WELL DONE, PARZIVAL!
PREPARE FOR STAGE 2!
Then the game cabinet vanished, and my avatar vanished with it.
I found myself galloping across a fog-covered hillside. I assumed I was riding a horse, because I was bobbing up and down and I heard the sound of hoofbeats. Directly ahead, a familiar-looking castle had just appeared out of the fog.
But when I looked down at my avatar’s body, I saw that I wasn’t riding a horse at all. I was walking on the ground. My avatar was now dressed in a suit of chain-mail armor, and my hands were held out in front of my body, as though I were clutching a set of reins. But I wasn’t holding anything. My hands were completely empty.
I stopped moving forward and the sound of hoofbeats also ceased, but not until a few seconds later. I turned around and saw the source of the sound. It wasn’t a horse. It was a man banging two coconut halves together.
Then I knew where I was. Inside the first scene of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Another of Halliday’s favorite films, and perhaps the most-beloved geek film of all time.
It appeared to be another Flicksync, like the WarGames simulation inside Gate One.
I was playing King Arthur, I realized. I wore the same costume Graham Chapman had worn in the film. And the man with the coconuts was my trusty manservant, Patsy, as played by Terry Gilliam.
Patsy bowed and groveled a bit when I turned to face him, but said nothing.
“It’s Python’s Holy Grail!” I heard Shoto whisper excitedly.
“Duh,” I said, forgetting myself for a second. “I know that, Shoto.”
A warning flashed on my display: INCORRECT DIALOGUE! A score of –100 points appeared in the corner of my display.
“Smooth move, Ex-lax,” I heard Art3mis say.
“Just let us know if you need any help, Z,” Aech said. “Wave your hands or something, and we’ll feed you the next line.”
I nodded and gave a thumbs-up. But I didn’t think I was going to need much help. Over the past six years, I’d watched Holy Grail exactly 157 times. I knew every word by heart.
I glanced back up at the castle ahead of me, already aware of what was waiting for me there. I began to “gallop” again, holding my invisible reins as I pretended to ride forward. Once again, Patsy began to bang his coconut halves together, galloping along behind me. When we reached the entrance of the castle, I pulled back on my “reins” and brought my “steed” to a halt.
“Whoa there!” I shouted.
My score increased by 100 points, bringing it back up to zero.
On cue, two soldiers appeared up above, leaning over the castle wall. “Who goes there?” one of them shouted down at us.
“It is I, Arthur, son of Uther Pendragon, from the castle of Camelot,” I recited. “King of the Britons! Defeater of the Saxons! Sovereign of all England!”
My score jumped another 500 points, and a message informed me that I’d received a bonus for my accent and inflection. I felt myself relax, and I realized I was already having fun.
“Pull the other one!” the soldier replied.
“I am,” I continued. “And this is my trusty servant Patsy. We have ridden the length and breadth of the land in search of knights who will join me in my court at Camelot. I must speak with your lord and master!”
Another 500 points. In my ear, I could hear my friends giggling and applauding.
“What?” the other soldier replied. “Ridden on a horse?”
“Yes!” I said. 100 points.
“You’re using coconuts!”
“What?” I said. 100 points.
“You’ve got two empty halves of coconut and you’re bangin’ ’em together!”
“So? We have ridden since the snows of winter covered this land, through the kingdom of Mercia, through—” Another 500 points.
“Where’d you get the coconuts?”
And so it went. The character I was playing changed from one scene to the next, switching to whomever had the most dialogue. Incredibly, I flubbed only six or seven lines. Each time I got stumped, all I had to do was shrug and hold out my hands, palms up—my signal that I needed some help—and Aech, Art3mis, and Shoto would all gleefully feed me the correct line. The rest of the time they remained silent except for the occasional giggle fit or burst of laughter. The only really difficult part was not laughing myself, especially when Art3mis started doing note-perfect recitations of all of Carol Cleveland’s lines in the Castle Anthrax scene. I cracked up a few times and got hit with score penalties for it. Otherwise, it was smooth sailing.
Reenacting the film wasn’t just easy—it was a total blast.
About halfway through the movie, right after my confrontation with the Knights of Ni, I opened up a text window on my display and typed STATUS ON THE SIXERS?
“Fifteen of them are still playing Tempest,” I heard Aech reply. “But three of them beat Halliday’s score and are now inside the Grail simulation.” A brief pause. “And the leader—Sorrento, we think—is running just nine minutes behind you.”
“And so far, he hasn’t missed a single line of dialogue,” Shoto added.
I nearly cursed out loud, then caught myself and typed SHIT!
“Exactly,” Art3mis said.
I took a deep breath and returned my attention to the next scene (“The Tale of Sir Launcelot”). Aech continued to give me updates on the Sixers whenever I asked for them.
When I reached the film’s final scene (the assault on the French Castle), I grew anxious again, wondering what would happen next. The First Gate had required me to reenact a movie (WarGames), and the Second Gate had contained a videogame challenge (Black Tiger). So far, the Third Gate had contained both. I knew there must be a third stage, but I had no idea what it might be.
I got my answer a few minutes later. As soon as I completed Holy Grail’s final scene, my display went black while the silly organ music that ends the film played for a few minutes. When the music stopped, the following appeared on my display:
YOU HAVE REACHED THE END!
READY PLAYER 1
And then, as the text faded away, I found myself standing in a huge oak-paneled room as big as a warehouse, with a high vaulted ceiling and a polished hardwood floor. The room had no windows, and only one exit—large double doors set into one of the four bare walls. An older high-end OASIS immersion rig stood in the absolute center of the expansive room. Over a hundred glass tables surrounded the rig, arranged in a large oval around it. On each table there was a different classic home computer or videogame system, accompanied by tiered racks that appeared to hold a complete collection of its peripherals, controllers, software, and games. All of it was arranged perfectly, like a museum exhibit. Looking around the circle, from one system to the next, I saw that the computers seemed to be arranged roughly by year of origin. A PDP-1. An Altair 8800. An IMSAI 8080. An Apple I, right next to an Apple II. An Atari 2600. A Commodore PET. An Intellivision. Several different TRS-80 models. An Atari 400 and 800. A ColecoVision. A TI-99/4. A Sinclair ZX80. A Commodore 64. Various Nintendo and Sega game systems. The entire lineage of Macs and PCs, PlayStations and Xboxes. Finally, completing the circle, was an OASIS console—connected to the immersion rig in the center of the room.
I realized that I was standing in a re-creation of James Halliday’s office, the room in his mansion where he’d spent most of the last fifteen years of his life. The place where he’d coded his last and greatest game. The one I was now playing.
I’d never seen any photos of this room, but its layout and contents had been described in great detail by the movers hired to clear the place out after Halliday’s death.
I looked down at my avatar and saw that I no longer appeared as one of the Monty Python knights. I was Parzival once again.
First, I did the obvious and tried the exit. The doors wouldn’t budge.
I turned back and took another long look around the room, surveying the long line of monuments to the history of computing and videogames.
That was when I realized that the oval-shaped ring in which they were arranged actually formed the outline of an egg.
In my head, I recited the words of Halliday’s first riddle, the one in Anorak’s Invitation:
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
I’d reached the end. This was it. Halliday’s Easter egg must be hidden somewhere in this room.
“Do you guys see this?” I whispered.
There was no reply.
“Hello? Aech? Art3mis? Shoto? Are you guys still there?”
Still no reply. Either Og had cut their voice links to me, or Halliday had coded this final stage of the gate so that no outside communication was possible. I was pretty sure it was the latter.
I stood there in silence for a minute, unsure of what to do. Then I followed my first instinct and walked over to the Atari 2600. It was hooked up to a 1977 Zenith Color TV. I turned on the TV, but nothing happened. Then I switched on the Atari. Still nothing. There was no power, even though both the TV and the Atari were plugged into electrical outlets set into the floor.
I tried the Apple II on the table beside it. It wouldn’t switch on either.