Hard Project: The Matrix
The Matrix is one of those things that was a very big deal when it came out and then faded in importance about five minutes later. It’s been a decade since the last film, and the odds of us seeing another one are slim to none. Which is a shame, because it’s still a franchise I like quite a bit, even if I’d like it more if we had gotten the prequel-and-sequel the Wachowskis had originally wanted instead of the single sequel split into two parts.
If you like pretending the two sequels didn’t happen, imagine them as one lean two-hour film and start falling in love again.
We’ve seen three games based on the franchise, with one of them (The Matrix Online) both failing to live up to the promise of that concept and completely failing to deliver on what was originally conceived of in a persistent universe. It kind of makes sense, if you think about it. Even though the movies look great and prompt lots of thoughts vis-a-vis “man, it’d be great to play this as a game,” the whole thing winds up being a really hard project from the word go.
Cinematography vs. mechanics
I enjoyed Enter the Matrix despite myself and despite the fact that it was, in every sense, not a very good game. It took me a long while to realize why it was so lackluster, and a good chunk of that came down to the implementation of the game’s little “bullet time” bar, the one that let you pull off all the nifty wall-running stunts that you saw throughout the three films while neglecting that the two things were completely unrelated.
You can see this watching the first film for less than ten minutes. Trinity takes out several cops by her lonesome, including a stunt where she, yes, runs along a wall to confuse a cop shooting at her. The only use of bullet time in the whole thing is at the very end for a quick pan-around before she kicks him in the face.
As an audience member, it’s easy to associate that slowdown with the film, but it’s also easy to miss that in the world that the characters occupy it doesn’t actually exist. It’s a cinematic technique, and a very effective one, cutting between extremely quick and organized fight sequences and sudden slowdowns to really drive home the impact of each individual motion. You know, like 300 might have done if it hadn’t used that trick on every single pointless shot. But that’s not important right now.
What we visually associate with the film were really a lot of elements that were not important, thematically. Proper gameplay would barely involve dealing with random mooks at all. Which leads to our next point.
Everyone’s the best in the world
In The Matrix and The Matrix Reloaded, basically every action sequence takes place inside of the eponymous Matrix, where the main characters are functionally invulnerable much of the time. Agents are bad news, but pretty much anything else is just an inconvenience. The climax of the first film is stressful because there are three impossible-to-kill Agents defending Morpheus, not because of the cops that spend an awfully long time being shot in the lobby.
All of this is the case for good reason – it takes mere moments for any of these characters to learn new things. Trinity doesn’t know how to fly a helicopter, then she spends half a minute blinking and suddenly she’s good enough to fly a damaged helicopter through downtown and pull off a last-minute crash landing. Before anyone goes anywhere they get taught a variety of combat techniques in the span of one day that take most people lifetimes to master. 100% of the deaths in the first film come about due to internal treachery.
This is the problem with the very premise of something like The Matrix Online; getting better and leveling up over time is kind of ridiculous, because the film clearly establishes how you get better over time, and it’s by having knowledge beamed directly into your brain. There’s not much room for progress there. Nor is there room for differentiation or even much in the way of real challenges. Dudes with guns are not threatening, they’re just dudes with guns, and the characters can deal with that so effectively that Batman would be reduced to ashamed whimpering. It’s the same problem that face the idea of westerns as games – there’s no specialization, there’s just everyone already being a master of gunplay and hand-to-hand combat.
So what’s left? The world, right? Yeah, about that…
No, there’s really not much left to do
The end of a given Star Trek series neither means the end of the universe nor the end of what that particular crew did. It’s pretty clear that after the end of The Next Generation the crew did not immediately fly back to a spacedock to have the ship destroyed and the crew murdered, nor did that morbid eventuality occur at the end of the film series, either. The universe keeps turning. It’s the end of a story, but not the end of every story.
The end of The Matrix Revolutions, however, ends with the main war that dominates the entire reason for the series being over. Any further happenings are either explicitly ignoring the ending or trying to pretend that The Matrix: Figuring Out Where To Put People In A Peacetime Setting is a compelling story.
The universe of The Matrix was not, in fact, made to be infinitely expandable. Yes, the Animatrix stuff was cool, but all of it was quite explicitly built to take bits and pieces that happened between the films and put them into a larger context. The story wraps up at the end of the last film, and that’s a good stopping point. It’s a universe made to tell one story, and while there are other stories there, they just aren’t meant to be as interesting.
Considering that the setting is essentially the world’s largest constant online game ever, you would think that it would make a video game. But the world doesn’t always work like that. (I suppose I should talk about Sword Art Online in that context eventually, huh?)