- Vision: Self-aware non-player characters
- Type: Popular culture – Film
- As Seen In: Free Guy
- Envisioned: 2021
- Visionaries: Shawn Levy (director), Matt Lieberman, Zak Penn (writers)
- Target Date: Present day
SPOILER WARNING! PROCEED WITH CAUTION IF YOU’RE YET TO WATCH THE FILM
It’s become a Hollywood cliché that movies based on videogames are rubbish – and struggle to recapture the magic of the source material. Rather than making a mess of a beloved property, however, Free Guy came up with an ingenious solution to a long-standing problem: it created its own bespoke IP.
Set inside fictional open-world actioner Free City – a game which borrows liberally from Grand Theft Auto, Fortnite and more – the movie tells the story of an ordinary Non-Player Character (NPC) who suddenly becomes self-aware. Guy (Ryan Reynolds) is just an anonymous virtual bank teller until a chance encounter with human player Molotov Girl (aka Millie Rusk, played by Jodie Comer) sets him on the path to self-awareness. No longer satisfied with every day being identical to the last – the same blue shirt, the same medium coffee with cream and two sugars – he sets out on a mission to level himself up until he reaches the status of the players from the outside world. Most impressively of all, he does it with a strict policy of being nice to everyone – an unconventional approach in Free City, where violence tends to rule.
Out in the real world, Free City developer Soonami Games – led by its egotistical figurehead Antwan Hovachelik (Taika Waititi) – becomes obsessed with working out the identity of the so-called ‘Blue Shirt Guy’ who’s become a major “glitch” in their system. But as videogame bloggers and fans around the world start to suspect, there’s more to Guy than initially meets the eye…
- Hardware: Free City can seemingly be played on any personal computer with an internet connection. We’re guessing there’s console versions, too.
- The world of Free City can be viewed on a standard laptop display – there’s no need for any fancy peripherals.
- Company: Free City is published by Soonami Games, which is under the control of despotic CEO Antwan Hovachelik. There is a question of ownership, however, after Antwan acquired Life Itself – an “observational experience” game where characters interact and evolve – from indie developers Millie Rusk and Walter ‘Keys’ McKey (Joe Keery). Antwan shelved Life Itself and secretly incorporated some of the game’s sophisticated architecture into Free City. Millie has a lawsuit pending.
- Economics: The original Free City is a commercial behemoth and one of the biggest games on the planet. Sequel Free City 2: Carnage – which promises to be “Bigger! Badder! Radder!”, and whose pre-orders are accompanied by a bonus Mayhem pack – is eagerly anticipated. If only the world knew that Antwan is about to go back on his promise to make the new game backwards compatible…
- It’s not entirely clear from the film how Free City is monetised – but Soonami is clearly very successful at doing so.
- Experience: Players login to the game via their device of choice.
- Their avatars can be stylised versions of themselves, or someone – or something – else entirely.
- Free City is set across the backdrop of a generic American town – albeit one where futuristic tanks and people in rocket packs are regularly sighted. (The NPCs see this state of affairs as entirely normal.)
- Players can pick up and spend in-game dollars, and repair any damage with health packs littered across the playing field.
- Players view the world through a head-up display (HUD) that reveals information including the location of health packs and currency, and the identity/energy levels of other players.
- In the game, this HUD is seen as a pair of sunglasses – the NPCs view players as “sunglasses people”.
- Guy, an ordinary bank teller NPC, has an epiphany when he walks past Molotov Girl – the woman of his dreams – in the street. He’s instantly taken out by a train, but when he respawns he starts on a journey of reinvention.
- It turns out that seeing Molotov Girl/Millie and hearing her singing Mariah Carey’s ‘Fantasy’ were triggers, because Keys had written both into the code for Life Itself. Because Free City used elements of Life Itself in its construction, the game’s AI engine gave Guy the capacity to evolve and become self-aware.
- Guy’s abilities in the game rapidly surpass those of most human players.
- IP: Weapons from other franchises can be used in the game. There is seemingly a preference for IP that belongs to the Walt Disney Company, the studio behind Free Guy – hence the presence of Captain America’s shield and a lightsaber.
- Mariah Carey’s 1995 hit ‘Fantasy’ also pops up regularly on the soundtrack.
State of Play (November 2021)
- Hardware: The open world games that inspired Free City tend to be available across multiple platforms – from desktop computers and consoles to mobile devices. After all, the more places consumers can play, the greater the potential revenues.
- Economics: There are two main models for monetising games:
- The paid-for premium model requires users to make an upfront payment before they can play.
- The ‘freemium’ model, meanwhile, allows players to join the game for free – but once they’re in, in-app purchases are often required to gain access to new content or character skins. In Fortnite, for example, players can spend real money buying ‘V-Bucks’, a virtual currency they can spend in the game.
- IP: Games can be a melting pot of characters from popular franchises. In Fortnite, officially licensed skins include characters from Star Wars, Marvel, DC Comics, Alien, The Walking Dead and Stranger Things, as well as real-life sports stars.
- The metaverse-like properties of games can also be exploited to promote other franchises. Ahead of the 2019 release of Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker, the returning Emperor Palpatine made a ‘broadcast’ inside Fortnite. This ‘event’ was referenced in the movie’s opening crawl.
- Experience: Real-life games are so immersive that players can happily spend hours at a time in their worlds.
- The open-world, exploration side of the games enables every player to get a slightly different experience, based on their personal preferences.
- While the AI technology controlling NPCs is getting more sophisticated all the time, making their behaviour more and more realistic as they respond to a player’s actions, it’s just clever programming. The days of self-aware videogame characters that interact with players as equals are still some way off.
Reality check: A realistic gameplay experience but the self-awareness will have to wait
Free Guy puts plenty of effort into creating a convincing imitation of a popular open-world videogame – and has lots of fun with the premise of an NPC becoming self-aware. But although the virtual backdrop has plenty of familiar elements – from the in-game currency to the life-restoring health packs – the AI elements of the story are (for now, at least) pure fantasy. The clue was in the Mariah Carey song all along…