There is so much to love about Free Guy, (2021) that it has quickly become a favourite film of mine. It makes me think about AI and storytelling – some of my favourite things to ponder – and it makes me laugh. So, this is a very long blog about Free Guy and all my thoughts. I would recommend getting a cup of tea before proceeding any further and huge warning: This post contains tonnes of Free Guy spoilers.
The film starts with Guy who is an NPC or non-player character in an online video game called Free City, a place where players rob banks, steal cars, and shoot and beat people to accumulate points and level up (i.e. increase their levels to play more complex missions) rather like they do in games such as Grand Theft Auto or Fortnite.
Guy and the other NPCs are regularly held hostage and assaulted, even so, they don’t think that there is anything wrong with their world. In fact, Guy and his best friend Buddy admire everything about the sunglasses people who run this town, aka the players of the game, right down to the cool trainers the players wear as they step on Guy and Buddy’s faces. Guy actually says I live in Paradise in a voiceover as he eats his breakfast unaffected by a helicopter bursting into flames by his window.
This is because the NPCs were originally coded to live in a paradise game called Life Itself run by an artificial intelligence (AI) algorithm, or engine, in which these NPCs would grow and evolve. They were not designed at all for Free City, hence their cheery disposition which is totally at odds with the world, as the NPCs would have lived in a goldfish bowl which players would have only observed and thankfully not interacted.
In real life, experience shows that when machine learning algorithms interact with humans online they learns hatred and racism: Twitter taught a Microsoft Bot racism in 23 hours and Google’s Hate-Speech detector is biased against Black people. Free Guy gives the nod to this when Guy himself starts to repeat a homophobic and disability joke which he overhears during a bank heist. He thinks it must be funny because players responded with laughter. MolotovGirl, or Milly as she is known in real life, immediately shuts him down and tells him to make his own jokes and not to listen to trolls.
Research has shown that AI is limited to how much it can learn without human intervention and so deep learning is currently the way to go. So, Guy being corrected by Milly is a form of deep learning. In this case Guy has done some unsupervised (machine) learning and Milly the human steps in to say yes this categorisation is correct or no, it is not in the case of his ‘joke’. Not that she knows it, she thinks Guy is another player which leads to some hilarious conversations about the identity of God, You’ve met God and he’s a dick? And, also about his skin: Where did you get that skin? Guy doesn’t know that in gaming terms skin means the customised appearances users choose to represent themselves in a game: Why do people keep asking about my skin?
Milly is one of the developers of Life Itself who is spending her time as a player in Free City trying to find a clue to prove that its her AI engine which is running Free City. We first meet her trying to locate a video clip of a player discovering a ‘secret level’ which she wants to get her hands on, without raising the suspicions of Antwan, aka God to Guy, the owner of Soonami Studios, Free City and Life Itself. The level looks like a lost city and from its description Milly believes that this is her code, hidden in the game, running Free City.
As a subplot, this is deeply satisfying. We all love a world within a world, or a lost world, which was first made popular in Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1912 Lost World, later in the Indiana Jones‘s films, and remains as popular as ever as shown by this year’s Disney’s Jungle Cruise, (2021). The video game Unchartered, which Free Guy‘s director, Shawn Levy played a lot – so the story goes -during the making of the film, is based on finding lost worlds. Lost worlds always contain treasure, hidden messages and wisdom.
It’s not just zeros and ones. It’s hidden messages. I like to think of myself actually as not a code writer but as an author. I just use zeros and ones instead of words ‘cos words will let you down.Walter ‘Keys’ McKey, Free Guy (2021)
Because it is an extension of us, technology employs the same stories too. We all think there are hidden messages and if we could only discover them, from the ghost in the machine to us creating an intelligence cleverer than us, we could ultimately live in our paradise. As humans we have long lived in a world which seems to have an organising principle but no matter how many patterns we understand there are still so many we don’t and they are a mystery to us. I guess this is why we are in love with big data. We seem to believe that the solution or explanation is hidden in plain sight, everything is bigger than the sum of its parts, Gestalt style, and if we can just collect enough data the mysteries will crack open and we, like Guy, will have the cheat codes (instructions/golden ticket/almanac) to winning at life.
Stereotypes and story arcs
When Guy sees Molly walking down the street singing Fantasy by Mariah Carey it triggers the AI part of his code and causes him to want more out of his life. This is really the old story of being lit by a random connection to another person or as Dan Walker put it as he bowed out of Strictly: someone turning the lights on in your life. Certain people cause us to see ourselves as full of potential and possibility, as Guy does once he meets Milly.
Originally, Guy was designed for Life Itself as the stereotype Lovelorn. He was originally intended to be someone who lives in a perfect world, a paradise, with one problem – he cannot find the person of his dreams. Wouldn’t we all want to know what someone smarter than us would do in that scenario? We all crave connection and intimacy, it lights us up and without it we feel lost. Since we think AI is smarter than us, could it give us a new way?
Instead, Guy is stuck in Free City and meets Milly which causes him to follows a call to action in his very own hero’s journey and thankfully, because this is fiction, he doesn’t seek to emulate the humans around him. He wants to be a good guy and to level up and spend time with Milly. In pursuit of his goal, he becomes something of a celebrity and has the power to change the world he lives in. This too is a driving force in our lives, we all want to be seen, we all want to be heard and we all want to matter which we often measure in terms of success and the traditional fame and fortune. In a video game, it is about levelling up or having the cheat codes as Matt Lieberman, the writer of Free Guy, explains:
I was feeling a little stuck…the idea came: What if you had the cheat codes to life? What if you could walk around the streets and see power-ups that gave you money and different powers and health?…Oh, you would be in this big sandbox game, if that were happening. Bingo. Lightbulb.Matt Lieberman, writer of Free Guy
When I saw Lieberman had written the film, I was so impressed, as I remembered that Matthew Liberman wrote Social: Why our brains are wired to connect, I was like: wow a prof at UCLA is also a Hollywood script writer. Turns out that they are two separate people, but like Guy, I always believe that everything is possible which is why my hubby tells me that life is way more interesting in my mind than in real life. I don’t know about that, for me, it’s not that big a leap: great storytellers are naturally great social psychologists.
Conformity and community
The montage when Guy levels up really fast is great fun and reminded me of some great films: Groundhog Day, Lego Movie, Trueman Show and Jumanji . Actual gamers we know from YouTube make appearances such as DanTDM and Jacksepticeye who as I have said before, are just as famous to my girls as film or pop stars. Though my youngest told me yesterday, when we watched Free Guy together, that I banned her from watching Jacksepticeye as he was swearing too much and I didn’t think it was appropriate for her eight-years-old self. This is hilariously echoed in the film by the scene in which the foul-mouthed little girl, as she is described in the credits, is encouraging her older sister to Kill that mother-, … I told you to smoke his ass. Apparently, these girls are the directors’ girls in real life who stepped in to film this scene at the last minute during post-production, which, for me makes the scene funnier.
During the montage, we also get an insight into the gaming culture with the importance of catchphrases, celebratory dances and online followers.
A lovely idea during the montage is how Guy encourages positive conformity amongst gamers and to consider their own behaviour of random violence against NPCs with a funny report starting off with Over one billion NPCs are killed every year. In real life, conformity to create positive results can work just as easily as negative groupthink. Happiness expert, Shawn Achor describes in his books and courses, how a waving campaign in a high-crime neighbourhood in Salinas, California facilitated police acceptance in a high crime neighbourhood. Cheat code right there!
Guy also influences the other NPCs to grow and change around him too as he interacts with them and so they step out of their own stereotypes and become more. The blonde bombshell stereotype stops hanging around players and writes her own memoir about gender roles and the patriarchy. The barista teaches herself to make a cappuccino although she wants to make a difference in the world. The use of stereotypes in AI is an idea promoted by Marvin Minsky and has some merit. Stereotypes and archetypes convey so much more information than we realise, they are a powerful shorthand so used well, they enrich us, used badly, and stereotypes are deeply offensive and prejudiced.
Because Free Guy is fiction, the stereotypes, aka NPCs, are not just AI. They are artificial life, a term coined in the 1980s by theoretician Christopher Langton, to convey much more than thinking machines. The field of Artificial Life is about modelling the complexities of life, I am guessing, with the hope of finding the central organising principle which leads to amazing natural phenomena such as mumurations. It is a big idea along with cellula automata and what seems is the driving question: How do we/the universe make order out of disorder? Can it be done organically? This is not new. We have been obsessed with creating order out of chaos since time began. It is the need behind the Old Testament book of Leviticus which is a book of laws to guide us into order: Don’t eat this with that, don’t weave this cloth with that one.
Tantalisingly, Langton according to Wikipedia, abandoned the idea in the 1990s along with his position and his research and hasn’t been heard of since. Dun, dun, dunnnn, or perhaps not, I can’t find any more information, but I would be fascinated to know why, what happened, where is he and what he is doing nowadays.
Gaming and graphic novels
As a businessman, artificial life is not something Antwan cares about. He cares about money and wants to delete Guy because no one is buying the new violent game, Free City 2, they just want to watch Guy on Twitch and YouTube and be like him. Hilariously, Antwan calls Guy a bad influence, the little do-gooder so, he reboots the server and Guy.
However, he cannot delete the actual AI code as that is part of the game. So, Keys – the other designer of Life Itself who conveniently/geniusly works for Soonami Studios and has insight into what is going on, advises Milly to find Guy and set off his AI code once more. She does this by kidnapping Guy, blowing up a police car and kissing him in front of the obligatory fire in the background which satisfyingly looks like a still from a graphic novel or storyboard.
We are trained to recognise these classic scenes in the same that we know our stereotypes, and so it is very satisfying. In the same way, we recognise cameo voices and actors, and weapons from other films and games which Guy pulls out of nowhere during the climax fight scene. He is smart, he has the same cultural references as us and it is exhilarating, which is why we nod our heads in agreement when Mouser says: That’s dope.
Keys also conveniently helps the plot along Matrix style changing the physics of Free City so bridges and ramps appear out of nowhere to help Milly and Guy reach this lost world which makes for a spectacular climax in a race against time and we enjoy every second of the ride.
Semiotics and simulation
The magic of storytelling is that we will readily suspend our disbelief if it feels true to us, and according to semiotics, the only measurement of truth is how it makes us feel. If it resonates with us, then it has to be true. We believe the car chase and the buildings and ramps because it makes sense. It feels real. However the idea of what is real is explored beautifully in my favourite scene of the film just before we enter into the dramatic climax and obligatory car chase, albeit one with moving buildings.
Guy is suffering from existentialist angst after Milly shows him that he is an NPC and goes to his best friend Buddy to put to him the hypothesis: What if nothing is real? After some thought Buddy says: So what? Guy is baffled, but Buddy, whose is purpose is obviously to be a friend, asks the profound question: What is more real than the moment when one person helps another? Ain’t that the truth? There really is nothing more real and nothing deeper than connection, than friendship, than love.
Simulation Theory is the theory that we are all living in a computer simulation and that nothing is real. According to the link above, Elon Musk is a believer in this too, but he is doing well for himself so he’s obviously got the cheat codes to this particular game of life and good for him. But for the rest of us, perhaps it is useful to consider the question: What is real? Or in other words: What gives our lives meaning? Who are the people in our lives whom we treat – or perhaps, they treat us – as NPCs with no inner life or grand purpose?
At the end of the film, Milly, asks these questions too. As a feminist she realises that the validation she is seeking from the world doesn’t mean anything. It is her own validation she seeks. She is tired of playing other people’s games, she wants to play her own. This resonates with me, and I am sure, so many other women. Milly saves the world she has created from the outside by seemingly giving away all the things which would guarantee her external validation: royalties, money, and so on. But in actual fact, by giving that away, it comes back to her tenfold, as these things do in all the best stories.
Echoing this, Guy saves Milly’s world from the inside by taking a leap of faith into the unknown and discovering paradise. He gets his friend back and they get to live in a better world in which they can do anything they want. He even has the wisdom to advise Milly that he is just a love letter to her and the real experience is waiting for her outside of his world.
If AI really worked, I would want it to be just like Guy and Buddy our favourite kind of AI. It would be good, smart, saving the day, and have a big heart. It would know what is important – what is real – in life, whilst influencing me and everyone else to show up as our best selves online. In this way, without even trying, this great AI would make our online world a paradise.
Until that day comes, I guess we’ll all just have to do that for ourselves, inspired by fiction.