Everybody is talking about the Blue Shirt Guy (Ryan Reynolds). The kids are dressing up like him, the people are all clustered around screens to watch him, and the YouTubers and the Twitch streamers are raving about him; he has gone definitively viral, this man cavorting around the open-world shooter Free City in what appears to be a hacked bank teller NPC skin. But the Blue Shirt Guy — who, per his nametag, is in fact named “Guy” — isn’t a player at all. He’s an NPC who has, in what would be an unfortunate fate even for creatures that don’t reside in a hellish cityscape inspired by Grand Theft Auto Online, become self-aware.
When Guy commandeers the sunglasses of the umpteenth bank robber, he gains what is essentially video game vision and sees the world as a player might, overlaid with vomited UI details and loud “there’s something to do here” icons. It’s another layer on top of already-clashing aesthetics of the realistic environment and the wanton violence in its streets perpetrated by people with jet packs, muscular bunny costumes, and weapons that reference Disney IP. I found the late Disney arsenal scene in particular to be just excruciating to behold, until I stopped to consider whether its appalling spectacle was necessarily untrue, whether it was all that different from pulling out an overpowered pre-order item or a busy DLC weapon skin in a normal game. What is far and away the most interesting thing about Free Guy is how the game at its center seems, in some very familiar ways, to well and truly suck.
On some level, the premise of Free Guy is a little typical, a YouTube “check out what life would be like if it was a game” video from like 2003 at the latest. But consider how video games used to look in movies and on TV, aspirational and nearly utopian in their wide potential. Prior large-scale game depictions tend toward the futuristic and otherwise forward-looking; as graphical fidelity grew by leaps and bounds, we zeroed in on their aspirations toward reality and total immersion. The sci-fi prospect of virtual reality seemed like the logical next step (somewhere, a variation on the phrase, “video games, they’re not just toys for kids anymore” squeezes through the rictus of a news anchor).
Like so much fiction steeped in our apprehensions about new and depersonalizing technology, any advancement comes with risk. In so many such works clustered around the turn of the century, games become so real that they gain the ability to reach out and harm us (and in more meaningful, damaging ways than eye strain or hand cramps). The live-action 2001 film Avalon from anime icon Mamoru Oshii depicts a kind of VR proto-loot-based shooter set against an austere backdrop of Polish military hardware and seen through the yellowed filter at the beginning of Stalker (a film itself that, like the first two Alien movies, countless games have since plundered for parts). Though players can make a comfortable living through Avalon, the game is technically illegal due, presumably, to the need for things like institutions that care for players whose minds have been wiped clean.
Avalon writer Kazunori Itō (who also collaborated with Oshii on the original Ghost in the Shell film, among others), subsequently oversaw the Dot Hack franchise for a similar, unsettling exploration of where the virtual ends and the reality begins. VR helmets in Dot Hack can potentially leave the user comatose, and the first anime series — which is technically spelled in a way my brain refuses to process as “.hack//sign” — opens on an amnesiac user who finds himself unable to log out. Likewise, the tagline for 2005 slasher Stay Alive provides a warning similar to the one for everyone’s favorite VR enslavement tool, the Matrix: “You die in the game, you die for real.” In films that run the gamut from David Cronenberg’s fleshy VR thriller eXistenZ to Scooby-Doo and the Cyber Chase, technological anxieties loom large at the turn of the century.
But for all this caution about the march of technology, we are assuredly meant to be impressed as much as afraid. We regard these futuristic achievements with a tentative wonder that never totally goes away, even when something eventually goes wrong. There is still a defiant longing — oh, we think, if only these things did not run the risk of cooking our brains, trapping us inside forever, or summoning the murderous ghost of an Elizabeth Bathory confusingly based in New Orleans (Stay Alive is weird, folks). Here, Free Guy is reasonably consistent: the cause of Guy’s ascension is due to some stupendously advanced AI algorithm that Soonami CEO Antwan (Taika Waititi, excruciating) definitely stole from former development duo Millie (Jodie Comer) and Walter “Keys” McKeys (Joe Keery). Keys toils away at Soonami, having begun to sip the Kool-Aid. Millie has filed a lawsuit but, as far as proof goes, she hasn’t gotten much farther than naming her avatar “Molotov Girl” and poking around Free City itself for clues.
Over time, the popular perception of a medium will change. To see that, we might once again turn to 2005 and Stay Alive, which stars Frankie Muniz as an irritating g4m3r in a shitty little translucent hat and one of the McPoyles (Jimmi Simpson) from It’s Always Sunny in Philadephia in a shirt that says, “Who farted?” (Clifford “CliffyB” Bleszinski is credited as “video game consultant.”) A decade (and sometimes decades, plural) removed, what once seemed to explode with potential becomes passé; a game like Free City is so plainly unreal that the entire film hinges on the joke of NPCs perceiving it as the very opposite. Most significantly, the real-life characters don’t access the game through VR headsets. Instead, we see them planted in front of monitors, Free City looking about as sophisticated as a licensed game midway through the Xbox 360’s lifespan. It’s only convincing from the POV of Guy and the other NPCs, who have never known anything else.
The film is, as a result, kind of teasing and disdainful of its subject matter, emphasizing the most baldly preposterous and unpleasant qualities of a big-budget video game. Free City is ugly, a video game facsimile very much conceived in a post-microtransaction present and in the shadow of Fortnite’s blandly hideous, crossover-conducive aesthetic. If it seems a little unfair of the film to hold up something like this as widely representative of the medium, it is at least refreshing to feel removed from the gingerly reverent context in which the games industry so often refers to itself, endlessly reiterating virtues from press conference stages and video presentations while assuring the audience that there is nothing without the fans.
Decoupled from the expected fealty that tends to come with this sort of subject matter, Free Guy does feel legitimately cutting at points, if still comfortably within a PG-13 blockbuster context; the forcefulness with which Free City centers and flatters its players, to the point of including a nameless NPC woman meant to hang on the player’s arm, is only slightly more embarrassing to behold as it is in the “real thing.”
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Where to go from these gaudy excesses, of course, is the more difficult question. The work of Millie and Keys here stands for artistic integrity, which can at least support an optimistic reading: their observational, NPC-driven art game takes off on the back of emergent play and the general rejection of Free City’s grind for Sick Loot. But, then, their game only takes off because its proof of concept is embedded within something as popular and omnipresent as Free City; work within the system and you are rewarded later, the scales balanced eventually. When Waititi’s unbearable CEO character insists that the art game wouldn’t have sold, it’s a little tough to argue. Free Guy feels so far removed from any sociological reality that its typical gestures toward corporate malfeasance and the need for collective action can ring safely hollow.
A mass NPC exodus is directly compared to going on strike late in the film, but within Free Guy it can remain a toothlessly co-opted image pasted over familiar story beats. Though the NPCs are very (very) roughly representative of workers, this makes all the cops into workers, too. The NPCs are not people who have been suppressed and beaten down. They are people who were quite literally not people; it’s like watching the cogs of a machine suddenly grow faces. Certainly there’s a whole tradition of speculative fiction about the ethical implications of self-aware AI, but Free Guy feels more like the enduring tendency to represent the marginalized as an entirely separate species.
Such a distant ethos perhaps explains the baffling racial dynamics at play. Beyond one crack about white privilege, whatever’s supposed to be going on here is completely alien, where downtrodden white liberators work under the noses of dark-skinned captors like the Soonami CEO and his oblivious yes-men. Guy’s best pal Buddy (Lil Rel Howery) is excluded from the film’s middle out of pure cowardice, until he must fulfill his advisory role as Black Best Friend. By the end of the movie, when the characters abscond to another game world, they do so by the grace of the white developers, who allow them to exist and do nothing — this whole time, it’s been a matter of finding the right overseer.
With what can most charitably be called a fuzzy point of view, Free Guy hardly stands up to its darkest and most critical forerunners. In 1999, Cronenberg’s typically, wondrously disgusting eXistenZ depicted a game’s lack of freedom as invasive and dehumanizing, a perpetual clash between linear character beats and the player who must enact them that is never reconciled, leading to a blur between the real and the unreal. In 2009’s singularly abrasive Gamer, our obsessive push for realism and authenticity — the kind of verisimilitude prized in earlier depictions as the ultimate destination for games — is not actually found in traditional video games at all. Society has cut out the middleman and now uses paid actors and death row convicts alike as meat puppets, their strings looped around a controller. Free Guy reaches a similar place to these films, a mirror for the video game industry and those of us enraptured by it to look at and hate what we see. And I can think of nothing more unspeakably damning than to see that thematic core reside in what is otherwise a wishy-washy crowd-pleaser.