Opinion: Free Guy is a great watch – particularly for MMO fans

    
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APAB

I don’t wind up writing a whole lot of movie reviews. This isn’t because I don’t watch a lot of movies or don’t think about movies a lot, but just because, well… Massively Overpowered is an MMO site, and there’s not a whole lot of space for me to talk about movies on a regular basis. We also have a paucity of movies that are really MMO-adjacent, with the last one being the painfully bad Warcraft film, which was bad for a whole lot of reasons that I’m not going to get into here because I already spent two thousand words explaining it before and it’s just bad.

There are also no shortage of anime that take place in what is ostensibly a series of MMOs, and many of these series are also bad and show a distinct lack of understanding of the way in which MMOs work. If you need to be told that a popular anime with a title that rhymes with Board Part Online is bad, well, here’s your wake-up call. It’s bad, and it features a bad MMO that makes no sense.

And then we wind up getting something like Free Guy, which is a good movie featuring a good MMO that makes logical sense as an MMO and uses that game for interesting storytelling. So now I can spend another thousand words telling you why it’s good because sometimes my job is pretty fun.

If you’ve somehow missed the premise, it goes like this: Ryan Reynolds is Guy, a background NPC who works in a bank in a game called Free City. Guy and his fellow NPCs, including his best friend (a security guard NPC named Buddy played by Lil Rey Howery) do not realize they’re in a game. As far as they know, their world exists at the whims of what he refers to as the “sunglass people,” who will be immediately recognizable to gamers as acting like player characters – taking missions, causing chaos, blowing things up, walking around in insane cosmetics, and generally treating the world like their playground.

Which it is.

The one thing missing from Guy’s life is a romantic attachment, and a chance encounter with MolotovGirl (Jodie Comer), a high-level player, leads to him seeking her out. Through coincidence he winds up getting a pair of sunglasses, exposing the world around him as a game, and while he still doesn’t understand that he’s in a game MolotovGirl explains that he needs to level up in order to be on her level.

There is, of course, more going on here. MolotovGirl herself is more concerned with proving that Antawn (Taika Waititi), the douchey techbro in charge of Soonami Entertainment, publishers of Free City, has stolen the code she and current Soonami game master Walter “Keys” McKey (Joe Keery) had worked on. And you know, there’s the obvious question of how a programmed NPC is acting as a human being with a complete inner life and personal drives.

Bit Blizzard, isn't it.

A lesser film, of course, would not bother answering or acknowledging those questions; the interesting part would just be that Guy is just like that. But the film actually manages to provide an answer to that question that both works within the logic of the film and creates a sense of real stakes for what is happening in Free City and why the game has become so popular.

This is actually part of the watchword of the film. It would have been enough to have Ryan Reynolds do his “super handsome guy with a snarky sense of humor” routine for two hours alongside Jodie Comer, and the two have a natural chemistry in their interactions that makes both the action and quieter personal scenes work. But what’s actually going on for most of the film is a more subtle examination of how and why we play games and how we treat what we see as background elements.

Particular praise has to go to Comer, who has to play a deceptively difficult role here as she is simultaneously playing MolotovGirl and her player at the same time, the fairly nerdy and introverted Millie Rusk. It’s a bit like having her simultaneously play Lara Croft and Jemma Simmons (by way of Jennifer Love Hewitt), and it’s to her credit that she feels contiguous. MolotovGirl does feel exactly like the kind of character this player would make, and she manages the slow opening of her real self past the bravado of the game making her feel like, well… a player opening up to another player.

And Free City feels like exactly the sort of game that yes, players would flock to. It’s a game that’s Grand Theft Auto Online with a slice of Fortnite and dashes of more sprinkled here and there; you’ve got player housing, customization, a streaming culture, an understandable gameplay loop, and a comprehensible set of rewards, risks, and appeals. As an MMO, it looks like a fun thing to play. Nor does the game ever try to make you feel bad about the fact that this looks fun; rather, it asks a question about why this is the only way to have fun.

See, Guy’s whole thing is that he wants to level up, but he doesn’t want to hurt innocent people. So he essentially starts taking advantage of the game’s systems and being the “good guy.” He foils robberies. He takes guns away from players. He stops carjackings. He displays an emergent gameplay system simply by deciding that his desire is to not be a murdering psycho.

All right, so these houses aren't well-decorated.

You may notice that this is an actual debate we actually have on this site, and that most of our writers have noted repeatedly that MMOs can be more than simply murder simulators; that games are better when they provide the opportunity to have long-term engagement beyond just smacking things. This is actually a central theme of the film. It gives the characters and the setting nuance, that while it realizes there’s no actual harm being done to the NPCs (they just respawn after a while), maybe there’s something to be said about the fact that some folks go out of their way to exploit them.

Again, it would have been enough to simply not answer or even acknowledge these questions. But in the midst of all of the movie’s action-comedy antics, it manages to sneak in some genuine MMO discussion and food for thought alongside discussions of how we treat those weaker than us, the nature of sentience and personhood, the limits of reality, and the possessive nature of techbro elitism.

Yes, really.

The film isn’t flawless, to be sure. There are a couple of contrived plot points that made me sit up and say “wait, that isn’t how things would happen” when the movie had generally played very consistent with the rules of its settings and how interactions worked (especially when MolotovGirl solves the third-act twist by doing something that makes emotional sense but not logical sense). The big fight at the end features maybe one cute reference too many; just pick one and that’s the one. And the film does rely perhaps a little too much on Reynolds and Comer being fun and charming enough to carry the scrip through weaker areas.

Also, it does bear mentioning that this is a theatrical-only release, so while I assume that all of our readers are smart and are being vaccinated when they are able, there is the real consideration of personal risk and the ongoing pandemic to be taken into account. Take from that what you will.

But in terms of the film actually on screen? Free Guy is a fun, heartfelt, charming, and keenly funny romp that’s going to be a pleasure to watch for nearly anyone but of particular enjoyment to MMO fans who can pick out all of the way the film lovingly touches on familiar elements of our shared genre. Now I actually want to play Free City, too. It looks like a fun ride.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.
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SmiteDoctor

Let me know when I can stream it.

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angrakhan

There’s a few plot holes, but I thought it was a really good movie especially for being a video game movie. It actually has plot happening on multiple levels which is a lot more sophisticated than the typical video game movie.

You do have to come into the movie with a large dose of suspension of disbelief if you’re techie at all due to the premise that self aware AI is invented not in a lab full of quantum computers with code written by a team of PhDs with decades of research into AI, but by a couple of kids building a video game on PCs in an underfunded indy game effort. Let’s just call that unlikely in the extreme.

If you can get past that it’s very entertaining. It’s my favorite movie of the year so far. Granted the bar isn’t super high.

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Jet Force

It was ok. Like RP1 but with maybe some worse third act problems.
However, I didn’t get any MMO vibes. More like GTA online vibes. I’m not sure the producers knew online gaming exists outside Fortnite and GTAO.

EmberStar
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EmberStar

This site tends to use “MMO” to refer to any online game where a large number of people can play the same game at the same time. IE, the people doing the editing and writing the articles consider Fortnite and GTA Online to *be* “MMOs.” Which are distinct from “MMORPGs” which are games like Everquest or Black Desert Online.

Spoiler

And the “secret level” that they’re eventually trying to get to seems to be a single-shard persistent game world, where all players who log in share the same social area. Like “Book of Travels” or “Meadow,” but with no instancing to split up the players. But it’s still not a classic MMORPG, because that version of the game seems to lose most of the combat aspects. Or at least that’s how it felt to me – it wasn’t really important to the story so no one really went into detail explaining it.

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Jet Force

Yea, that was the ending, not the movie. Remember “Not So Massively?” — This site uses the term “MMO” inclusively only because of the waning market and they sometimes get content deals from “not so massive” games. What are they, gonna pass up the money to write an article for Overwatch just because it’s not an MMO?

There was a time where the MMO nature of a lot of smaller-server-based multiplayer were debated for coverage or not. I get how it all played out. I just hope were not going to extend to movie coverage as well.

EmberStar
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EmberStar

Given that there’s only a tiny number of video game movies that get made, how few of those cover anything like a multiplayer adjacent IP, and how rare it is for them to be anything but unwatchable garbage… that doesn’t seem like a huge problem.

In terms of “MMO adjacent” movies, there’s been… what, “World of Warcraft,” where the whole summary would basically be “it was badly edited and made no sense.” “Free Guy,” which isn’t based on anything specific but is a game movie, and… maybe “Detective Pikachu?” If you really, really want to stretch for it because Pokemon Go exists? I suppose we can throw in a mention for “Monster Hunter” (it was bad) and “Sonic” (it was… okay?) and “Wreck it Ralph.” (I liked it, I know someone who hates it deeply.)

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Jet Force

If you want MMO style content I think you have to go the anime root at this point. KonaSuba/.HACK/IIWTPUGIAD/Sword Art/Log Horizon/Zero — I think we’ll get more of this in the West, it’s just going to be slow to adopt.

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Sleepy

Oooh, this reminds me to recommend Iain M. Banks’ Surface Detail to anyone who’ll listen. His second-last Culture novel and some really interesting themes about digital existence going on in it.

rafael12104
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rafael12104

Didn’t read this article. I intend too, but I want to see the movie first. Looking forward to it!!

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Anthony Clark

I really want to see this movie.

Since there’s no way to know who is vaccinated or not, I’m just going to wait for a streaming option.

I like streaming better anyway, I get to have my own bathroom. =)

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Bryan Correll

Hell, with streaming you can even watch while in the bathroom!

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Hikari Kenzaki

To be fair, if you pick the right theatre… the theatre I was in had two other people in it and they were together.

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Anthony Clark

That’a all well and good, but I still like having my bathrooom.

And my snacks are cheaper too. I’ve already bought them.

Plus I can pause whenevr I want too. That way I don’t have to miss anything.

To each their own, but for me theatres are just a no now that I don’t have to.

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Jet Force

I have to agree. Not sure why anything beside maybe small, art-cinema, theatres exist anymore. In fact, this article feels a bit like integrated advertising.

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Freddyy

I’ve been quite stocked for this movie, till I saw an interview with Reynolds. He was asked if he had any video games at home and the answer was straight-up NO. The same was true for his female co-star. This realization, that he is a Non-Gamer, cooled my interest for this film significantly. Guess I’ll just wait till it comes to Disney+ (without any additional cost) and maybe then I’ll watch it… just maybe…

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Hikari Kenzaki

To be fair, as someone who has seen the movie, writers write, directors direct, and actors do what the writers and directors tell them to.
The people who made the movie clearly like video games and Ryan Reynolds knows how to make anything work.
It’s actually one of the better movies with a video game setting.

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Freddyy

Thank you, Hikari, for putting this into perspective. I might’ve been a bit too critical/dramatic/orwhatever. Or maybe I’m just spoiled by the likes of Henry Cavill…

Karma_Mule
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Karma_Mule

Ah Henry Cavill: hardcore gamer AND matinee movie idol. What’s not to love? :)

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Jet Force

Superman. superman was bad. But that’s not his fault. Witcher was excellent.

EmberStar
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EmberStar

It’s not really necessary for him to like or own video games. His job is to turn words in a script into a believable (or at least likeable or memorable) character on-screen. This attitude kind of baffles me – it feels like saying Harrison Ford can’t possibly be good as Han Solo because he’s not really a smuggler, or Indiana Jones because he’s neither an archeologist nor an adventurer.

You know another actor who (as far as I know) doesn’t like games much? Jennifer Hale. Voice of Commander Shepard, and Rivet from the new “Ratchet and Clank” and also what feels like a quarter of the major female characters in video games at this point. Whether it’s true that she’s not a fan of games or not, it really *doesn’t matter.* Her job and her skillset is doing voiceovers for what are essentially animated characters. She’s done so for TV animation for years (Alex from Totally Spies and the lead singer of the Hex Girls rock band that showed up in Scooby Doo are the two that stand out, but she’s apparently played many, many characters.)

In contrast, an actor who LIKES video games? Vin Diesel. Who is very good at being Vin Diesel, and has even made a couple of movies I like. He’s so good at it that Wildcard apparently re-wrote one of the characters in the (extremely bare-bones) storyline to basically be “Vin Diesel, except he can invent super-science robots.” And he’s such a fan of the game that they basically hired him to be “Director in Charge of Being Vin Diesel.” (I’m slightly mocking, that’s not the actual title – it just *feels* to me like that’s basically what they hired him for.)

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Freddyy

Woah! Easy! was all this really necessary ? I just expressed my feelings about a little fact I just found out…

Also, if you excuse me being a little picky here, I haven’t said Reynolds shouldn’t portray a NPC because he is not a NPC in real life. ^^

EmberStar
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EmberStar

I make “wall of text” posts because I assume I’m usually talking to myself, and that’s what happens when I start typing. I’m normally quite bad at “just a tweet” short posts. (Not that the long ones are actually any good, I just seem to throw a lot of words around.)

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Bryan Correll

Martin Scorsese didn’t want to make Raging Bull because he had no interest in boxing (or any other sport for that matter.) It took a low point in both his career and personal life, plus lobbying from Robert De Niro, to get him to agree to direct it. The movie is often considered the best sports movie ever made, and there are a hell of a lot more of those than there are video game movies.

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Jet Force

As Dan Harmon once said; there is no right or wrong thing to make a movie or show about. To quote Eric Clapton; “It’s in the way that you use it.”

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Jet Force

You should maybe worry more about writers/directors than actors. Actors can bring a scene to life, but they rarely alter the content of the film.

That being said, no, not a lot was known about gaming outside of GTA and fortnite judging by the references this movie made.

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Utakata

You know, I thought this was a side shtick for another Deadpool movie. Had no idea it was it’s own thing. o.O

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Ardra Diva

the entire movie universe screams for a “buddy cop” movie with Ryan Reynolds and Chris Pratt. Solid gold.

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Narficus

I agree, this has much potential and work a lot better than R.I.P.D. (which I still enjoyed).

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Hikari Kenzaki

Went to the theatre to watch it. I’d planned to do so today, but this article definitely reminded me to do so.

It’s pretty damn good. You can tell it’s made by and for people who actually like video games. It’s not like Pixels or Big Bang Theory where the show spends 90% of the time laughing at gamers and nerds and trying to make the viewer either feel superior or smart by proxy. The gamers for the most part are there and they’re just regular people.

There are lots of references, cameos, and easter eggs and I’m sure when you see the movie, you’ll know the one too many references that crossed the line at the end, but it did make me chuckle.

There are a few “That’s not how computers work” moments, but for the most part, it’s plausible enough.

EmberStar
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EmberStar

They did way better at it than say… most any TV show script. Such as the one crime procedural show where one of the characters exclaims “Oh, I’ve heard of you! You have the high score in every MMO on the Internet!” And where the two “computer nerd” characters have “hacked” things working side by side on the same keyboard like they’re playing a duet on a piano. (More than once. OnO ) And again, where the other characters mock at least one of them for *being* the nerd who knows about computer games instead of having a *real* hobby, like building a boat in a basement with no way to get it out, or memorizing (apparently often slightly incorrect) movie trivia.

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Hikari Kenzaki

Most shows that feature a ‘gamer’ are pandering to their non-gamer audience by writing things that sound right in the stereotypes they’ve crafted. BBT takes it a step further by making an unending string of low-hanging fruit jokes that make the viewer feel smarter than they are.