Interview: Ready Player One author Ernest Cline on his new video game-inspired novel, Armada

"When you do your first book," writer Ernest Cline explains, "they tell you to write the book you've always wanted to read. But I guess there's not a lot of people writing video game-themed novels. I was filling a need without realizing it." That video game-themed novel he's talking about is his 2011 literary debut, Ready Player One, which became the book everyone could get for their game-playing friends for their birthdays.

Well, Cline is filling that gaming novel need again with Armada, a fun and funny new book in which a young man realizes the aliens invading Earth look like the ones in the space sim he plays every night.

In anticipation of buying the book for everyone on our Twitter feed, we spoke to Cline about what inspired the novel, the movie and game versions of it and Ready Player One in the works, and why his third book may not be quite as playable.

GameCrate: What was the inspiration for Armada?

Ernest: Armada is about the idea that video games, and in fact all of pop culture, have been designed to acclimate us to the idea of aliens, and to train us to control drones that are hidden all over the Earth, underground and in skyscrapers, which we use to fend off an alien invasion.

I saw Star Wars in 1977 when I was five years old, and the year after that is when I played my first video game, Space Invaders. A lot of people are comparing Armada to the movie The Last Starfighter and the novel Ender's Game, and I love both of those things. Ender's Game was one of my favorite novels growing up, and I loved The Last Starfighter, too. I was also among the first generation of kids who had game consoles and could play such early first-person space games as Star Raiders. So it was easy to feel like I was being groomed or trained by all of this propaganda to be Luke Skywalker.

GC: So then what do you think makes Armada different from The Last Starfighter and Ender's Game?

E: I think it's that no one in those stories is controlling drones. Which is a big thing these days; you can buy a pocket drone off Amazon for like twenty bucks.

When I watch Star Wars now, they can have real-time holographic conversations. If they can do that, they could clearly send enough data to control an X-Wing remotely, so why send guys into the Death Star to die? Same with Ender's Game. Plus, all the controls for military drones are video game controllers. So the whole drone thing is something I haven't seen before

We also, because of movies and so on, have these ideas of what an alien invasion would be like, but I've never seen an alien invasion story where everyone has seen all the alien invasion movies. So it was fun for me to write Armada with characters who had also seen these alien invasion films and science fiction movies.

GC: Right. And what curse word did you yell real loud when you saw the trailer for that movie Pixels, which is mining the same territory as Armada?

E: Y'know, I'd seen the short film that's based on, but I've since read the synopsis and seen the trailer, and I think it's more of Ghostbusters rip-off than The Last Starfighter. I'm more riffing off of Galaxy Quest and Explorers and Goonies and Iron Eagle; those "kids can do anything" movies they used to make in the '80s. I love those movies. Pixels is more of a broad comedy. Though the idea of aliens taking on the shape of classic video game characters for a bunch of easy jokes does make me sad.

GC: Going back to the book's plot, what games were the biggest influence on the way you depict the game in Armada?

E: I based it on building a starship cockpit in my living room and playing such first-person space shooter games as Star Raiders, Starmaster, Starhawk, and the tank game Battlezone, all of which led to Wing Commander. Then there was the sit-down, cockpit version of the Star Wars vector graphics game.

But I also knew that there wouldn't be just aerial attacks, so I created, in the book, two games: Armada, a flight sim game that controls the drones, and Terra Firma, a first-person shooter made by the same developer as Armada, which shares the same near-future alien invasion storyline.

GC: Ready Player One has become the de facto book people recommend to their video game playing friends. But did any video game developers approach you about writing their games?

E: Yes. A lot of them did. But by then I was working on the Ready Player One screenplay, and was starting work on Armada, so I didn't have the time.

GC: Now, both Ready Player One and Armada are centered around video games. Do you ever worry that you're pigeonholing yourself as "that video game guy"?

E: Maybe. The next thing I'm writing won't involve video games. Well, there may be people in it playing a game, but it's not central to the plot like games were in Ready Player One and Armada. I think it's going to be more like Fanboys , a more personal story that doesn't involve video games.

GC: There are movies of both Ready Player One and Armada in the works. What can you tell us about them?

E: Well, Steven Spielberg is directing Ready Player One. He's currently finishing up The BFG, an adaptation of the Roald Dahl book, and then I believe he's going to do Ready Player One.

As for Armada, I'm working on the first draft of the screenplay now, and once I get back from the Armada book tour, I'll probably work on the second draft. I always knew I wanted it to be a movie, so I actually sold the movie rights to Universal at the same time, and using the same synopsis, that I used to sell the book rights to Random House.

My hope is that people will read the book and then go see the movie, and then come home from the movie and play the Armada and Terra Firma games.

GC: Are there Armada and Terra Firma games in the works?

E: There's a promotional game for Armada that's one of the games that's described in the book. We did something similar for Ready Player One, an Atari 2600-ish game called The Stacks. It was part of this challenge we did where you had to beat the game, and do two other challenges, and the first one to do it won a Delorean.

As for bigger games based on Armada and Terra Firma, there aren't any in the works yet, but there might be when the movies come out. When you sell the movie rights, the interactive rights are tied in, especially if there's a video game involved in the story.

GC: Finally, if someone's already read Ready Player One and Armada, and liked them, what book would you recommend they read next and why?

E: Well, Andy Weir's The Martian. I recommend that one to everyone. What's funny is that Andy emailed me and told me he had written some Ready Player One fan fiction. He wrote an origin story for the villain in Ready Player One.

I also think Neal Stephenson's Seveneves is amazing, and I'd recommend Ken Grimwood's Replay and The Breach by Patrick Lee. That’s some of the stuff I've been reading lately.

Armada is available in hardcover and digitally now.