I lost a bet. These are the stakes: I now have to review Free Guy. The exact nature of the betting is all but a foggy mystery. But early in quarantine I bet fellow The Twin Geeks editor Laura that a Shelter in Place order would be mandated and she bet we’d only get a finger-wagging in Washington State. We got a finger-wagging. And here we are, all this time later, the line between new and old releases has formally blurred. Maybe Free Guy came out in cinema. I was busy. Sheltering in place. Maybe it didn’t. Maybe this is a terrible simulation, where I take on self-punishing tasks for no better reason than it sounds funny at the time.
It sounded funny at the time. But who’s laughing now? (It’s not me, I’m not laughing). Free Guy is a laugh-free comedy with a simple videogamey idea that would never work as a motion picture but is initially just well-defined enough to seem like something’s there. Ryan Reynolds plays a Non-Playable Character, a plain avatar called Blue Shirt Guy, just a normal guy who happens to be overwhelmed with the world he’s fallen into by luck; Ryan Reynolds plays Ryan Reynolds.
Something of genuine interest does happen upfront. Blue Shirt Guy gains agency. As a consequence, he develops free will. Some of the greatest videogames are about player agency and choice. See Valve’s Half-Life series, in which we play Gordon Freeman, in a more profound example that shows that even there the naming conventions aren’t smarter. Valve’s Half-Life series is all about contextual arguments for player agency and free will, perhaps best explored in its off-shoot Portal games. These are elements games can tackle. These aren’t elements that are often taken on in open worlds like the one portrayed herein.
Open worlds, however, offer a unique counterbalance to player agency. By providing a sandbox in a technical way, they create illusions of free choice and player movement, to the degree we begin to believe that we are role-playing in this space. But the actual freedom of choice and execution is smaller than a complex puzzle in the Portal videogames. It’s a funneling concept. Eventually, we all see the same thing, from a different perspective, and the way we progress through the fragments of these worlds, rarely diverges. Game design-wise, an open space is a large series of very limited context patterns.
Free Guy has its own natural design patterns. It’s very much a modern big budget studio movie that operates within the rules and regulations of that space. It is from Disney, so, of course, it will shoehorn in Marvel and Star Wars objects and themes in the most antagonistic of manners. It is shapelessly filmed — mostly digital effects — closer to the open world videogames its about, in its unflinching cynicism for the viewer. The worst affront to the movie is someone who goes and thinks about it after watching. If you are going to see it, at least have the decency not to think about it.
The alternative, the Valve-like cinematic equivalent, is oddly the new Matrix movie. The two make interesting bedfellows indeed, uniquely very much from their corporations. Free Guy might drop in random Disney advertisements, where Matrix might scorn Warner Bros. for the necessity of its own creation. Matrix, meanwhile, may also create a more self-reflexive avenue here: a proper discussion of our own agency (more useful than that of the make-believe videogame avatar), and all the while, it is reshaping and repurposing an existing work, in order to wrangle control from the toxic internet. Matrix is a confrontation of the online trolls that Free Guy thinks are amusing and worthy only of a punchline. One is thoughtful and engaging art that takes on systems of oppression and argues against binary limitations, and the other is Free Guy, existing only within the prescribed binary definitions of its studio overlords.
There are moments of dignity. Jodie Comer does not need to be embarrassed. She puts her best foot forward, and as an avatar that falls in love with Blue Shirt Guy, tries to improve a system from inside the game world, which is soon to be replaced by another iteration by the maniacal boss played by Taika Waititi, who should be more embarrassed generally. The time we spend in the game space is hard to fathom, especially when it pulls out from Blue Shirt Guy’s perception of the world, and reveals the more videogamey visuals. It’s not convincing, because it argues that, what we are watching for most of the film, is not even the true representation of what we’re being shown. It asks us to suspend disbelief, but does not reward our suspension of belief and contextually lets us down with wildly inconsistent game logics, and a formless and shockingly cynical idea of what videogames are, and what they are for.
Free Guy is the worst kind of videogame movie. It’s one that views the hobby as purely trivial, unless there is an intervention, and it can escape its frivolous digital coil, and become something more meaningful, and real. It believes that what happens in videogames is not inherently meaningful, because the avatars themselves do not carry any proper weight in our world, or freedom of thought. It seems to me exactly the opposite is true. Videogames are valuable exactly because they create innovative non-traditional spaces wherein, depending on the game design, actual freedom and agency belongs to the player, in the way it does not always in the real world. That is a valuable tool for social inclusion and a means to connect with something larger than oneself. Don’t see Free Guy, even if you lose a bet.