What Free Guy and “shifters” on TikTok have in common

Free Guy is a just-released comedy starring Ryan Reynolds, Jodie Comer (Villanelle from Killing Eve), and Joe Keery (Steve from Stranger Things) — among other famous faces like Taika Waititi, a number of well-known YouTube gamers, and, briefly, Tina Fey’s body.

The premise of the film is that Guy (Ryan Reynolds) is a joe-schmo banker in a place called “Free City,” where stabbings, bank robberies, and senseless violence are so routine they happen like clockwork. Guy meets a girl (Comer) and falls head-over-heels — this triggers a chain of events which cause Guy to become aware that he is, essentially, an NPC in his world. With this knowledge, Guy decides he should start taking his life into his own hands — become a “player” in his game-ified world.

We the viewer come to understand that Guy’s autonomy is a result of highly complex coding that essentially enables him to develop AI, once triggered. Though Guy is aware of his NPC status from early on in the film, he does not initially understand that the entire world he lives in is a shooter-style video game, where players in the “real world” come and go as they please. When Guy learns this, he is thrown into an existential crisis. What is he, what is his world, if there is some other Real World and the one he lives in is invented?

In our Real World, the “simulation hypothesis” suggests that our reality, our lives on Earth, our entire universe, is an artificial simulation created by a more advanced species in another world. Though a highly critiqued theory, the simulation hypothesis speaks to the innate human fear that there may be no greater meaning to our lives, that we are purposeless creatures adrift in a world that seems ever-more violent. Free Guy speaks to this theory and to this human fear. Behind all of the millennial gamer references (teabagging, pwning, the literal presence of famous YouTubers…) is a very relevant and poignant message about how many of us are feeling about the world around us.

Now, to TikTok. There is a TikTok trend — highly popular among teens and young adults — called “shifting” which I think connects quite strongly to the above conversation. To “shift” means to literally move one’s consciousness to another reality. Many teens choose the world of Harry Potter — they make TikToks claiming to have lived anywhere from a day to years in the world of Harry Potter. (Somehow, despite the fact that the Harry Potter series was set in the late 90s/early 2000s, most of these “shifters” claim to be at Hogwarts at the same time as Harry and friends. To which I say — why not just write a self-insert fanfiction?!) These “shifters” mean this quite literally. They literally believe they are moving themselves to exist in another reality. Many of them have developed rigid rules about how “shifting” must work, which they claim to be the one true way of “shifting.”

Despite the numerous logical flaws in believing oneself capable of actually moving realities to a fictionalized series, which was literally invented by another person, I can sympathize with what I think is the root sentiment behind “shifting.” Reality sucks! I don’t mean this in a patronizing way at all. Our world is scary and seems to get scarier all the time. If not for the rise of global fascism and the fact that we can all see global capitalism collapsing in real time, there is, for younger generations, also the ever-increasing threat of climate change. The world can seem to be a terrifying, hopeless place, in which we come to ask ourselves: what are we here for, if anything?

As Guy moves through his existential crisis, he turns to his best friend Buddy for help. What would Buddy do, Guy asks, if he found out his world wasn’t real? Buddy thinks and then he tells Guy — why would it matter? He would still be hanging out with his best pal, still be doing the things he loves. Essentially — even if our world isn’t real, it’s real to us, and that’s what matters most in the end.

Gotta love Buddy! He hits at one of the best answers to feelings of existential angst. All we can do is learn to be alive, do the things that make us happy, and be good to ourselves and to the people around us. We can choose to do good. We can choose to make meaning in a world that can feel meaningless.

At the end of Free Guy, the NPC and real-world heroes have won, and Free City has become what looks like a solarpunk, communist utopia (I’d certainly love to be there!). Cops drop their guns. People hang out and celebrate and find joy in their existence. This is the message I want “shifters” to hear. Even if the world seems bleak, we can find joy. We can choose to be good, to help others, to help ourselves. We can choose to create a world where we are all supported, cared for, and able to do the things that give us life and joy. We don’t have to shift to another reality, we just need to come together to make our reality better for everyone.

quarantine book club: the hunger games trilogy

i’m gonna head down a new track here and start a review/book club series of some books i’ve enjoyed reading, and who knows, maybe some tv shows/movies too! i’m thinking… review of the fashion in the walking dead (HA) or perhaps smallville or the vampire diaries *thinking face*. anyways… just for fun stuff!

we will commence with a not-so-serious review of the hunger games trilogy, which i reread this weekend in its entirety over the course of about 28 hours. y’all, i fell into a hyper-focus mode and just read the whole dang thing, who else has been there?

i was inspired to reread the hunger games by something almost too nerdy to admit, which is that i’ve been reading bethyl fanfiction (from the walking dead) and found a crossover fic that inserts beth/daryl in the hunger games world. i started to read the fic, but really it just piqued my thirst to reread the hunger games, and the rest they say, is my entire saturday and part of friday too.

nothing groundbreaking, but here are my thoughts and take-aways:

  • i feel like katniss is supposed to be an anti-heroine in that she’s said to be cold and unlikeable, but i don’t know that suzanne collins did this successfully. i mean that, while katniss describes herself as being cold and unlikeable, this does not hold up against anything we actually see happening in the book — people tend to like katniss, they look to her as a leader, they have crushes on her and want to be her friend, and so on. so i just find that dichotomy sort of interesting — the narrative around katniss when the book came out, and from katniss’ perspective, was all “katniss is not like other girls! she’s cold, she’s selfish, she’s downright unlikeable!” — and i just don’t find this to actually be the case. i mean, katniss isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, and she definitely shows herself to be self-interested, but… she’s also a teenager, so being self-interested is sort of baked into that. and throughout the series she proves time and time again that she cares for her family, her friends, and for people who are vulnerable, and she will go out of her way to protect others. she is shown as someone who does small kindnesses for people to prevent their feelings being hurt or to otherwise protect them (for her prep team, Effie, and Finnick, to name a few). i don’t know. i guess i’m trying to say that actually katniss is fairly typical in that she has all the necessary “feminine” traits to make her appealing, and i feel like suzanne collins/”the discourse” tried to make it seem like she isn’t and doesn’t. she’s pretty, thin, sings beautifully, and is a demonstrated protector-of-children — all pretty typically feminine, and all what you’d rather expect to see in a heroine of a YA book! i’m sure this has all been said before, but this is my personal review, so i am re-saying it !
  • anyone who shipped gale/katniss was wrong from the start!! i am firmly team peeta and honestly i think it’s pretty clear that katniss is not into gale from the very beginning. the only point at which her internal dealings with her feelings for gale at all point towards the romantic is when she’s thinking of whether she’d feel jealous if gale had a girlfriend, and decides she would. in my opinion, given the fact that gale was katniss’ only friend and really her only “equal” relationship for literally years (she was a caretaker to her mother and prim, and i think the fact that she mothered prim so much took away from her ability to have more equal sisterly bond with her) the idea that that could end or be “taken” from her is definitely enough to make her feel jealous, without it indicating that she actually has feelings for gale. also, every. single. time. she and gale are physically intimate (read: kiss) it’s because katniss feels guilty, or lonely, or like she’s lost peeta. none of which are very romantic feelings! red flags, people! meanwhile her feelings for peeta naturally grow and expand as she gets to know him better, she seeks out intimacy with him, and so on.
  • i learned from the wikipedia after i finished mockingjay that president coin of district 13 was president snow of the capitol’s DAUGHTER?? wild!! and i do not believe this is brought up in the books. i cannot believe that suzanne collins chose to write a humanizing novel about president snow when writing one about president coin (or, also, literally anyone else) was right. there.
  • in general i don’t take issue with any of the lore, except to snidely comment that it’s clear that suzanne had just consumed The Lottery and Battle Royale immediately before drafting these books, ha. i think the tech they use stays consistent throughout as well, which i liked because it doesn’t feel like they’re breaking out uber-tech during their face-downs with the capitol or anything. also most of it isn’t brain-stretching — all of the tech suzanne mentions feels accessible to the audience, stuff that either exists now or has been widely imagined. so it’s pretty cool and not distracting, and not really a focal point i suppose to the books anyways. honestly i like the concept a lot and would be interested in an entire other series set at another point, in a different district perhaps, or maybe a prequel about haymitch or something (NOT snow! i do not plan to read that). i think suzanne did a good job making clear a lot of the systemic disempowerment of each district, how they forced the districts to compete with each other not just at the games, but in their rankings for favor with the capitol, how they used propaganda and the capitol’s monopoly on violence to keep the districts in line, and so on.
  • the clear and definitive ranking for the books is:
    • 1) Catching Fire (Book 2
    • 2) The Hunger Games (Book 1)
    • 3) Mockingjay (Book 3)
  • mockingjay is clearly the worst book because it feels sort of rushed, the timeline doesn’t make as much sense/feel as coherent as the other two books, and honestly? it’s just really dark. was it necessary to kill finnick and prim? i feel like in series with a lot of death/gore/violence, writers tend to think they need to kill off fan favorites or beloved characters for the pure shock value of it. honestly sometimes i think it’s to punish the audience, kind of like, oh, you felt safe? you thought this character was safe? joke’s on you, no one is safe in my world!! (except the worst characters, who we have saved for an often ill-advised redemption arc.) i don’t think it was necessary to kill prim or finnick off. i feel like suzanne did it maybe to fulfill this sense of prim having avoided her fate for awhile after the reaping, like at the end she must fulfill fate and die (maybe suzanne was watching final destination at the time as well??). this would actually be a better reason than some of the others i think are possibilities, such as needing to kill prim so that katniss would blame gale for her death and she could cut gale out as a romantic option, and get back with peeta. unnecessary… and thank you, suzanne, for allowing another girl character to be used as fodder for the ol’ “dying to help someone’s character growth” trope. i suppose all deaths in literature are plot devices, sure, but this one feels unnecessary! also, we find out about 60% of the way through book 3 that finnick, another beloved character, had been forced into a decade of sex work by president snow, and finally, finally, when he has a chance to be free and happy with his lady love, annie, he is also killed off?? honestly — why? there were plenty of other characters to kill off in the tunnels, suzanne!! basically at the end of mockingjay, i felt sad and kinda empty and i’m sorry but literary quality aside i actually prefer when characters i like end up happy and safe in the end!
  • catching fire is, conversely, the best book because it has a clear and coherent timeline and there’s mostly no major character death, plus we meet a whole bunch of fun characters that really improve the whole series (johanna, finnick, mags, beetee!) and it’s just generally lighter and a more fun read. PLUS, wow, the quarter quell hunger games has a really cool set up and it felt contained and dangerous in the best way.

those are my main thoughts for now, perhaps i’ll add more later! agree, disagree? lmk!