When I was a young teen in the early 2000s, I had really grown to become a big fan of action genre fiction, the “hero’s journey,” and the very similar mythologies that Joseph Campbell described as being a unified story. Just a few years earlier, and even as entrenched as I was in serialized fictional sagas like superhero comics and Star Wars (which had recently been revived in the form of the prequels), a movie came along and built a world that opened my eyes to whole new levels of mythology, philosophy, and storytelling itself. Like most people, the Wachowskis’ 1999 film The Matrix blew me away. As I looked deeper into the thoughts that helped construct that story — at names like Descartes, Kant, Beaudrillard, and West — I began to see the film as one of the most unique hybrids of culture that I had ever come across at that point in my life.
So, by the time 2003 rolled around, you couldn’t find anyone more excited than I was about the prospect of new material in the world of The Matrix. Not only would that year bring the final two films in the trilogy — Reloaded and Revolutions — but it would also bring us a collection of unique short films called The Animatrix, as well as a video game experience that promised to be an integral part to the overall story presented in the final two films.
May 15th was an eventful day. Not only did I convince my mom to pick my best friend and I up early from school just so we could take in an afternoon screening of Reloaded (which she had to buy us tickets for, since as 15-year old high school freshmen we couldn’t do it ourselves yet), but my dad took me into town that evening so that I could pick up my copy of Enter the Matrix, the parallel video game experience to the plot of Reloaded.
Now that we’re over a decade removed from the “year of The Matrix” which saw the game, Reloaded, and Revolutions bow across the world, it seemed to me that this franchise would be excellent territory to go over for my continuous adoration for/problem with licensed movie games. As most people know, the Matrix sequels largely left a bad taste in peoples’ mouths by the time they reached the end of Revolutions (a sentiment I do not share), and the video game exploitations of the franchise largely hold a reputation as forgettable experiences.
But are they? There have only been a total of three Matrix video games released, perhaps a symbol of the highs the franchise enjoyed and the speed at which it seemed to burn out in the public mind, but why don’t we take a look at these games and how they stack up now that some time has passed between now and their initial releases.
Enter the Matrix (2003)
Perhaps the most interesting element behind Shiny Entertainment’s Enter the Matrix is its narrative, which weaves in and out of the events of The Matrix Reloaded. Early on, you choose to play as either Niobe (played by Jada Pinkett-Smith) or Ghost (played by Anthony Wong), two Zion rebels that fly on the hovercraft Logos and that have a history with members of the Nebuchadnezzar‘s crew (which consists of the film series’ main protagonists). After the events of the latter two films in the trilogy are set in motion by the Animatrix short “The Final Flight of the Osiris,” the crew of the Logos embark on an adventure that ultimately syncs up with the goals of Neo, Morpheus, and Trinity depicted in the climax of Reloaded, giving you, the player, the opportunity to help facilitate the journey of the One to “the Source,” otherwise known as the machine mainframe.
From a narrative perspective, Enter the Matrix is still a unique exercise in tying together different forms of media to tell one cohesive story that, surprisingly, has yet to be replicated again. As a fan, it was exciting going from elements of The Animatrix, to the second film, to the video game and seeing how everything came together as we barreled toward the conclusion in The Matrix Revolutions. Perhaps most uniquely, new footage was shot specifically for the game using all of the principal actors, sets, and crew to help push the story forward. You go from playing a level one minute, to watching a new scene in the world of The Matrix unfold that was shot on the Zion sets, directed by the Wachowskis, and that starred Jada Pinkett-Smith, Harry Lennix, and sometimes even Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving, and Keanu Reeves.
On top of that, certain levels in the game actually catch up and link to events in Reloaded. Like in the freeway scene: while Morpheus is fighting Agent Johnson on the top of a semi-truck to protect the Keymaker (as shown in Reloaded), you get to play as Niobe and Ghost as they are frantically driving through the freeway, battling police and other Agents so that they can get to the truck and assist Morpheus. While today, movie studios and other storytellers are exploring multimedia storytelling to a slight degree, what was done between this game, The Matrix Reloaded, and The Animatrix has yet to be duplicated.
At the end of the day, though, as impressive as the narrative exploitations are, Enter the Matrix is still a video game. When it was released, it was largely panned by critics as appearing obviously rushed to market, but was still seen as a fun experience. While games like Max Payne had aped the first Matrix film with its bullet-time inspired gameplay, oddly enough Enter the Matrix was seen as aping Max Payne for doing the very thing that the initial film of the franchise had done first! Kind of a baffling reaction.
Having played through it again recently, I still have a great deal of fun in playing Enter the Matrix. While I enjoy the gameplay mechanics of “focus mode” (which slows down time and allows for the mind-blowing kung-fu that the films are known for) and the exaggerated physics, I’m also surprised at its presentation, especially on the original Xbox. In a time where HDTVs cost anywhere between $5,000-$10,000, Enter the Matrix on Xbox supported upscaled resolutions of up to 1080i, and also included Dolby Digital surround sound. All in all, Enter the Matrix largely succeeds as a narrative experiment, and while some elements of the game are shoddy even by 2003 standards (particularly the in-game models and textures), it still makes for a fun experience especially when taken in concert with The Animatrix and The Matrix Reloaded.
The Matrix: Path of Neo (2005)
After The Matrix Revolutions was released in theaters to a less-than-kind critical reception, the franchise cooled off considerably after 2003. The story was over on film, and the Wachowskis would move onto other things. Still, though, it seemed that there was fuel in the franchise for another couple of video game installments, and although Path of Neo was the third game released chronologically, game #2 lasted much longer than Path of Neo would. If there was one constant in the criticism for Enter the Matrix, it’s that gamers only played as “sideline” characters in the scheme of the trilogy. Although the narrative of Enter gave a lot of context and characterization to Niobe and Ghost, gamers made it very clear that they wanted to get behind the eyes, fists, and flight of the One himself: Neo. To that end, Enter developers Shiny Entertainment released The Matrix: Path of Neo to the world in November of 2005, two years after the release of the third film. While Path was largely portrayed as the “game that gamers wanted the first time around,” playing through it again recently only really makes me think of one thing, predominantly: it’s inferior to Enter the Matrix.
Starting with the presentation, Path of Neo just looks like a sloppy mess. Character models are wiry and disproportionate, textures are oddly applied to characters and surfaces, and there’s no HD or widescreen support on the console versions, unlike Enter the Matrix. Even from a construction perspective, Path of Neo falls short. Where Enter the Matrix featured the Wachowskis as directors along with new film footage shot by the likes of Bill Pope, as well as the voices of the entire principal cast, Path of Neo features rather weak soundalikes for Neo, Agent Smith, and Trinity. Laurence Fishburne reprises his role as Morpheus, but everything around him just screams of a weaker product.
These things would be easy to forgive if the game provided a mindblowing gameplay experience to match the capabilities of Neo inside the Matrix, but sadly this isn’t the case. Controls feel much sloppier here than in Enter, with the loss of dedicated buttons mapped to the arms and legs ditched in favor of a rather contrived combination system that only seems to work half the time anyway. The control system that the game tries to employ is more suited to a straight fighting game, but as a 3D, third-person fighter/shooter adventure game, it just doesn’t make for a particularly tight gameplay experience.
Although the Wachowskis didn’t have a direct hand in the direction and design of the game, one element they did participate in was in editing together footage from all three films in the series to try and show the entire story of the film’s from Neo’s perspective. This allows the actual footage to introduce some events that didn’t even happen in the movies to take place, but it’s interesting seeing how the filmmakers decided to present their story in this reconstruction. One oddity about this is that they actually change the ending of Revolutions to something they feel is more befitting for a video game. All in all, Path of Neo gives a greater promise than it actually delivers on. Playing as the One sounds awesome, but unfortunately, this game doesn’t really match up with its predecessor in its most important elements of gameplay.
The Matrix Online (2005)
Even in 2005, the domination of a game like World of Warcraft saw a lot of video game firms try and replicate its success. Before the third film of The Matrix trilogy had bowed in theaters, fans were aware that the story was not definitively concluded after the final confrontation between Neo and Smith, because Monolith Productions had been developing a game to continue the story of the films in The Matrix Online…allowing players the chance to create their own “residual self image” (or RSI), and jack into the Matrix themselves.
Unfortunately, unlike the other two games, I couldn’t revisit The Matrix Online (or “MxO“) before writing this piece, since the game’s servers have been shut down since July of 2009. So, I have to go from memory here, since I was attached to this game from the very beginning: I pre-ordered early enough to get in on the beta test, and played the game religiously for its first year. After that I was pretty intermittent with it, but I absolutely loved playing MxO, and got a huge kick out of actually walking in the same city as my heroes from the Nebuchadnezzar.
When you first “jack in” to the game, you pick out your physical parameters and your early wardrobe, before you’re seen as a “blue pill” walking the street of the city. It’s not long before you’re extracted from the Matrix, and start going through your training courtesy of Link, Morpheus’ operator from Reloaded and Revolutions.
From there, you’re treated to a cinematic featuring the voices of Mary Alice as the Oracle, Collin Chou as Seraph, and Laurence Fishburne as Morpheus, as they discuss the new and fragile peace created between the humans and the machines in the wake of Neo’s sacrifice. Morpheus reflects on the victory he thought would come to the side of the humans, and how Neo found a way to create a peace by saving everyone, including Zion and the Machines. The Oracle even states in her personal meeting with you (gasp!): “Nothing ever goes just right. Especially…not peace.”
And that, in a nutshell, was the overarching story of The Matrix Online. There were three possible factions you could join: the human city of Zion, becoming an operative of the Machines, or working for the Merovingian and his Exiles. The faction you choose impacts how you interact with the overarching story, and how you can choose to either try and maintain or sabotage the peace that Neo died to create. MxO was my first massively multiplayer online roleplaying game (MMORPG), and as a world that I was greatly interested in, it was a game I became obsessed with pretty early on. I aligned with Zion, frantically scrambling inside the Matrix to try and stay a step ahead of the Machines and the Exiles, and make sure that Neo did not die in vain. I learned kung-fu, learned how to defy gravity with super-jumping, and even how to outrun Agents if I wandered into a restricted area. I walked through the same courtyard where Neo fought the legions of Smith in Reloaded‘s “burly brawl,” saw the Metacortex building where Thomas Anderson worked, and operated in and out of the alleys of the city to try and secure humanity’s freedom. And it was awesome.
While the story of the game had some interesting philosophical inclinations, it was mostly a decent exercise in good ongoing storytelling. Overseen by the Wachowskis and penned by renowned comic book writer Paul Chadwick (Concrete), the story of the game really did feel like a true, and good, continuation of the events that movie-goers bore witness to at the end of The Matrix Revolutions. A lot of cards were definitely still on the table for someone to play with, and the game’s story definitely kept fans interested, and guessing.
All of the established rules of the film series really lent themselves to the world of a game like MxO, since you’re operating in a simulated reality that is very much like an elaborate video game. While I later found out that MxO was seen as a decent effort, the overabundance of other MMO’s like WoW and Star Wars Galaxies made the audience for MxO rather limited. When Sony Online Entertainment finally decided to pull the plug on the game, it’s said that there were fewer than 500 active players right before the game went dark for good. Overall, though most people will likely see MxO as a footnote on the history of MMO video games, I’ll always look back fondly on the experience I had with my friends in seeing how deep the rabbit hole really went.
So that, in a nutshell, are the three video games created out of The Matrix franchise. Two out of three solid experiences aren’t bad. So, why do I keep playing movie games? Making them an actual part of the story told on the screen is a pretty good way to entice me to keep going. We’ll have to see if the future holds anything as ambitious as Enter the Matrix, but much like the films these games are based on, I think they deserve far more credit than they have. Maybe you should head to a retro game shop and pick up Enter for your old console, and take the red pill one last time.
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