The year is 2045, and the world is a bleak place. Climate change has caused a global energy crisis. Poverty, famine, disease and wars plague every continent. Oasis, a virtual-reality universe, is the only release most of humanity finds from reality.
In Oasis, players assume any identity they want as they navigate one of its hundreds of different worlds. The creator, James Halliday, even created a virtual planet for schools that most children now attend rather than brick-and-mortar buildings.
Wade Watts is a senior at one of Halliday’s virtual schools. He attends classes while in his hideout, an abandoned van, hidden from his drug-addicted aunt and her abusive boyfriend. Wade’s only friend is a boy named Aech. At least Wade thinks Aech is a boy; they have only met as avatars in Oasis.
Wade and Aech are avid scholars of the life of James Halliday. They study every biography about him and read his journal as if it were the Bible in order to learn all they can about the man. All this information is necessary if they are ever going to find the three keys Halliday hid within Oasis.
The keys lead to three tests. The first person to find the keys and pass the trials will receive an egg. The egg allows the winner to inherit all of Halliday’s substantial wealth, but more importantly, he will receive unlimited power in Oasis. Halliday left a cryptic poem as a clue before he died, but for the last five years, no one has deciphered it.
Less serious egg hunters, or gunters, as they became known, no longer search, believing the hunt to be an elaborate hoax. But many, like Wade and Aech, keep looking for it. IOI, a global conglomerate, also seeks the egg. IOI has hired an elite team of gunters, known as Sixers, to find the egg so they can control Oasis as part of their business. Their control would hamper impoverished people like Wade from playing the game.
Wade finds a new interpretation for one of Halliday’s clues. He now believes the first key may actually be hidden on Ludus, the virtual planet where he attends school. When he is able to access a map of the planet, he finds an area that looks exactly like the model of one of Halliday’s favorite fantasy games.
Wade, as Parzival, his avatar, heads off to explore it. He knows if he is correct, the first trial will be filled with the same traps and dangers found in Halliday’s beloved game. Parzival manages to defeat all the obstacles and reaches the last level.
The avatar of a knight insists that Parzival now joust with him in order to receive the key. Wade defeats the knight and receives the Copper Key. On it is a clue about how to find the virtual gate that will lead him to the next key.
As Parzival leaves the area, he is surprised by Art3mis, a gunter who he has admired in the past. In fact, after reading her blogs, he has developed a crush on this female avatar. Although more curvaceous than most female avatars, Art3mis projects an image of self-confidence and beauty that Wade finds hard to resist.
She confronts Parzival and eventually gets him to admit he found the key. She has been trying for three weeks to defeat the knight, but has been unsuccessful. Parzival gives Art3mis the hint to make the knight play with the left controller, as that seems to give his opponent a slight advantage. Parzival learns that entire world knows he found the key because the scoreboard on Halliday’s website now shows his name.
Wade knows that other hunters will soon be able to track down his avatar’s movements and discover the Copper Key for themselves. He is able to quickly crack the clue for the gate’s whereabouts and heads there to open it. As a reward for virtually performing a role in one of Halliday’s favorite movies, Parzival is given another clue to find the next key.
Wade contacts Aech, who has figured out where the Copper Key is hidden. Soon after, he retrieves the key, as do two more players, Daito and Shoto. All appear on the leaderboard. IOI descends on this virtual planet and prevents everyone but their own avatars to find more keys.
Wade, as Parzival, is offered many lucrative endorsement deals. He makes money both in the real world, and the virtual, world. Most notably, Nolan Sorrento, an executive of IOI Industries, requests a meeting with Parzival.
Parzival listens to Sorrento’s offer of wealth and riches, but then happily refuses to join the company. Sorrento then shows Parzival a video feed of the trailer-home neighborhood where he lives. The executive threatens to blow up the neighborhood unless Parzival agrees to join IOI. Moments later, the bomb detonates.
Unknown to Sorrento, Wade is hidden in his hideout and survives the blast. Wade contacts Aech to tell him about the attack. Aech sets up a meeting with Art3mis, Shoto and Daito to warn them. None of the gunters wants to team up to find the egg, preferring instead to attain the glory on their own.
Wade uses his new funds to escape to another city and set up a new identity to keep himself safe from Sorrento and his minions. Within the realm of Oasis, Parzival and Art3mis are considered celebrities. Wade lives vicariously through his avatar, enjoying his new status and the growing friendship he has with Art3mis. But after Parzival admits he is in love with her, Art3mis breaks off contact. She insists it is so she can concentrate on finding the egg.
Wade initially sinks into depression, but when Art3mis finds the second key, he rallies himself to begin the search anew. By analyzing Art3mis’ location, Wade believes he knows where the key is hidden. He arrives at a museum of games and searches, but to no avail. In one of the rooms, however, he plays a mysterious game of Pac-Man that appears to have been left by Halliday.
At first Wade believes beating the game will give him the key. But all he receives is a quarter for his avatar. He also learns that while he played the game for hours, Aech found the second key. Aech sends Parzival a text, giving him the location of the second key as payback for his help in finding the first one. Parzival arrives before the Sixers and manages to claim the Jade Key and the clue to the next one. Shoto also obtains the key. Daito’s name, however, disappears from the board. Wade knows it can only mean that Daito had been killed.
A few days later, Wade deciphers the clue to find the last key. It is located in an area reminiscent of one of Halliday’s favorite movies. This time, Parzival receives the location of the next key and an avatar robot he can use in virtual combat. He soon deciphers the clue as song lyrics and transports to the world dedicated to Halliday’s favorite band.
After playing one of the band’s songs on a guitar, Percival is given the hint that the last gate cannot be opened alone. He then places the guitar on an altar and is given the Crystal Key. Etched in the key is the symbol for Halliday’s personal avatar, Anorak. Percival immediately realizes that the key must open the gates to Castle Anorak, the avatar’s stronghold. The Sixers, however, have also discovered the Castle and have it surrounded, preventing any gunters from getting through. Percival devises an elaborate plan to defeat IOI and the army of Sixers.
Wade creates yet another identity, one that gets him arrested for debt, and it is forced to become an indentured servant in IOI. Once inside their headquarters, he uses codes he bought from the black market to infiltrate their computer system. He learns that IOI has files on him and each of his virtual friends. Art3mis and Shoto are next to be executed. Wade finds videos of IOI soldiers throwing Daito off a roof.
Wade escapes the IOI building armed with all the information they have on Halliday and the Third Gate. He contacts his friends, warning Art3mis and Shoto to find a safe place to hide as they are next on IOI’s hit list. The friends gather together in a virtual chat room to discuss their options.
Parzival shows the others all the information he has, including video of the Sixers’ failed attempts to open the Third Gate. Parzival and his friends soon decode that the gate needs three keys in order to be opened. They decide to go together to make a stand against IOI.
Wade sends out an email out to all the gunters throughout the world to join them at Castle Anorak. He details all the crimes IOI has committed and asks for the gunters’ help in breaking through IOI’s shield. By the time Parzival and his friends arrive, thousands of gunters have gathered to help in their fight.
Sorrento faces off against Parzival and his friends, each using the special robot given to them when they conquered the Second Gate. Shoto sacrifices his avatar to defeat Sorrento’s so that the other three can enter the castle. As they unlock the Third Gate, an explosion rocks them. The Sixers have exploded a virtual bomb that destroys every avatar in the vicinity, even their own, in an effort to stop Parzival and the others from finding the egg.
Parzival, however, is given another life because of the quarter he received from the mysterious Pac-Man game. He alone is able to navigate the next trial. Before he begins, he agrees to split the fortune with his friends, should he retrieve it before the Sixers find it. After another series of games and movie roleplaying, this time as King Arthur in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Parzival arrives in Anorak’s secret chamber and receives the egg, winning the game. His bank account is credited with billions of dollars, and his avatar is given unlimited powers and life points.
Once Wade leaves the game, he meets up with his friends in the real world. Art3mis had been afraid that he would not find her attractive because she has a port wine birthmark on her face. Wade assures her that it only makes her more beautiful because it is part of her. The two share a kiss; for the first time in his life, Wade would rather be in the real world than in Oasis.