Free Guy gave me ALL the feels

Posted on | September 30, 2022

(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.

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