“They took my life and turned it into a video game,” says Keanu Reeves as Neo in The Matrix Resurrections. In the sequel to the sci-fi trilogy, Neo is again trapped in the simulated world he fought so hard to leave. But this time, he’s a game designer. His epic struggles are now little more than half-remembered dreams used as inspiration for a series of successful games. Decades after the success of these games, his studio is demanding a sequel.
As metacommentary it proves a little strained, but incorporating gaming into the plot is hardly arbitrary — since the first movie in 1999, The Matrix has built its success on a dialogue with video games. With a new film and game released last month, The Matrix is once more pushing ideas of what games and cinema might offer as the boundaries between the two blur.
When I first saw The Matrix as a kid, I understood the film’s conceit — humans trapped in a simulated universe controlled by machines — as an analogue to a video game, albeit one that the players don’t know they’re playing. The movie has loading sequences and training programmes, while its action scenes were influenced by a visit directors Lana and Lilly Wachowski took to the Japanese developers of 1998 game Tenchu: Stealth Assassins. The film popularised the slow-motion “bullet time” which was quickly imitated in video games ranging from Max Payne to Superhot and Fallout.
Around the time of the original movies, three Matrix video games were released. None of them were brilliant, but each pushed the boundaries of what a game might be, when games tied to big movie releases were usually little more than cynical cash-grabs. Enter The Matrix was an action title concurrent with The Matrix Reloaded film. You play as secondary characters Niobe and Ghost in a story that fleshes out what happens off-screen in the movie. The Wachowskis incorporated the game as an integral part of their storytelling, filming an hour of additional footage specifically for it. In a recent oral history, the game’s director said: “What we really liked was that the Wachowskis wanted to push the boundaries; they thought games could be way more than just a prop.”
The next game, The Matrix: Path of Neo, was at first blush more straightforward. Players become Neo and play through the story of the original trilogy. Yet in place of the act of sacrifice at the trilogy’s finale, the siblings rewrote the ending to appease combat-hungry gamers, as they explain in a bizarre in-game voiceover. It culminates with a high-octane battle followed by a victory sequence soundtracked by Queen’s “We Are the Champions” (apparently licensing this song was the game studio’s single biggest expense).
The most interesting of the Wachowskis’ experiments in gaming was The Matrix Online (MxO), a massively multiplayer online role-playing game released at the time World of Warcraft was becoming a cultural phenomenon. Following the end of the trilogy, they wanted fans to “inherit the storyline” and collaboratively write a narrative which would become canon in the Matrix universe. Over four years the game’s story developed in instalments, notably featuring the death of key character Morpheus. When Laurence Fishburne wasn’t asked to reprise his role in the recent film, fans wondered if this was because he was killed off in MxO. The movie does not give a definite answer, but this collaborative, cross-media narrative space that the Wachowskis created feels innovative even today, as we buckle under the weight of the extended cinematic universes of Marvel and Star Wars.
Just ahead of the recent film, a new playable Matrix was released. The Matrix Awakens is not a full game but rather a tech demo intended to show off Unreal Engine 5, the latest iteration of Epic’s software engine which powers many contemporary games. It features Reeves reprising his role in scenes written by Lana Wachowski, including action and narrative sequences, before players are let loose in a stunningly realistic open world. While you can do little more than play the tourist in this space, it’s a remarkable demonstration of the game worlds we can expect as developers get to grips with the new generation of consoles. After a long period of silence, a return to the Matrix in gaming once again points us towards the future.
‘The Matrix Awakens’ is available now for free on PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X/S