Warning: this post contains utterly massive spoilers for the 2021 film Free Guy, the Ryan Reynolds vehicle in which a mild-mannered bank teller in a surreal and violent world finds out he’s a background character in a video game and decides to do something about it.

The actual central plot of the film is that the two actual main protagonists, Millie and Keys, are programmers who worked on a peaceful, delightful fishbowl video came called Life, Itself in which the AI characters would grow and evolve, creating new choices for themselves through merely existing and engaging with one another; the game was bought by a massive development firm headed by a vile man named Antwan, who immediately shelved it and tried to hire both of them for his next game, a violent first-person massively multiplayer game called Free City, a Grand Theft Auto clone the point of which was to live out your most violent, psychopathic, narcissistic fantasies. Keys accepted, Millie refused– and she then sued Antwan claiming that Free City’s interactions were being fueled by the Life, Itself encounter engine.

All of the scenes with Ryan Reynolds as “Guy,” the NPC, are basically to illustrate the inner world of NPCs as derived from Life, Itself and set him up as the final macguffin to solve Millie’s lawsuit. They’re CGI-heavy (being inside a video game, of course) and entertaining as hell, but they’re not really the point of the plot.

The best scene in the whole film, hands down, is the second-to-last scene of Act 2. As anyone who knows the standard beat sheet will tell you, this is the scene where the main characters figure out exactly what’s going on. By the end of this scene they don’t have a solution, but they’re determined to find it. (The last scene of Act 2 is known as the “Whiff of Death,” the moment when they believe they can’t find a solution and someone, in this case Guy, is going to die… until someone has a spark of inspiration that hurtles them all into Act 3.) This scene is shot entirely with hand cameras in the intimate space of Millie’s tiny apartment with no CGI and very little post-production at all. It’s the single most organic scene in the whole film.

I want to take this scene apart because I think it’s a masterclass in emotional register. Keith Johnstone wrote in the book Impro: Improvisation and the Theater, that good dialogue, even among allies, is about power: who has the high register to command the audience’s attention, and how dialogue can be used to raise, lower, or sieze that emotional register, and how that register can be used.

The scene before this one is called Midpoint in the beatsheet: Millie has just had a very heartfelt conversation with Guy, who she still believes is an actual human being behind the avatar, so she’s already an emotional wreck when Keys knocks on her door to open the scene beatsheets call Closing In:

KEYS, knocking loudly on Millie’s door: Millie, open up! Millie, it’s me, it’s Keys! Open up! Come on! Millie! It’s me, open up!

MILLIE: What?

KEYS (STORMING IN): You were right. You were right!

MILLIE: Oh, come on in.

KEYS: You were right. Our code, it is in Free City and, Millie, it works.

MILLIE: Yeah, I know. But we don’t have proof.

KEYS: Just forget about that for one second. I’m saying that our game, Life Itself, where characters would grow and change and feel real…

MILLIE: Yeah?

KEYS: …worked.

MILLIE: Keys.

KEYS: The AI worked. It’s the reason why Free City is so realistic and people love it so much. And of course it doesn’t look the same. There’s no waterfalls, there’s no butterflies and unicorns, all the characters have different skins. Of course they do. But the underlying code in the game is the same. Our code. And Guy, I mean, he has evolved way further than we thought was even possible.

MILLIE: Wait, are you talking about the hacker in the NPC skin?

KEYS: Millie, I’m talking about the fact that Blue Shirt Guy is not a player. He is an algorithm who thinks he’s alive. I mean, hell, technically, he is alive. He is the first real artificial intelligence.

MILLIE: (EXCLAIMS) No! No.

KEYS: I know.

MILLIE: No, no, no.

KEYS: Yeah, yeah.

MILLIE: Guy? My Guy?

KEYS: Guy.

MILLIE: One who has been…

KEYS: Your Guy?

MILLIE Holy…

KEYS: This is a good thing.

MILLIE: No, it’s really bad.

KEYS: Millie, his code, it’s thousands of times the size it should be. We did it, Mills. We did it. Everything that we wanted to create, it actually happened. Okay? Did you know that the NPCs have private lives? One of the baristas learned how to make a cappuccino through trial and error. I mean, that’s really difficult. I can’t even do that. I can’t even froth my own oat milk in the morning. And the Bombshell character in the game wrote a memoir that’s a searing indictment of gender roles, the patriarchy… It’s a little preachy in parts, but overall, it’s pretty good. Millie, we have to celebrate!

MILLIE: No, this can’t be happening.

KEYS: What are you talking about? This is what we’ve been working for!

MILLIE: No! I let him kiss me! … So … yeah.

So here, Keys has the high register. He’s on fire. He’s thrilled because everything he and Millie dreamed was possible with Life Itself is coming true. So he’s doing this kinda rant while Millie is slowly coming to the realization that Guy isn’t a person, he’s an AI. This part of the scene works because so well because it allows Keys to infodump to the audience in a wholly natural way and allows Keys to be charming and self-deprecating and the true computer geek that he is, that Millie once admired before he “sold out” to Antwan, and the audience can see that Keys is coming around to Millie’s point of view.

But Millie has just siezed the high register with that last line.

KEYS: (CHUCKLES) I’m sorry, wait, you let who kiss you?

MILLIE: Guy.

KEYS (GESTURES TOWARD MILLIE’S COMPUTER): Guy?

MILLIE: The first time I kiss a non-toxic guy in like forever and of course he’s not even real!

KEYS: Uh, there’s not a button for that.

MILLIE: Oh, he found the button.

KEYS: O… kaaaaay.

MILLIE: Yeah.

So Millie is still holding the high register, but it’s an uncomfortable register for her, she’s not used to being this emotional, especially not after her talk with Guy. In an earlier confrontation over his selling out, both Keys and Millie were bitchy and cold to each other. It happened in Key’s apartment, which is much larger than Millie’s because he has a well-paid job, but it’s black and white, empty and devoid of life. It’s more like a high-end furniture display of what a bachelor’s apartment should be. This scene happens, as I said, in Millie’s apartment, which is small and intimate, and the camera is swooping and following them around as they dance around this conversation.

Also, the “button” there is obviously a sex joke (“button” being a euphemism for the clitoris), and Keys recognizes it as such, which puts such a blush on his face because they were “just friends” back when developing Life, Itself, and Millie never talked like that before.

KEYS: I am… I’m so confused. And surprisingly curious. (CHUCKLES) You let an artificially intelligent video game character kiss you?

MILLIE: Oh, okay, can you just stop saying it like that?

KEYS: And then you thought that would be…

MILLIE: Because you have got to meet him, Keys. He’s funny, and he’s sweet, and he’s so handsome. Oh, my God, now I’m saying it out loud.

KEYS: Also, Millie, food for thought, he’s like… four. (BOTH CHUCKLING)

MILLIE: Really? You’re gonna do that?

KEYS: Really.

MILLIE: Wow, you just made that really creepy. (BOTH LAUGHING)

And here, they even out the emotional register. Both have told their Truths, opened their hearts about what’s going on, and Keys has found a way to “even the score” with respect to the sexual tension of the “button” comment. In David Mamet’s memorable formulation, these characters have shown up in this scene to get their problems resolved, but their plan for doing so will fail, and then in classic scene-and-sequel, they decide what to do next, now on an even keel:

KEYS: Millie, put all that aside. Weird or not, when people find out about this, you could win a Nobel Prize. Oh, God. Oh, my God, if they see this…

MILLIE: What? What is it?

KEYS: Antwan. What else? He’s lying. He lied about using our code, he’s been lying about the game being backwards compatible. I think he’s lying about Free City 1.

MILLIE: What are you talking about?

KEYS: Look. You see? There’s not one mission, not one location… I mean, there’s not even a single character from Free City 1 on here. Free City 2 is not an update…

MILLE: It’s a replacement. So when Free City 2 launches on Monday…

KEYS: Blue Shirt Guy, all proof of our code, everything will be deleted.

MILLIE: He can’t do that. I mean, this is artificial life we’re dealing with. I mean, that’s insane. We’re screwed.

KEYS: Maybe not. If we can find our original build in the game, it’ll prove that Antwan used our code without properly licensing it. And we just have to find it before Free City 2 launches. We have 48 hours.

And there’s the deadline, firmly established, just long enough for two more encounters with Guy. And the follow-up to this is Millie finding out that Antwan has reset Guy’s “new” programming and put him back to his old behavior loop, wiping out his evolution. That’s the “whiff of death” (Guy, her Guy, was dead), but Keys then offers a way to bring him back (which, by the way, also plants a Checkhovian gun in the audience’s mind about just how nasty Antwan’s gonna get when he learns about this), which is the opening of Act III, the final confrontation, which is all big CGI whizbang stuff with a heartwarming ending, of course.

But you can see here how both characters have Truths that must come out, and they must control the scene long enough, with enough emotional force, for it to ring true for the audience. And the writers did a masterful job of doing that, pitching it around these two enthusiastic, desperate young people (there is more than a bit of Bildungsroman in their story), and the director’s choice of setting and camera work add so much to those choices.

I was listening to NPR yesterday and there was this guy debunking the whole UFO thing, and at one point he starts going into the whole nature of what intersteller travel entails. He says, “Look, we’ve been over this. There really is a speed limit to the universe. My degree was in physics and I worked on atom smashers, where we accelerate particles to very close to the speed of light. Our best day, we reached 99.999954% of the speed of light. And you could put twice as much energy into accelerating those particles and they would just go a tiny bit faster, but they wouldn’t go past the limit. So no matter what, it would take a minimum of four years to get from the nearest star to here, and there’s all sorts of limits on accelerating to that speed and decelerating enough to visit our solar system in any meaningful way. So it would take a long time. Aliens who want to travel between stars would have to be very patient.”

It was the word ‘patient’ that perked my interest because, here’s the thing: patience is an emotion.

Impatience is human restlessness. In the 1920s, this was identified as “The Permanent Problem:” regardless of your bent about evolutionary psychology, human beings in the aggregate have three fundamental drives: how do I get enough food, how do I form a community for mutual support in acquiring food and shelter and survival, and how do I find a mate to help both of those into the future? (It was called “The permanent problem” because the food thing was being solved– there really are enough calories for everyone– so what does humanity do now?)

That’s built in. There are many and wide deviations from those, which is how we get eating disorders and psychopaths and, yes, homosexuality. Some of those are morally neutral and require communal acceptance, some are personally harmful and require intervention, and some require stricter controls.

Evolution is constantly emitting new variants of the human platform, some of which are useful, and some are not. The “nots” get exapted out. And along the way we’ve developed a far more vast and complicated collection of responses to the world around us, even creating a world inside ourselves where we think about how the world works and how other people might react to our ideas, and we call this world “consciousness.”

Patience is the ability to hold on and wait while all that restlessness is poking at us, because human beings are complicated creatures who can think into the future and realize that patience has a payoff.

There’s every reason to think that aliens, especially aliens capable of crossing the vast gulfs of space, with all the biological, physical, cybernetic and even cognitive hardening that might entail, would come with a different set of emotions, a different emotional framework.

In a lot of the science fiction I write, the good parts cribbed from Greg Egan and his early short stories like “Tap” and “Jewel,” human beings have developed the ability and knowledge to reach into their own minds and twiddle with some of the knobs. One of the most commonplace adaptations is called the Canon. The Canon is basically a nightly reset. It’s an emotional Groundhog Day. You wake up every morning with all the memories of the day before, but your emotional state can only be affected by it so far; there’s a range outside of which the Canon will not let your feelings go. The most common use for a Canon is between lovers who want limerance, the sensation of being madly in love, to never fade away between the two of them.

There’s no reason to think that a species capable of interstellar travel couldn’t have that same ability, and make “patience” a moot point in their emotional frameworks as they maintain their vessels and pilot between the stars.

(Warning: big spoilers for the movie Free Guy )

In the Journal Entries, one of the biggest conversations is about robots and something called Purpose, a term I was using long before The Matrix Reloaded came out. In my space opera, robots are smarter, faster, even wiser, but they’re not out to kill all of us because they’re not like us. One conceit is that every robot is initialized with a Purpose, a reason for being. They don’t have reproductive urges; they don’t have acquisitional restlessness like humans. Most standalone robots are purposed to one other person, to help that person be “the best version of yourself you can be.” Most larger AIs do something similar on planetary scales. They don’t paperclip because they don’t want to; they’re built from the beginning to like mere organic us.

I watched the movie Free Guy, the Ryan Reynolds vehicle in which he plays an NPC in a video game who discovers he’s an NPC. And while for those not paying attention it’s a lovely roller coaster of eye candy, but philosophically it’s a deep, deep pool.

Spoilers from here on, so beware.

The story is about two twenty-something programmers who wanted to build a fun little game. They came up with a brilliant new form of AI for NPC interaction, wrote a rough draft, and sold out to an investor (“Antoine”) who shelved their little game, “Life Itself.” One of those kid programmers, a young man named Keys, went to work for the investor; the other is Millie, a young woman suing the investor, claiming that his Grand-Theft-Auto-on-steriods all-the-violence all-the-time MMORPG is using a crippled form of their AI and she wants her royalties. Keys and Millie were friends before the split; now they’re separated by their choices.

The evidence for this theft is somewhere in the game itself. Millie goes into the game regularly. One day she passes an NPC named Guy, who becomes enamored of her and starts to deviate wildly from his daily behavioral loop of programming: wake up, go the bank, endure a loop of robberies, and go home again. The PCs in “Free City” wear sunglasses to indicate when they’re using their heads-up displays, and Guy decides to steal a pair. He confronts Millie, who tells him that his Level 1 Noobness is uninteresing, but his unwillingness to hurt anyone seems like an interesting challenge. “Come talk to me when you reach 100.”

Enchanted with Millie, he proceeds to become a true hero. In a very Groundhog Day montage he proceeds to master the game’s equivalent of Aikido, never directly hurting PCs but instead wu weis their own vices against them to incapacitate them as he rescues his fellow NPCs, earn XP, and level up. He dies a lot but always wakes up the next day in his apartment, and that’s a very important point I’ll address later. Along the way, he develops a significant following, first from gamers, vloggers, but eventually as a full fledged media sensation.

Keys at first thinks this is some PC hacker, but he finds the NPC’s avatar and examines his underlying code tree of some 50 or so decision points and finds it has grown to thousands of decisions. Millie, meanwhile, has started to hang out with Guy in-game and fallen a bit in love with him.

The scene where Keys and Millie meet and reveal these bits of information to each other is absolutely the best moment in the film.

But there’s a problem. They have only a tantalizing image showing that Millie’s original code is anywhere in the running game, and Antoine is about to erase it all to launch a new game without that AI. Worse, Antoine has found a way to reset Guy so he no longer remembers his levels or his heroic phase. He’s just a bank teller again.

Keys is aghast because he believes Guy is alive, and I have to agree with him. Guy’s subtlety and decision-making capabilities are approaching human-level, he’s inspiring other NPCs to become more subtle (“The barista wrote a manifesto denouncing the patriarchy. It’s a little weird in places, but mostly it’s spot on!”) and Keys knows it. Shutting down the system would be murder.

Millie’s reaction is personal. “Oh, my god, the first non-toxic guy I meet and he’s an NPC.” But then, how do they get his memory back? Keys goes back to the office and sees that the reset just pointed Guy’s “behavior track” to the old loop, but all the stuff he learned is still there. In a video he records and send Millie, he says, “See, I created this persona for Life Itself named ‘lovelorn,’ and he’s a guy who dreams of a girl he’ll never meet, but who he knows deep inside. And who better to base him off than… you? The woman I sat next to every day while we coded. That was Guy. And then you went into the Antoine’s game and hummed your favorite song and had your favorite coffee and he recognized you. You’re what brought him to life. I think you can do it again.” Millie goes into the game, kidnaps Guy, and in a glorious scene kisses him.

I always cry at AI instantiations.

Guy reveals that he knows where that tantalizing image was shot. In his own apartment, he reveals that while the ocean is just bare, boring blue, in the reflection on his blinds the island Life Itself can be seen, just beyond the “collision mesh” that stops players from straying beyond the defined geography of the game. “He hid the island, but forgot about its reflections!”

The final crisis happens, and it’s well-written but typical for this genre of movie. There are some hilarious moments.

But it’s after the crisis is over that something important happens. Millie meets Guy, rebooted into their restarted version of Life, Itself (along with a lot of the NPCs from Free City who are now evolving and free to be themselves). Guy and Millie have a conversation.

But Millie can’t start it. So Guy says:

Then let me do it for you.

Guy, you are dreamy. Your taste in blue shirts and five-octave musical superstars… it’s deeply, deeply attractive to me. But I can’t keep spending all my time with you. I created this world, but I can’t live my life in it. See? Was that so hard? In here, I can do anything I want. Thanks to you. I’m not stuck in a loop anymore. Neither are you. I love you, Millie. Maybe that is my programming talking, but guess what? Someone wrote that program. I’m just a love letter to you. Somewhere out there is the author.

Needless to say, she runs out of the game and goes to find Keys, who had left to go pick up some coffee… including her order, which he had memorized so many years ago.

And this is pretty much where I broke down bawling, because that was perfect.

Guy has purpose. His purpose is to see the love of his life find the love of her life. That’s it. After Millie awakened him, his whole purpose was to give Millie the justice and the love she deserved. He isn’t a human being; he can be killed over and over, knowing full well that he’ll wake up in bed the next day, undamaged in body and hopefully wiser in spirit. His purpose after that is to nuture Life Itself into being a successful game, a successful universe in its own right, without hurting Millie or the world she inhabits.

And Guy can deliver that speech because he can, like human beings, model Millie’s mind in his own, can make guesses, even superhumanly well-informed guesses, about what is in Millie’s self-professed best interests, and advise her.

Guy is conscious, sentient, even alive. But his moral core is different from ours. It doesn’t come from our messy evolutionary quest to find enough calories every day, find a community to support that quest, and find a made to get both themselves and their community into the future, and all the violent restlessness that comes with it. Guy’s speech validates every goddamn thing I’ve been trying to write in The Journal Entries, and does so in such an elegantly perfect way, I don’t know where to go from here.

Except write some more.

I loved Olivia Waite’s first book in her Feminine Pursuits series, The Lady’s Guide To Celestial Mechanics, so I was delighted to see that her second book, The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows, was out, and I bought it immediately. And it sat in my to-read pile for months.

I wish I hadn’t waited, because it really is as fun, sexy, and lovely as the first book. Agatha is a publisher in mid-19th century London. Widowed for a few years now, she does well enough, but her almost-adult son is a trial and the political moods swirling about London make her nervous– even as she publishes story and does her own woodcuts of hanging, street riots, and speeches. Penelope is a beekeeper in the small community of Melliton a few miles outside of London who has become embroiled in a bit of an estate battle between a famous (woman, that’s relevant) poet and the Lady Viscount Summerville. The poet was the friend of Lady Viscount’s nearest relative, and some say the poet and Lady Abington were lovers. Penelope was Lady Abington’s beekeeper, and in her will she’s charged with keeping the hives healthy and alive.

Agatha has a large printing press in a warehouse on the edge of Melliton, and one day her senior printer sends her word that he can’t get to the archived stories she wants “because the room with those plates is full of bees.” Agatha goes out to the warehouse, hires Penelope, and from there on the lightning crackles delightfully. There’s a gorgeous epistolary chapter after Penelope rescues the bees but leaves them in an apiary within the property’s stone fence, as Penelope writes to tell her how the bees are doing, and Agatha writes back, and the details grow more and more intimate and the letters get longer and longer.

Most of the tensions in the book are external; a royal scandal rocks London, while Melliton is equally rocked by questions of stolen jewelry, vandalized beehives, and missing (and extremely salacious!) statues, all Lady Abington’s, and non the Viscountess’s to deal. Agatha is working to keep her son out of jail, Penelope is protecting the poet and trying to honor her late lover’s will, and things just keep forcing Penelope and Agatha to work together to solve those problems.

It’s lovingly plotted and charmingly written, and the next book is already on my e-reader.

You know how you go into a used bookstore, and there’s a rack of $1 books toward the front that are the sad overflows that not even a used bookstores wants to keep anymore, and if you don’t take any of these home the bookstore people are going to send them to the woodchipper and turn them into toilet paper? Yeah, that rack.

That’s where I found Megan Hart’s The Space Between Us. It seems to be a romance; that’s what the cover says, and Goodreads says Hart writes “non-traditional romance.”

Hoo boy, does she ever.

Because this is a book about a threesome. Tesla is a bisexual girl working a coffee shop. Meredith is one of her customers. Meredith has charisma; she can charm anyone into opening up and telling her their wildest, most intimate and detailed stories. And Meredith uses that talent to get under Tesla’s skin and seduce Tesla… her Meredith, and for Meredith’s husband, Charlie.

This isn’t really a romance, though. No, it’s a character study about two different women, Meredith and Tesla, and how they do or do not reveal who they are. It’s how Tesla has had a wild life and willing heart, but she really just wants to be ordinary and romantic. It’s how Meredith has a normal and boring life, but she collects people’s stories to be wild vicariously. With Tesla, though, she has a chance to be wild for real… and that’s when things go off sideways for all three.

Hart does an absolutely amazing job of revealing, step by step, who Tesla and Meredith are. Charlie’s a bit of a cipher, because he’s generally a “good guy” who’s not gonna complain if two beautiful women both want him, but he doesn’t know what to do when those two women stop getting along. But this isn’t classic romance mask & essence writing, because the point isn’t to show how right these characters are for each other, but how wrong.

It was a great read, and I picked up two of Hart’s books off that stand.

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