The premise is that the energy crisis and climate change has hit full force in the year 2044. At the same time global networking has become so ubiquitous that there is very little personal interaction. Most communication is virtual between the avatars of the millions of internet users.
The narrator and protagonist of the book, Wade Watts, introduces the quest which is this novel, by telling the reader where he was when he heard about THE contest, and not just any contest. The genius/creator of the world wide online player video game, James Halliday, has prepared a carefully structured will in which he offers his multi-billion dollar business to the first online player who can successflully uncover the item he has hidden in a secret virtual room in one of his myriad video games. He leaves a short verse with clues imbedded within it, but to make a long story short, five years pass and no one appears close to uncovering anything.
Wade also tells the reader his own sad story. He's an orphan living in poverty with an unloving aunt. Ghettos int the Oklahoma community he lives in are built on old time trailer parks, but scaffolding has been added to stack the trailers sometimes 20 sections high.
But he has a knack for electronics and has built his own computer with found pars. He attends high school online via his avatar. His few friendships are with avatars he has met online. Almost everyone is searching for the break-through that will put them on the scoreboard, and Wade has mastered many of the old video games of the 1970s and 80s loooking for that edge. He has also watched the TV shows and old movies of that era, knowing that Hallliday, a loner himself, had immersed himself in those things as well.
By now many gamers, called gunters, which is short for egg hunters, have banded together hoping to increase their own odds of winning, but the most ominous occurence is the emergence of a corporation with intentions to win by any means necessary. Their goal is to charge exorbitant fees for the privilege of using the world wide gaming system. Wade and his virtual friends will do whatever they can to prevent that from happening.
Cline is an entertaining writer and story teller with a wealth of knowledge on 1970-80's pop culture as well as online gaming. The book was publisher in 2011, and it it's not already a movie, it soon will be!