This book is set in the USA, 2044. The world is enraptured with the MMORPG-turned-virtual reality life experience called the OASIS. People work, go to school, shop and seek out various forms of entertainment through the OASIS, and it leads to the world at large being utterly neglected, which is why the world is in a dystopian state by the time the story begins. The co-creator of the OASIS, James Halliday, passed away from an illness 5 years ago. After his death, a video was released to every OASIS account to explain that the 80's-loving Halliday left behind an "Easter Egg" that he hid somewhere in the OASIS that is only accessible by locating 3 keys - copper, jade and crystal - and unlocking the three gates associated with each key. The journey to find each key and unlock each gate accessible only by creating the challenges and puzzles programmed by Halliday. The person who finds this Easter Egg wins the entirety of Halliday's vast fortune - so naturally, the world was especially changed after that day.
The main protagonist of the book, announced early in the novel, is the first person in history to acquire the copper key, 18 year-old Wade Watts who resides in a trailer park on the outskirts of Oklahoma City. Because Halliday was fascinated with 1980's pop culture, the decade where he was a teenager, the popularity of 80's music, sitcoms, movies and especially video games has grown massively popular again, and Wade is something of a savant on 80's references. He hangs out with his best friend H in the Oasis where they read comics and play video games in H's basement-styled chatroom.