I laid my fingers on the keyboard and began to play. As soon as I did, a jambox sitting on top of Halliday’s dresser turned itself on, and familiar music began to blast out of it. It was Basil Poledouris’s score for Conan the Barbarian.
That must be Anorak’s way of letting me know I’m on the right track, I thought.
I quickly lost track of time. I forgot that my avatar was sitting in Halliday’s bedroom and that, in reality, I was sitting in my hideout, huddled near the electric heater, tapping at the empty air in front of me, entering commands on an imaginary keyboard. All of the intervening layers slipped away, and I lost myself in the game within the game.
In Dungeons of Daggorath, you control your avatar by typing in commands, like TURN LEFT or GET TORCH, navigating your way through a maze of vector-graphic corridors while fighting off spiders, stone giants, blobs, and wraiths as you descend deeper and deeper, working your way down through the dungeon’s five increasingly difficult levels. It took a while for the commands and quirks of the game to come back to me, but once they did, the game wasn’t that difficult to solve. The ability to save my place at any time basically gave me infinite lives. (Although saving and reloading games from the tape drive proved to be a slow and tedious process. It often took several attempts and a lot of fiddling with the cassette deck’s volume knob.) Saving my game also allowed me to log out for bathroom breaks, and to recharge my space heater.
While I was playing, the Conan the Barbarian score ended and the jambox clicked over and began to play the opposite side of the tape, treating me to the synthesizer-laden score for Ladyhawke. I couldn’t wait to rub Aech’s nose in that.
I reached the last level of the dungeon around four o’clock in the morning and faced off against the Evil Wizard of Daggorath. After dying and reloading twice, I finally defeated him, using an Elvish Sword and a Ring of Ice. I completed the game by picking up the wizard’s magic ring, claiming it for myself. As I did, an image appeared on the screen, showing a wizard with a bright star on his staff and his robes. The text below read: BEHOLD! DESTINY AWAITS THE HAND OF A NEW WIZARD!
I waited to see what would happen. For a moment, nothing did. Then Halliday’s ancient dot-matrix printer came to life and noisily ground out a single line of text. The tractor feed spooled the page out of the top of the printer. I tore the sheet off and read what was there:
CONGRATULATIONS! YOU HAVE OPENED THE FIRST GATE!
I glanced around and saw that there was now a wrought-iron gate embedded in the bedroom wall, in the exact spot where the WarGames poster had been a second before. In the center of the gate was a copper-plated lock with a keyhole.
I climbed up on top of Halliday’s desk so I could reach the lock, then slid the Copper Key into the keyhole and turned it. The entire gate began to glow, as if the metal had become superheated, and its double doors swung inward, revealing a field of stars. It appeared to be a portal into deep space.
“My God, it’s full of stars,” I heard a disembodied voice say. I recognized it as a sound bite from the film 2010. Then I heard a low, ominous hum, followed by a piece of music from that film’s score: “Also Sprach Zarathustra” by Richard Strauss.
I leaned forward and looked through the portal. Left and right, up and down. Nothing but an endless field of stars in all directions. Squinting, I could also make out a few tiny nebulae and galaxies in the distance.
I didn’t hesitate. I jumped into the open gate. It seemed to pull me in, and I began to fall. But I fell forward instead of down, and the stars seemed to fall with me.
I found myself standing in an old video arcade, playing Galaga.
The game was already in progress. I had double ships and a score of 41,780 points. I glanced down and saw that my hands were on the controls. After a second or two of disorientation, I reflexively began to play, moving the joystick left just in time to avoid losing one of my ships.
Keeping one eye on the game, I tried to make sense of my surroundings. In my peripheral vision I was able to make out a Dig Dug game on my left and a Zaxxon machine to my right. Behind me, I could hear a cacophony of digital combat coming from dozens of other vintage arcade games. Then, as I finished clearing the wave on Galaga, I noticed my reflection in the game’s screen. It wasn’t my avatar’s face I saw there. It was Matthew Broderick’s face. A young pre–Ferris Bueller and pre-Ladyhawke Matthew Broderick.
Then I knew where I was. And who I was.
I was David Lightman, Matthew Broderick’s character in the movie WarGames. And this was his first scene in the film.
I was in the movie.
I took a quick glance around and saw a detailed replica of 20 Grand Palace, the combination arcade/pizza joint featured in the film. Kids with feathered ’80s hairstyles were clustered around each of the games. Others sat in booths, eating pizza and drinking sodas. “Video Fever” by the Beepers blasted out of a jukebox in the corner. Everything looked and sounded exactly as it did in the movie. Halliday had copied every last detail from the film and re-created it as an interactive simulation.
I’d spent years wondering what challenges awaited me inside the First Gate. Never once had I imagined this. But I probably should have. WarGames had been one of Halliday’s all-time favorite movies. Which was why I had watched it over three dozen times. Well, that, and also because it was completely awesome, with an old-school teenage computer hacker as the protagonist. And it looked like all of that research was about to pay off.
Now I heard a repetitive electronic beeping. It seemed to be coming from the right pocket of the jeans I was wearing. Keeping my left hand on the joystick, I reached in my pocket and pulled out a digital watch. The readout said 7:45 a.m. When I pushed one of the buttons to silence the alarm, a warning flashed in the center of my display: DAVID, YOU’RE GOING TO BE LATE FOR SCHOOL!
I used a voice command to pull up my OASIS map, hoping to learn where the gate had transported me. But it turned out that not only was I no longer on Middletown, I was no longer in the OASIS at all. My locator icon was in the middle of a blank screen, which meant I was OTM—off the map. When I’d stepped into the gate, it had transported my avatar into a stand-alone simulation, a virtual location separate from the OASIS. It seemed that the only way I could get back would be to clear the gate by completing the quest. But if this was a videogame, how was I supposed to play it? If this was a quest, what was my goal? I continued to play Galaga while pondering these questions. A second later, a young boy walked into the arcade and came over to me.
“Hi, David!” he said, his eyes on my game.
I recognized this kid from the movie. His name was Howie. In the film, Matthew Broderick’s character hands his Galaga game off to Howie when he rushes off to school.
“Hi, David!” the boy repeated, in the same exact tone. As he spoke this time, his words also appeared as text, superimposed across the bottom of my display, like subtitles. Below this, flashing red, were the words FINAL DIALOGUE WARNING!
I began to understand. The simulation was warning me that this was my final chance to deliver the next line of dialogue from the movie. If I didn’t say the line, I could guess what would probably happen next. GAME OVER.
But I didn’t panic, because I knew the next line. I’d seen WarGames so many times that I knew the entire film by heart.
“Hi, Howie!” I said. But the voice I heard in my earphones was not my own. It was Matthew Broderick’s voice. And as I spoke the line, the warning on my display vanished and a score of 100 points appeared, superimposed at the top of my display.
I racked my brain, trying to mentally replay the rest of the scene. The next line came to me. “How’s it going?” I said, and my score jumped to 200 points.
“Pretty good,” Howie replied.
I started to feel giddy. This was incredible. I was totally inside the movie. Halliday had transformed a fifty-year-old film into a real-time interactive videogame. I wondered how long it had taken him to program this thing.
Another warning flashed on my display: YOU’RE GOING TO BE LATE FOR SCHOOL, DAVID! HURRY!
I stepped away from the Galaga machine. “Hey, you wanna take this over?” I asked Howie.
“Sure,” he replied, grabbing the controls. “Thanks!”
A green path appeared on the floor of the arcade, leading from where I stood to the exit. I started to follow it, then remembered to run back and grab my notebook off of the Dig Dug game, just like David had in the movie. As I did this, my score jumped another 100 points, and ACTION BONUS! appeared on my display.
“Bye, David!” Howie shouted.
“Bye!” I shouted back. Another 100 points. This was easy!
I followed the green path out of 20 Grand Palace and up the busy street a few blocks. I was now running along a tree-lined suburban street. I rounded a corner and saw that the path led directly to a large brick building. The sign over the door said Snohomish High School—David’s school, and the setting of the next few scenes in the movie.
My mind was racing as I ran inside. If all I had to do was rattle off lines of dialogue from WarGames on cue for the next two hours, this was going to be a breeze. Without even knowing it, I’d totally overprepared. I probably knew WarGames even better than I knew Real Genius and Better Off Dead.