One of my favorite “recent” books is Ready Player One, a sci-fi fantasy by Ernest Cline that explores a near-future where the virtual world is far more enticing than the real one.
It’s safe to say we’re moving closer to that type of reality than many of us want to admit. In Ready Player One, all facets of entertainment have been repurposed and streamlined into one virtual reality called the OASIS (fitting, right?) Movies, television, video games, art, and even education have shifted to a world where endless opportunities help distract from the harsher grittiness of a torn and chaotic society.
No surprise that the book itself focuses mainly on how Easter eggs left behind by the creator of the OASIS fuel the story’s main narrative. These are mostly references to 80s pop culture, but the important thing is that the main character, Wade, immerses himself in this nostalgia in order to find meaning inside a world ruled by wish fulfillment. It’s debatable whether or not this practice is inherently healthy, but Cline makes the point that little of the world within OASIS even matters. It’s what Wade does with his passion that ultimately dictates his future, which happens to be wrapped up in real, face-to-face relationships.
In the same way, I’m fascinated by how simple and potentially meaningless Easter eggs have changed the lives of so many people, including myself. It turns out that careful interpretation of beloved entertainment is actually…entertaining. The legacy of fiction can evolve and continue teaching us years after we first enjoyed it.
This is why so many of us watch all 9 seasons of The Office in rotation (with shows like Scrubs and Parks and Recreation in the mix, of course). Years after watching an episode of Community, I’ll find more to think on due to small and hidden tidbits left by the creators. Some of these revelations are Easter eggs, of course, and others are just details the creators left for themselves. Not just me, or anyone else attentive enough to find them.
Many of these “eggs” are overt. Going back to Community, one of the best jokes of the series is a gag that takes three seasons to complete: a character makes an offhand reference to “Beetlejuice” once a season. The third time a character mentions him, you can see him walking in the hallway (the joke is that the character appears when you say his name three times).
The writers of Community obviously made this reference noticeable enough for even the most casual fans to piece the clues together, but who’s to say they didn’t care if anyone found it at all?
Whatever the reason, no one can doubt that this simple inclusion of an unimportant joke has made legions of people very happy that it exists. On-demand entertainment has this effect, in that people are craving more interaction with content they plan to revisit every year or so. For that reason, the artists themselves are finding more interesting ways to surprise and enlighten us.
Beyond just jokes and interesting ways to connect characters across movies, there’s more depth than ever to a wider range of entertainment than ever. Film and television are now being made in a way that fuels our obsessive desires to find meaning in every detail of every situation and environment. Stories built with continuity and shared universes in mind are fostering entire communities of passionate fans.
The skeptic will say this is sometimes a bad thing, and rightfully so. How many franchises will fail before Hollywood stops taking risks on potentially great source material? But Hollywood is probably right to be thinking ahead; why make one movie that will do OK, when you can make four or five that do amazingly well?
Eventually, we’ll discover that we were living in the good ’ol days without even realizing it (a not-so-subtle reference to a line by Ed Helms in The Office). Soon, we’ll be seeing Batman and Superman in a movie together. With Wonder Woman. Later, one of the most engaging comic book events of all time will be released as a sequel to Captain America, which is based on a character few people ever imagined would find a mainstream audience. Oh, and Spider-Man is in it.
Everyone will find something to complain about. More people, many of them professional influencers in media, will deride the industry for catering to the wishes of fans who want Easter eggs, fan theories, and shared universes to continue. What they don’t realize is that this is the future of entertainment, and it’s coming faster than anyone could have predicted.
After all, no one wants to be told what their favorite movie is about. There’s no right answer to The Pixar Theory, if you’re asking me, the fan who wrote it. These fan theories just are. Many existed decades before the Internet was an idea in someone’s head, and they’ll continue for just as long. Because Easter eggs and the interpretations that result from them aren’t just the future — they’re the past and present, as well.
What we’re seeing isn’t a revolution of these types of passions. Rather, we’re seeing an evolution of the relationship between filmmaker and fan. Some time ago, I followed one of the most exciting directors in Hollywood on Facebook. Since then, I’ve read the compelling ramblings of James Gunn on an almost daily basis. This type of relationship (albeit one-way in this instance) would have been unprecedented a few short years ago, but now I’m in a place where I can directly glean from the man who creates the art that influences me. I’m not sure what else we can ask for, until some even more incredible tool or idea comes along.
To be fair, I’m not sure whether or not this is all leading to a scenario as illustrated in Ready Player One, but the signs point to at least some similarities. And it's at least interesting to think about as the upcoming movie for this book, helmed by Steven Spielberg, arrives at such a poignant time.
Will entertainment pull us further into a virtual world where nothing matters? Or will it influence the very facets of our lives that could only exist in a place where there are no easy illusions?
For me, I’ll always go for the latter.