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.