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Ready Player One's Ending Explained

Ready Player One, Steven Spielberg's adaptation of Ernest Cline's bestselling novel, has finally arrived in theaters, which means it's time for fans everywhere to sit back and take in more than two hours of pop culture-laden video game mayhem. From its dazzling opening sequence to its epic final battle, the film is absolutely packed with decades upon decades of pop culture history, creating a world in which you can see the DeLorean from Back to the Future and the T-rex from Jurassic Park sharing not just the same scene, but the same shotReady Player One is so loaded with details that even multiple theatrical viewings might not be enough to comprehend them all, which means that in your haste to figure out just how many pop culture references you can spot, you might have missed how the whole story came together at the end. So from the final fight to the ultimate Easter egg, here's the ending of Ready Player One explained, complete with major spoilers.

The ultimate video game showdown

For Ready Player One's finale, only the biggest pop culture-packed showdown would do. So Parzival (a.k.a. Wade Watts, played by Tye Sheridan) takes action, putting out an open call to anyone sick of the scheming of IOI and the greedy Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), setting the stage for the ultimate OASIS battle.

For a moment, an epic speech that ends with a raised fist looks like it fell on deaf ears. Then an army of avatars comes charging onto Planet Doom (from Voltron), ready to fight. While IOI's army is almost entirely composed of the serial number-stamped lackeys known as Sixers, everyone in Parzival's force is geared up as some pop culture icon or other. You'd have to go frame-by-frame to find them all, but here are just a few:

Parzival rides into battle inside the trusty DeLorean from Back to the Future, while Aech (Lena Waithe) finally activates her prized Iron Giant and proves to be one of the battle's greatest heroes. When Sorrento decides to break out his own big guns and climbs inside a virtual Mechagodzilla, Daito (Win Morisaki) finally enters the fray, flying in onboard Serenity from Firefly and diving into battle as the iconic RX-78-2 Gundam from Mobile Suit Gundam. Elsewhere on the battlefield you can spot everyone from Batgirl to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to that killer devil doll himself, Chucky. Though the film's ultimate resolution unfolds on a smaller scale, this battle helps Parzival reach his final objective, and gives every main character a showcase moment.

A magic spell

Of course, the entire battle is for nothing if Parzival and the rest of the High Five team can't get into Castle Anorak, site of the final challenge, and that won't happen while Sorrento has the castle under a forcefield generated by the ultra-powerful Orb of Osuvox. Parzival and his army blast the forcefield with everything they've got, but just as i-R0k (T.J. Miller) predicted, the thing won't budge. Fortunately, the High Five have someone on the inside, as Art3mis/Samantha (Olivia Cooke) has made her way in after being taken captive by IOI.

Of course, even though it's a video game, the Orb is still functionally magical, and as such can only be activated and deactivated by an incantation. Art3mis gets that information, but then she has to correctly pronounce the incantation and transmit it so the orb can "hear" her. Fortunately for everyone on High Five's side, the incantation works, the shield goes down, and the army is able to press forward.

So, what are those magic words that both i-R0k and Art3mis speak to the Orb? As with virtually (get it?) everything in the OASIS, that's a product of James Halliday's (Mark Rylance) pop culture obsession. It's a quote from the 1981 fantasy film Excalibur known as "The Charm of Making," a spell spoken by both Merlin and Morgana Le Fay. As if a forcefield generated by a magical orb to keep an Iron Giant from charging your castle weren't nerdy enough already...

The value of an extra life

Even after the Orb is deactivated and the battle seemingly lost, Sorrento isn't ready to quit. He still has one last nuclear option in his pocket: the Cataclyst, an OASIS artifact that will kill every player on Planet Doom. Activating it would give Sorrento plenty of time to reassemble his Sixer army and take another shot at the final challenge, while players like Parzival would have to essentially rebuild their arsenals from the ground up. Sorrento, who could care less about the time players put into the game and their collections, is happy to activate the Cataclyst even as i-R0k (who claims a decade's worth of treasure and artifacts) protests. The Cataclyst goes off, and everyone on Planet Doom is toast...except for Parzival.

Why? Well, remember when the Curator of the Halliday Journals lost that bet to Parzival earlier in the film? Parzival bet that there was only one reference to Kira — the woman Halliday briefly dated before she fell for Hailliday's partner Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg) — in the archive, and that it was an essential clue. The Curator checked, found that Parzival was correct, and tossed him his winnings in the form of a quarter, that time-honored currency of the arcade junkie. Parzival tried to return the quarter, only to have the Curator insist that he keep it.

The quarter, it turns out, represented exactly what it would have if Parzival had been a kid hitting the arcade in the 1980s: An extra life.

The original Easter egg

After all of that trouble to get there, Halliday's final challenge is deceptively simple: A vintage television, an Atari 2600 console, and playing the right game in the right way.

The right game, as IOI discovers after burning through numerous Sixers, is Adventure. Every previous game IOI researchers tried killed the Sixer playing it, but the Sixer playing Adventure goes through the entire game and even wins...until he too is killed. Baffled, the IOI researchers go back to the drawing board, but Parzival already knows what he really needs to look for.

Adventure contains one of the earliest Easter eggs in the gaming world, and helped popularize the term after it was discovered. By wandering the catacombs, a player can discover an invisible dot embedded in a wall, then take that dot through another passage and reveal a secret chamber. Within that chamber are the words "Created by Warren Robinett," which were put there by the game's creator as a means of taking credit for his work, because Atari did not include creator names in their publications at the time. Parzival, as perhaps the world's greatest living James Halliday scholar, knew Halliday would appreciate such a hidden gem, and even explained it to the gamers watching him live as he streamed his completion of the final challenge. With the Easter egg found, Parzival earns the third key, setting the stage for victory.

One last test

Even after he's won the final key, Parzival's challenge isn't over. The last test comes when Anorak (Halliday's OASIS avatar) offers Parzival a contract, telling him all he has to do is sign and the OASIS will be his. Parzival, who's spent years studying not only Halliday's pop culture interests, but also the details of his private life, is wary.

In Halliday's memories, Parzival found a common thread that went beyond his failure to win Kira's heart. While he may have regretted not taking a bigger chance with Kira, Halliday's greatest regret was his acrimonious split from Morrow. When the pair split professionally, Halliday presented Morrow with a contract forcing him to turn over his stake in the company they built together. Halliday never got over the way he left things with his friend. Parzival recognizes this, sees the similarities between his contract and the one Halliday signed, and refuses Anorak's offer.

That's when, in a moment that mirrors the ending of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Anorak reveals that the contract was a moral test, and that Parzival passed. The castle transforms into a child's bedroom, and Halliday appears as a virtual version of himself, presting Parzival with both a big red button that will wipe the OASIS clean and a golden egg. As the egg flickers in his hands, Parzival's real-world friends can see its glow even outside of the OASIS. That's when Halliday's real lesson becomes clear.

The true Easter egg

When he completes the third challenge and passes Anorak's contract test, Parzival does indeed seem to be granted control of the OASIS, and real world contracts later confirm that. What's more ambiguous is what the Easter egg, the literal golden egg itself, is meant to be. After all, when it comes time for Halliday to hand it over, he has to spend quite a while trying to find it in desk drawers, as if it was never really important at all.

That's because it isn't. What really matters to Halliday — who decided that this moment should be presented by a virtual form of his true self, rather than his avatar — is that Parzival understands his regrets about his life. Halliday always felt more comfortable living in video games than he did in the real world, and he always felt more comfortable in the past than in the present. At the end of his life, after losing his chance at love and his partnership with his best friend, Halliday came to understand the importance of reality, which he described as "the only thing that's real." In passing that lesson on, he gave Parzival a greater prize than anything in the game: An understanding that he can't spend his whole life escaping.

A friendship repaired

As the OASIS version of Halliday prepares to depart, leaving Parzival with the egg, Parzival can't help but ask him: "Is Halliday really dead?" The OASIS Halliday — who explicitly says he's not an avatar, meaning no one else is making him answer these questions from the real world — replies that Halliday is indeed gone. Apparently, though, Halliday did manage to right at least one wrong before departing.

When Parzival returns to the real world, he's greeted by none other than Ogden "Og" Morrow, who reveals that he was the Curator in the Halliday Journals the entire time, and that he gave Parzival the extra life when Parzival discovered Kira was "the key." Though he was instructed not to give players any direct hints, Morrow was moved by Parzival's insight into his and Halliday's relationship, and decided to give the young player a little boost.

So, to what extent did Halliday and Morrow repair their friendship before Halliday's death? Did Morrow simply agree to help with the challenge after learning that his friend had passed? The film doesn't make that entirely clear, but it does impress upon us that Morrow cared deeply for his old friend, and for what they built together. As a result, Parzival and the rest of the High Five take him on as a consultant, giving him the chance to guide the future of the OASIS once more.

Taking the leap

Kira, Halliday's love and Morrow's bride, is "the key" to the Ready Player One story in at least two ways. She's the resolution of the second challenge, when the player (in this case Art3mis) rescues her from a sea of ballroom zombies by asking her to dance, but she's also the source of another more symbolic victory for Parzival. Halliday, throughout life after his time dating Kira, regrets never having taken "the leap," meaning never having been bold enough to set aside his reservations about reality and just go for it. So, he builds "the leap" into the game, making players fend off zombies over a chasm to win Kira's hand, then he uses his failure with her to teach the winner — Parzival — a lesson. In emphasizing the importance of reality, Halliday impresses upon Parzival the need to take his own leap. So, even after he meets Morrow — one of his heroes — and before he fully celebrates winning the challenge and the OASIS, Wade reaches out to Samantha in the real world and they kiss, not as avatars, but as people. Wade and Parzival make the leap that Halliday never could, and that means a different future for both Wade and for the OASIS.

The fall of IOI

Parzival, having studied Halliday for most of his life, takes the OASIS creator's lessons to heart basically immediately. He kisses the girl he loves, he opts to run the OASIS with his friends rather than going it alone, and then Wade explains the changes the High Five make almost immediately. First, they bring Morrow back for reasons already clearly explained, then they turn their attention to IOI and the sinister Sorrento. For much of the film, Sorrento was only attempting to take over the OASIS in the interest of greed, but when he bombed the stacks in Columbus and killed Wade's aunt, among others, he became a full-blown criminal. Luckily, Aech managed to get him on tape admitting to that little stunt, so with the battle for the OASIS won, it was off to jail for the evil corporate overlord, and IOI's soul-sucking Loyalty Centers were shuttered by the High Five. That move, plus the decree that the OASIS would be closed two days a week to let players spend more time in reality, heralds a new future for the OASIS and the world, one less dependent upon gaming for profit and more dependent on real human experience.