on the anniversary of Halliday’s death, newscasters jokingly reported on their continued lack of progress. And each year, more gunters called it quits, concluding that Halliday had indeed made the egg impossible to find.
And another year went by.
Then, on the evening of February 11, 2045, an avatar’s name appeared at the top of the Scoreboard, for the whole world to see. After five long years, the Copper Key had finally been found, by an eighteen-year-old kid living in a trailer park on the outskirts of Oklahoma City.
That kid was me.
Dozens of books, cartoons, movies, and miniseries have attempted to tell the story of everything that happened next, but every single one of them got it wrong. So I want to set the record straight, once and for all.
* Careful analysis of this scene reveals that all of the teenagers behind Halliday are actually extras from various John Hughes teen films who have been digitally cut-and-pasted into the video.
† His surroundings are actually from a scene in the 1989 film Heathers. Halliday appears to have digitally re-created the funeral parlor set and then inserted himself into it.
‡ High-resolution scrutiny reveals that both quarters were minted in 1984.
§ The mourners are actually all actors and extras from the same funeral scene in Heathers. Winona Ryder and Christian Slater are clearly visible in the audience, sitting near the back.
* Halliday now looks exactly as he did in a school photo taken in 1980, when he was eight years old.
* Analysis reveals dozens of curious items hidden among the mounds of treasure, most notably: several early home computers (an Apple IIe, a Commodore 64, an Atari 800XL, and a TRS-80 Color Computer 2), dozens of videogame controllers for a variety of game systems, and hundreds of polyhedral dice like those used in old tabletop role-playing games.
† A freeze-frame of this scene appears nearly identical to a painting by Jeff Easley that appeared on the cover of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, a Dungeons & Dragons rulebook published in 1983.
Being human totally sucks most of the time.
Videogames are the only thing that
make life bearable.
—Anorak’s Almanac, Chapter 91, Verses 1–2
I was jolted awake by the sound of gunfire in one of the neighboring stacks. The shots were followed by a few minutes of muffled shouting and screaming, then silence.
Gunfire wasn’t uncommon in the stacks, but it still shook me up. I knew I probably wouldn’t be able to fall back asleep, so I decided to kill the remaining hours until dawn by brushing up on a few coin-op classics. Galaga, Defender, Asteroids. These games were outdated digital dinosaurs that had become museum pieces long before I was born. But I was a gunter, so I didn’t think of them as quaint low-res antiques. To me, they were hallowed artifacts. Pillars of the pantheon. When I played the classics, I did so with a determined sort of reverence.