In the year 2045, climate change, war and poverty have ruined most of Earth’s societies. Most people find escape and relief in the OASIS, a multiplayer online game with thousands of different locations, including games, online shopping, and even a thriving school system. Most people in the world have OASIS accounts, as there are no recurring fees and it offers an escape from the real world. The creator of the OASIS, James Halliday, has left a contest that will transfer the ownership of the OASIS and its parent company to whoever finds his Easter egg. Since the company is worth billions of dollars, many users have been trying to figure out the clues that lead to Halliday’s Easter egg for years.
In “Level One,” Wade Watts describes his adventures trying to win Halliday’s contest. He is a high school student who lives in trailer park in Oklahoma City. Since he lives in poverty and has poor social skills, he dedicates his life to being a “gunter” (egg hunter). Since the contest was announced, no one has made any meaningful progress. Gunters are OASIS users who have not given up on finding Halliday’s Easter egg. Wade’s online avatar, Parzival, and Wade’s friend Aech spend almost all of their time looking for clues.
Wade eventually figures out the location of the Copper Key, the first step in finding Halliday’s egg. Wade also meets a fellow gunter named Art3mis. Even though she is his competition, he has a crush on her. After acquiring the key, Wade soon passes through the First Gate. Upon doing so, his avatar becomes instantly famous across the OASIS. Art3mis, Aech, and two other gunters (Daito and Shoto) soon clear the First Gate as well. Wade is contacted by the Sixers, members of the corporation IOI, who regularly employ unfair tactics to win Halliday’s contest. Wade speaks to the leader of the Sixers, Nolan Sorrento. Sorrento threatens to kill Wade in the real world. Wade does not cooperate and the trailer where Wade’s family lives is destroyed in a large explosion. Wade warns his friends, creates a fake identity, and leaves Oklahoma City.
In “Level Two,” Wade has difficulty figuring out how to get the Jade Key, the next item in his quest. He spends more time with Art3mis and eventually professes his love for her. She breaks up with him. His friends clear the Jade Key, as do the Sixers, and eventually Aech gives him a hint. Wade acquires the Jade Key, but the Sixers have already cleared the Second Gate and have acquired the Crystal Key. Shoto contacts him and tells him that the Sixers broke into Daito’s real-world apartment and killed him. Wade eventually figures out the clues to clear the Second Gate and then acquire the Crystal Key. He also figures out the location of the Third Gate, but the Sixers are ahead of him and have set up an impenetrable barrier to its location. He gives his friends explicit instructions on how to acquire the same items and begins to formulate a dangerous plan.
In “Level Three,” Wade allows himself to be captured by IOI and sent to their indentured work program as a prisoner. Since he is using his false identity, they do not know that he is Wade/Parzival. Once inside IOI, he uses hacking resources to steal evidence of their criminal activity and set up a chain of events that will allow his group to reach the Third Gate. Wade uses his computer skills and access to escape the IOI work prison. He warns his friends that the Sixers are planning to kidnap them to win the contest. He also sends all the criminal activity that he has uncovered to every news outlet.
Wade and his friends are contacted by Ogden Morrow, James Halliday’s original business partner, who gives them refuge from the Sixers. There is a giant battle between all the clans of gunters and the Sixers outside the third gate. The Sixers use every tactic that they can to try to stop Wade. Fighting through the Sixer soldiers, Wade enters the Third Gate. He solves more of Halliday’s puzzles and reaches Halliday’s Easter egg, just before the Sixers. He splits the winnings with his friends and meets Art3mis for the first time in the real world. They share a romantic moment, and Wade is no longer concerned with the OASIS.