On the same day I finished reading Ready Player One, I took the N train to the L train to 8th Avenue, walked west on 14th Street until I hit 10th, waited in line for an hour and a half and stepped inside a recreation of Jerry Seinfeld’s apartment.
I didn’t log into the OASIS of course, or even strap on an Oculus, but I couldn’t help but draw some parallels between Ernest Cline’s book and “Seinfeld: The Apartment,” a week-long interactive exhibit in Chelsea promoting the classic 1990s sitcom on Hulu.
As you probably know, Steven Spielberg recently signed on to direct the film adaptation of Ready Player One, a book ostensibly about a dystopian future, but with much of its soul set in the past, particularly the 1980s. It’s quite a task, one Spielberg certainly could’ve handled when it was the 1980s. But now that it’s 2015, and the movie will be taking us first into the future and, from there, back into a computer-generated simulation of the ‘80s, I’m not so sure. Can the present-day, nearly septuagenarian Spielberg — his powers clearly diminished — skillfully interpret a virtual reality recreation of the decade, so many moons ago, in which he was still in his artistic prime? I’m wary. (Though Cline is pretty stoked.)
In the book, which you’ve probably long since read and are wondering why it took me so long to do so myself, the protagonist, Parzival, enters into the virtual worlds of classic arcade games and films like 1987 Capcom platformer Black Tiger and the 1983 Matthew Broderick-driven Cold War flick WarGames. At times, he’s playing games within games, or stepping into movies and inhabiting their characters. The trick in the film adaptation will be to faithfully recreate these old-timey movies and games but with a sci-fi veneer, straddling the line between reality and surreality. As a moviegoer who loved the book, I want to feel as if Parzival really is the genuine Graham Chapman inside the original Monty Python and the Holy Grail…but also not, because, lest we forget, Parzival is the avatar of a teenager named Wade Watts, who is playing a fully immersive virtual reality simulation. In my mind, that disconnect connects. How it will be translated to the screen is Spielberg’s challenge.
As I stood in line pondering all this, I was half hoping the Seinfeld experience might give me some clues, albeit on a much lesser scale. As it turns out, I live one block over from the actual apartment in Queens used as the exterior of Frank and Estelle Costanza’s place. That’s not surreal; it’s just real. I also ate at the Soup Nazi’s joint back when the show was still on the air, and before it had become a minor tourist destination and, later, a chain restaurant. That, at the time, was surprisingly real, too. I’ve been on other sets, particularly late-night talk shows. Also real. My most comparable recent experience with stepping into fictional universes, other than my Oculus tour or say, Disney World, was when I visited the recreated Mad Men sets at the Museum of the Moving Image. Those sets were walled off, separating you from most of the room and all of the props by a sheer plane of glass — and no photos allowed (though I managed to sneak one of The Wife of the Year in the Draper kitchen). Immersive it was not.
In the Seinfeld apartment, there were no Jerry or George or Kramer or Elaine NPCs walking around, challenging me to recite exact lines of dialogue from a classic episode; there were just other geeks like me wandering about, crowding the joint (in other words, no infinite copies of the apartment, built using pre-fab OASIS templates). Also, the apartment was on the ground floor, with a storefront window where the fourth wall would be, allowing passersby to peek in. But it did differ from the Mad Men exhibit in that you could more or less freely explore the apartment, sit on the couch, lightly handle props, take photos, yada yada yada, even crash through the front door like Cosmo — yes, they let you do that. If you felt so inclined, you could also take off your pants and hop on a chaise lounge in your boxers for a George Costanza glamour shot.
Matt Marrone is a senior MLB editor at ESPN.com. He has been Unwinnable’s reigning Rookie of the Year since 2011. You can follow him on Twitter @thebigm.