Ninja plays a bigger role in Free Guy than I expected. Currently starring at the box office, Ryan Reynolds’ new comedy uses a variety of popular streamers and YouTubers as a semi-Greek chorus, like the singers who established the backstory at Disney’s Hercules.
The story follows an NPC character called BlueShirtGuy who inexplicably developed a whole feel inside a GTA Online-like video game called Free City. BlueShirtGuy quickly became a legend on the server, which is inhabited by the likes of Pokimane, Jacksepticeye, and Ninja. They are depicted the same way they appear on Twitch: camouflaged with insulating foam and neon buzzing gear, offering their thoughts on NPC Who Learned To Love.
Free Guy has other celebrity characters, but the streamers are, by far, the most notable. It’s the first film made in the rebellious new reality of youth in the 1920s – a culture in which players are the torchbearers.
If you are looking for a critical experience here, let me tell you that Free Guy is better than I expected. The movie is laced with all sorts of bad habits — constant transmedia references with a low commonality, supernatural verbiage of Hollywood games, and a plethora of epic Ryan Reynolds-style humor — but a central vanity, in which one of the non-playable characters suddenly becomes a savage aware of the injustices of his existence. It is handled carefully.
There are plenty of moments where the Free Guy screams and seizes as he tries to translate basic mechanical jargon to the masses (there’s an introductory sequence outlining what “non-playable character” made me want to die). But elsewhere, Free Guy is much more enthusiastic about its principles. In a dramatic twist, Jay discovers an expression “kiss” that isn’t present in the player’s user interface, like an AI eventually taking matters into its own hands.
It’s a movie with all kinds of fun, Matrix–Small minds, enjoying all the implications of a San Andreas miraculously self-conscious. But, as someone who works in the industry, I find myself most engaged with Free Guy for the way it reveals Disney’s perspective on gaming culture as a whole.
Soonami, the fictional studio behind Free City, is headed up by a super vengeful Taika Waititi who wants to expel all of his loyal players with the release of Free City 2, which will wipe out the original Free City upon release. This culminates in a small dialogue where Waititi explains that he will continue to produce bloodless sequels rather than start something more experimental — a tension dating back to the earliest PC game issues — much to the chagrin of loyal programmers with a good heart.
Our IRL Champions consist of a pair of games that emerged from the indie scene in the Pacific Northwest. Yes, this is a big budget action movie that uses indian games as a primary plot point, and specifically as a way to contrast away from the predatory tendencies of Tsunami. (Although a trend has emerged in Hollywood, the final installment of Space Jam shows LeBron James’ son building his own indie game.)
The Free City manifests itself as a free inferno area for the open world; Rare skins, infinite level thresholds, and microtransactions abound, further evidence that the archetypal video game for most of America in 2021 is servile loot with no end in sight. I’m curious to see if that’s the perspective a lot of parents have about the dominant sector in gaming right now, with these flashy, gacha-like fads laying siege to middle schools, and raking in as much of the $4.99 payout as possible.
What’s especially funny is that Free Guy seems to take place in a world where video games have become an overwhelming true monoculture. There are parts of this scenario where current events in Free City are impressively covered by Good Morning America; At one point, a live broadcast of in-game footage occupied New York City notables. It’s funny to think of how this kind of premise would have seemed totally bizarre only 10 years ago, when this hobby was still treated like a faraway place. I mean, it’s still weird now — FOX News won’t be covering the seasons of Fortnite anytime soon — but in a world where Ninja is invited to the Tonight Show and YouTubers are invading Disney Channel, Free Guy is more relevant. Perhaps one day in the near future, one of the insurrections in Grand Theft Auto will be international news.
The film ends on a slightly warm moral note. It imagines a world where players no longer want to randomly chop up non-playable characters, and would rather occupy a city that isn’t constantly riven by bank robberies, murders, and car chases. Free Guy doesn’t conclude by pointing the finger at video game violence in the ’90s, but it’s worth noting that it depicts a game world that finds peace through love and friendship.
If video games get big enough to demand their own multi-million dollar movie adaptations, maybe Free Guy is on to something when the EAs of the world are required to be more creative and sensual as they flesh out their next shoot. But whatever the man is. Free Guy 2 is already in the works. we all end up serving mr.