Ready Player Two highlights the flaws of James Halliday in painful detail, reminiscent of how later Harry Potter books and films presented Albus Dumbledore in a far darker light. Though Ready Player One was quick to point out the issues of Halliday’s overly virtual life – as he appears to actively regret the time he spent in the virtual reality OASIS – the figure himself wasn’t painted as an outright villain. Socially awkward to a reductive degree, Halliday was actually a hugely relatable figure, particularly because he was a distillation of Gen Z anxieties, and that especially shown through how his personal struggles led him to creative achievements.
After all, this is the same character who was responsible for all of the excitement and reference-heavy wonder of Ready Player One, having orchestrated the egg hunt that eventually leads the protagonists to victory and significant financial rewards. Having died before the film and book begin, the brief glimpses shown of this eccentric but imaginative old man are undeniably endearing, even when it’s revealed that he cut ties with his best (and only) friend because of his lasting and unavoidable crush on Odgen’s wife, Kira. The newly released sequel goes further into the relationship between Halliday, Ogden and Kira, painting the former in a less than flattering time throughout.
The sequel’s presentation of Halliday ends up being similar to the way Harry Potter deals with Dumbledore. While the appeal of a whimsical old man who acts as a mentor and provides guidance for a young protagonist is hard ignore, both the Harry Potter series and Ready Player Two also show that such figures should not automatically be trusted, as dark depths can lurk beneath. Despite his part in Harry’s early years, for a decent portion of time, many feared that Dumbledore was in fact a malicious force, as it appeared that his overall plan was to let Harry die in order to kill Voldemort. This ambiguity was partially raised for Halliday in Ready Player One, but unlike Dumbledore, he actually becomes worse the more that is revealed about him, because the sequel takes the ambiguity around whether Halliday was in fact a figure worth idolizing, and turns him into an outright villain.
This is not just in the sense that the antagonist of the Ready Player One sequel is his AI clone Anarok – who only turned evil because Halliday tampered with his memories out of shame for how he’d behaved in the past – but also in that he violates the trust of his best friend and his best friend’s wife, seemingly solely because he had a long-term crush on her. Just as Dumbledore is accused of rearing Harry like a pig to be slaughtered, Halliday’s agenda is nefarious. Under the guise of showing them technology he intended to use to allow OASIS users with disabilities to control their avatars, Halliday steals Kira’s memories and then saves them for him to access. The argument that Halliday did this for some nebulous greater good is cut short immediately, as it’s clear from his own words that he did this to try and make a copy of Kira that could fall in love with him. Naturally, it fails because this copy has the same memories of her relationship with Ogden, but that doesn’t excuse the behavior.
While Halliday does eventually see his errors and apologizes, he never actually does so to Kira herself, as she dies without ever even knowing how she was basically cloned so Halliday could try and have her to himself. And the apology that Halliday does give to Ogden isn’t much better either. He drafts up an email sent before the events of Ready Player One that set to be sent to Ogden the second his heart stops. It’s hard to think of what is worse in this scenario; the fact Halliday hid this secret about his best friend’s dead wife for so long, or the fact he planned to tell him in a way where he doesn’t have to face repercussions for his actions.
In short, anyone expecting the somewhat expected film adaptation of Ready Player Two to once again show Halliday as a wacky whimsical old man will have a dark surprise ahead of them, as the plot instead parallels the all-too-common discovery that many individuals commonly idolized aren’t as perfect as they appear on the surface. In that way, the long-expected sequel to Ready Player One mirrors how JK Rowling made Dumbledore more morally complex to add more dramatic tension, but Cline’s new book goes further, making it far harder to actually forgive Halliday at all.