Enter the Matrix is celebrating its 20-year anniversary today, May 14, 2023. Below, we take a look at how the game broke new ground for interconnected, cross-media storytelling.
Nearly 25 years later, the original Matrix’s legacy as a stone-cold classic film is secure. Arguably, it was pretty much a done deal the second Neo flew off into orbit while Rage Against The Machine did their thing. Everything about action films changed afterwards, from the way fights were choreographed to the way it opened the door for action movies with loftier ideas. But while the legacy of the original film is undeniable, and more prescient than ever–for both good and ill, given how its iconography’s been co-opted in recent years–we don’t often talk about the legacy of The Matrix Reloaded in the same hallowed tones. It’s understandable to an extent. Everything audiences thought was cool about the original Matrix in 1999 had been stripmined for parts by a legion of movies immediately after, with diminishing returns every single time. Given carte blanche to avoid their creation from treading the same ground, Lana and Lilly Wachowski chose to expand the universe they created in ways that resembled an Eastern philosophy-flavored Star Trek more than, say, Blade or Underworld.
That’s not a comment on quality–time has smiled on all four Matrix films much more kindly than most of their contemporaries–but it is a comment on how a classic had transitioned to becoming a big-budget all-encompassing megalith of a property, constantly in danger of losing what was special about the original. This was the subtext of the still-underrated Matrix Resurrections, in fact. But to this day, even the biggest megablockbusters on the planet have failed to even attempt what the Wachowskis pulled off in the wake of Matrix Reloaded to keep its power despite capitalism needing to wring it dry. Ancillary media is nothing new altogether, but before The Matrix Reloaded, anything that didn’t happen on-screen during the film was just a cool, non-canon “what if.” Because the Matrix sequels had such a muted reaction compared to the original, it’s easy to forget just how much of an absolute multimedia circus surrounded The Matrix Reloaded before its release. Sponsorships were everywhere, songs from the soundtrack were ubiquitous on rock radio, books were being written about the philosophy of the original film. All of that was there, and it all only touched the fringes of what The Matrix actually was or where it was going. But The Matrix was far too important and far too intricate to let any serious work bearing its name cheapen it in any way. And so, in the middle of an absolute marketing blitzkrieg, we got two pieces of media that changed how stories could be told in the 21st century.
One was The Animatrix, a brilliant anthology of short films from the bleeding edge of animation studios at the time. All nine shorts are varying levels of brilliant, but three of those shorts were absolutely crucial viewing for a full understanding of the series: The Second Renaissance Parts 1 & 2, written by the Wachowski sisters themselves and directed by Mahiro Maeda (who’s since gone on to work closely with Hideaki Anno on the Evangelion rebuilds), was a comprehensive history of the war against the machines, and the linchpin of the entire Matrix universe, a cyberpunk doomsayer’s tale of how humanity created their own enemies, and how desperately–then violently–the machines worked to create equilibrium: an ethos that ultimately hints at the things The Oracle and the Architect talk about in Reloaded. But there was also Final Flight of the Osiris, Square Pictures’ contribution (and, fun fact, the final project it would ever make before Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within’s utter failure forced it to close up shop). Here was something no other piece of ancillary moving media would ever attempt: The action-packed prologue to a blockbuster film was actually being presented as an animated short film. And the story itself is sort of a mini Rogue One, the all-too-brief story of a ship finding out the machines are drilling down into Zion, and needing to dead drop the warning somewhere in the Matrix while the ship gets ripped to shreds by Sentinels.
Final Flight of the Osiris isn’t nearly as crucial as Second Renaissance, but it was a fairly major plot point being handled outside of the realm of the film it was ostensibly made to promote. That would be innovative and forward-thinking enough, but it’s a mere teaser for what came later. One day before Matrix Reloaded released, Atari released Enter The Matrix.
Back then, having a movie tie-in game was pretty standard, despite most of them being terrible. That low bar of quality isn’t necessarily a bug, but a feature. Blockbuster films are far more beholden to a set release date than games, but if a game publisher wanted the best chance to capitalize on the movie’s success, it needs to hit that date, and it typically has to be done in roughly the same time frame that the movie is, which, of course, led developers to make some slapdash decisions unless they have some serious help from the film’s production. There were exceptions –Disney and Star Wars games, in particular, mostly because they had internal game development studios–but they were just that: exceptions.
Now, let’s be clear: Enter The Matrix isn’t necessarily a GoldenEye-level success story. Its graphics felt dated even for the PS2/Xbox era, and while the melee/gunplay side of the game was rock-solid, games like Max Payne and Dead To Rights absolutely put it to shame. But even with those caveats, the appeal of Enter the Matrix was less that it was a game based on The Matrix Reloaded; it was The Matrix Reloaded. As in, while they were filming the sequels, the Wachowskis actually filmed a solid hour’s worth of footage exclusively for the game, with the full power of the production backing them up. Even with the game’s objective flaws, it felt important.
For the most part, it was, though not entirely for the reasons the Wachowskis intended. The game itself follows Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith), her first mate Ghost (Anthony Wong), and their smart-ass operator, Sparks (Lachy Hulme), on the continued adventures of their ship, the Logos, as the events of Reloaded happen parallel. Niobe and Ghost retrieve Thaddeus’ message from the Osiris to warn Zion. They lead the other captains to safety after Agents break up their meeting. They contact the Keymaker, the Trainman, and the Merovingian, and learn that the path of The One might be a trap long before even Neo does. Niobe is the first person to find out that the Oracle has had to change her form. And, when the film and the game do finally meet, it’s Niobe driving in at the perfect time to save Morpheus during Reloaded’s big highway chase before going on a wild mission to disable a power plant to get Neo in to see The Architect. That’s all well and good, but it’s not necessarily a game engaging with the larger ideas of the series in the same way Reloaded or even The Animatrix gets to.
Where it does excel, however, is in character. One of Reloaded’s biggest flaws is introducing an entire Russian novel’s worth of new characters the second the Nebuchadnezzar lands in Zion, stopping Neo’s story dead to introduce them. Enter the Matrix has no such problems with an A story to get back to. Here, the game’s narrative could take its time and explain its wilder ideas better, all while still required to offer the action beats that many critics say were missing in Reloaded’s talkier sections. Here, we see Trinity having an inner life and friends outside of Neo, sparring with Ghost. We see Persephone caught by surprise by Niobe, a brief moment as a lonely, purposeless program in search of connection instead of just a jilted wife. And we get to see a stronger version of Niobe’s relationship with Lock before everything goes to hell.
Both these projects gave the Matrix trilogy room to breathe, but many a critic didn’t quite see it that way at the time. The complaint was a common one: “Why should you need a game, an anime, and a book just for a movie to make sense?” This wasn’t exactly foreign territory for uber-nerds raised on a diet of comics and anime–as the Wachowskis themselves were–but this was new, unknown territory for a movie industry that had up to that point, even for long-tentacled properties like Star Wars, been primarily beholden to the needs of one medium. And the dampened critical reception for the Matrix sequels didn’t change many minds in the moment that this wasn’t a viable way to tell stories. But the ripples started spreading out almost immediately in its wake.
Not even a year later, we got Chronicles of Riddick: Dark Fury and Escape from Butcher Bay, an attempt to recreate the Animatrix/Enter the Matrix one-two punch, but with an ironically inverse result: Chronicles of Riddick: The Film felt like a trashy, violent Children of Dune spin-off nobody asked for–not that there’s anything wrong with that–but Escape from Butcher Bay was exactly what people were asking for, and is still held up as one of the best movie tie-in games of all time. Shows like Lost and 24 started using big-budget games to stage “missing” episodes. Famously, the game based on the notoriously terrible X-Men Origins: Wolverine basically morphed into the movie that should’ve been with Hugh Jackman and his people feeding the devs ideas. There were scattered attempts by various properties over the years, even as the MCU started to pick up steam, and one-off online shorts were in vogue (Peggy Carter’s one-shot was such a success, it became a TV show in its own right).
The sea change here is that media in the 21st century is so easily accessible, so ubiquitous beyond the silver screen, that it’s seen as faulty logic to constrain people to experiencing a story in only one medium. The Wachowski sisters saw the vision far earlier than most did. Even among the most enduring films of the past, very few of them take root in public consciousness without some level of translation: a creative way to spread itself or expand in the minds of the viewer. What we have in 2023 is a vast, astonishing abundance of ways to tell a story beyond the reach of film, which, ironically (and unfortunately) have contributed to the waning appeal of the movie theater as the primary place people go for big stories told in a big way. The idea of a hit movie getting cartoons, short films, games, and even audio dramas is no longer a foreign concept to most audiences. And like most innovations, none of it was possible without one person–or two, in this case–taking a wild swing. They may not have always known making a game would be an ideal way to tell a story, but, one can suspect, they believed.