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USA Today described Ready Player One as "Willy Wonka meets The Matrix" (source). This is a good comparison, making James Halliday, the eccentric billionaire co-creator of OASIS, the Willy Wonka to Wade Watts' Charlie Bucket (or maybe Wade's a little more Veruca Salt). Halliday hides keys and Easter eggs like golden tickets, has a devious mind for tricks and puzzles, and possesses a subtle hatred for children and humanity. Wonka, indeed.
It's speculated that he had Asperger's syndrome or lay somewhere on the autism spectrum, but this theory isn't really explored further in the book. Whatever the reason, his self-imposed isolation ended up giving him the time and motivation to invent the OASIS and the greatest treasure hunt the world has ever seen. So though he's gone, his impact on the book is pretty big.
Despite his faults, it can't be denied that Halliday had incredible ambition in creating OASIS, the game that took over the world and changed everyone's life for better or for worse. He tapped into his obsession for '80s pop culture to create a world that, while not original in the least, is definitely unique.
Not only that, he had the brilliant idea to only charge a quarter for it. That meant that anyone with an Internet connection could access the OASIS… and give him all their money in exchange for digital clothes, accessories, and fuel. Because of that, it probably wasn't too hard to recoup the losses taken on the hardware. It looks like the OASIS isn't the gift many people think it is. There are strings attached to this present, and the gift horse is laughing his way to the bank. What can we say—Halliday's no saint.
Halliday programmed his avatar, Anorak, to live on in the OASIS even after he died. (For more on this theme of immortality, hop on over to our "Themes" tab.) Anorak is a British slang term for fanboy (and also a jacket), which is a nice nod to Wade's obsession. Still, if Anorak is anything like the real Halliday, he was not a pleasant person, acting as "the dungeon master" (6.65) in a world in which he dictates all the rules.
Dungeons aren't typically places you want to be. The OASIS treads a fine line between escape and prison, with Halliday as the man in charge. It seems that before his death, he thought of it as a trap. His avatar tells Parzival, "as terrifying and painful as reality can be, it's also the only place where you can find true happiness" (38.48). We can only assume that Halliday believed the same thing his avatar, which he programmed, says. If so, this is pretty sad and pitiful, because Halliday is a man who never experienced happiness in real life. Hung up on a girl he could never have, and never pursuing anyone else, Halliday died a "sixty-seven-year-old bachelor [...] without a single friend [...] he'd gone completely insane" (0.5). Bummer, dude.
While he seemed like a good Samaritan, devoted to education and having "set up a foundation to ensure that the OASIS public school system would always have the money it needed to operate" (7.13), we think he might have had an ulterior motive. After all, the Tomb of Horrors was on Ludus, the school planet, so that a high schooler would have better odds at finding the key. Could Halliday have funded the OASIS school system just to make sure that the Tomb of Horrors wasn't ever deleted? Clever, yes, but more than a little diabolical.
Another AI programmed by Halliday is Acererak, the lich guarding the copper key inside the Tomb of Horrors. When Wade defeats the lich at Joust, the lich "smashed an angry fist into the side of the Joust cabinet, shattering it into a million tiny pixels" (8.57). We imagine Halliday had similar temperament issues when he lost at video games in real life. Anyone with much money can afford to smash a controller, or an entire arcade cabinet, and just replace it.
Speaking of sore losers, Halliday let his entire friendship with Ogden Morrow dissolve over Kira, the girl who gave Halliday his nickname Anorak but ended up marrying Og. And it doesn't seem like he ever got over it. Maybe that explains his penchant for being a bit of a jerk.
In the end, Halliday's digital shadows make him out to be a sad and childish individual, forced to buy his friends, and stuck in the past "expect[ing] everyone around him to share his obsessions" (5.18) like a kid who gets upset when no one wants to play a game with him. Post-mortem, the only way Halliday was able to generate interest in his passions and his life was to buy them with his millions. Which raises the question: will anyone still have an interest in Halliday and his obsessions now that the contest is over? And really: why was Wade such a fanboy of his in the first place?