The Matrix came to us courtesy of two largely unknown creators. It wasn’t based on a comic, novel or TV series (although it did wear its influences on its sleeve), and it wasn’t a remake/reboot. Yet, somehow the studio managed to sell people on the movie based on a mysterious marketing campaign that refused to reveal just what the movie was about. It’s the kind of ambiguous approach that fans often wish for in the age of tell-all trailers but so rarely get.
The Matrix was a film of its time. It combined chic hacking, era-appropriate (if now humorously dated) rebel character fashion, and filmmaking techniques that had been skirting the edges of mainstream appeal for years without having crossed the line. For a generation of young viewers, it felt like a franchise that truly belonged to them. Even though the sequels certainly hindered the reputation of The Matrix franchise in the minds of many, that feeling of kinship many have with the series has helped it survived through the years.
For a series that remains beloved despite sometimes coming across as the fever dream of someone who considered Hackers to be their Rebel Without A Cause, it seems odd that there’s a major entry into The Matrix franchise that most people never talk about. It’s a video game called Enter The Matrix that was released in 2003, not as an adaptation or cash-in, but as a part of The Matrix‘s grand narrative.
Despite the fact that it seems to have fallen off the radar, Enter The Matrix is a game that we should definitely still be talking about today. After all, it was a downright barmy attempt at being something different…
Red pill dreams
Enter The Matrix’s origin story begins before the release of the first Matrix movie. David Perry, the founder of Shiny Entertainment, was approached by the Wachowskis while they were storyboarding the original film. They and producer Joel Silver were interested in Shiny developing a game based on that movie, but Perry rejected their pitch. He was one of the many who thought The Matrix was just going to be another hacker flick.
Perry later said that decision was the “worst mistake I ever made in my career,” but it wouldn’t haunt him for long. Shortly after seeing The Matrix, Perry was once again contacted by the Wachowskis, who asked if Perry would be interested in making a game based on the next Matrix movie. Perry quickly agreed.
The story here, though, isn’t Perry’s enthusiasm, but the Wachowskis. The Wachowskis were gamers and understood the appeal and power of the medium. They didn’t want a game based on one of their movies to join the ranks of titles like the Home Improvement Super Nintendo game where Tim Allen fights dinosaurs. They wanted a Matrix game that mattered.
The extent of their involvement was unprecedented. Enter The Matrix’s executive producer Stuart Roach once said that almost every department involved with the production of The Matrix Reloaded also participated in the development of the game. Among other things, that meant that the team was allowed to motion capture each major actor from the film and use their faces as the basis of their avatars. It also meant that they got to use the film’s cast as voice actors.
As part of their deal, the Wachowskis agreed to shoot about an hour of 35mm live-action footage for the game. We’d seen live-action footage in games by that point, but as many a Sega CD owner can tell you, it tended to be unspeakably awful. We’d certainly never seen significant creators like the Wachowskis shoot that much live-action footage for a video game.
More importantly, the footage they shot for the game wasn’t only related to The Matrix universe but was effectively intended to serve as a companion piece for The Matrix Reloaded. The idea was that if you wanted the entire Matrix Reloaded story, you had to play the game and see the movie. The Wachowskis ambition to create a story that played out across multiple media forms (remember The Animatrix?) wasn’t only unique for its time, but it’s something that we haven’t really seen a lot of since.
However, there was a significant catch to this generous arrangement. Shiny had to ensure that Enter The Matrix was released on the same day as The Matrix Reloaded. Roach admitted at the time that such an arrangement was unique and resulted in one of the most challenging production schedules that he’d ever been involved in. Still, who could turn down the chance to make a tie-in game to one of the most anticipated films of the decade? It was a dream scenario. Like many of my childhood dreams, though, this one had vampires.
Vampires, janitors, and kung-fu cars
Enter The Matrix’s campaign allows players to choose between Ghost and Niobe: two human revolutionists who learn that a robot army is about to invade Zion. Each character’s story plays out slightly differently, but the game’s overall narrative sees you aiding Neo and the gang in his Matrix Reloaded adventures while also helping Zion prepare for the incoming invasion.
Regardless of which character you choose to play as, you’re going to have to suffer through some fundamentally broken gameplay, a result of the game’s rushed and unusual production schedule. The camera moves like it’s being handled by a shaky auteur, character animations vary between humorously robotic and awkwardly motion captured, and character inputs are so delayed you’d swear it’s some kind of meta-commentary about how these humans refuse to submit to the fate dictated to them by machines.
Interestingly, Enter The Matrix‘s strangeness begins before you even have the chance to hop into the game and gaze at its stunningly awkward action. The game’s main menu allows you to access a hacking module that effectively serves as the gateway between you and the game’s hidden features. In most games, this “hacking” system would just require you to enter some passwords or play simple mini-games, but Enter The Matrix’s hacking system just checked its schedule and it doesn’t have time to fuck around.
Hacking in Enter The Matrix requires you to navigate a DOS prompt and input actual DOS commands. DOS was hopelessly outdated by the time the game came out, so you can imagine how few people knew things like having to enter DIR in order to access the drive’s directory.
While it’s possible to use cheat codes to quickly access much of the hacking content, the “proper” way to do it involves entering a series of complex commands that 99% of players would never be able to figure out on their own. This was also the internet of 2003, meaning that it wasn’t always easy to look up walkthroughs and Let’s Plays. The concept was cool, but it was needlessly complicated.
Unlocking simple stuff like concept art and FMV sequences required patience and experimentation, while unlocking larger items, like a secret sword, was nigh-on impossible. Even accessing a basic feature like the multiplayer mode the proper way involved a roughly 30-step process.
That’s a shame, because Enter The Matrix’s multiplayer was simply bonkers. It was a 1 vs. 1 affair that allowed players to utilize the game’s kung-fu melee combat system to duke it out in pre-set matchups. Enter The Matrix’s melee combat was clearly not meant to support multiplayer (which is probably why it was a buried feature), but you quickly forget about that once you see the list of available matchups.
Alongside expected tussles like Neo vs. Agent Smith and Ghost vs. Niobe, you get some unexpected options. For instance, it’s possible to have “The Sewing Woman” fight “The Janitor” (two of the game’s NPCs) in a knock-down-drag-out kung-fu bout. Naturally, you can also hop into the alleyway for a battle between Firebird Man and Police Cruiser Man: two cars from the game who have been altered to resemble human-like creatures who know kung-fu. If you’d prefer, you can also pit Cujo (a werewolf) against Vlad (a vampire).
Yes, there are vampires in Enter The Matrix. Quite a lot of them, actually. Mind you, we’re not talking about metaphorical or implied vampires. We’re also not talking about throwaway vampires included in a hidden mode. We’re talking about straight-up bloodsuckers that you have to take down with a wooden stake like you’re Buffy. How the hell do vampires fit into The Matrix universe? That’s a great question that the game and films barely answer (they’re Exiles from a past version of the Matrix or something). The vampires serve the Merovingian, who apparently has access to so many of them that you’ll wonder why the movies weren’t absolutely swarmed with creatures of the night.
Of course, there was a vampire and a werewolf in The Matrix Reloaded: Cain and Abel, two of the Merovingian’s henchmen who also appear in Enter The Matrix. Abel was shot in the head while Cain was impaled through the chest by a statue in the movie before Niobe or Ghost could get their wooden stakes and silver bullets out.
That’s just the beginning of Enter The Matrix’s strangest feature: how it does (and doesn’t) tie into the films.
The crooked piece of the puzzle
Enter The Matrix’s biggest selling point wasn’t just the fact that the Wachowski’s were shooting exclusive footage for the game. Also, that said footage would help complete The Matrix franchise’s overall story. But sadly, that wasn’t really the case.
Much of what Enter The Matrix contributes to Reloaded and Revolutions only serves to fill in plot holes in the movies. For instance, the game shows why Niobe and Ghost were able to so easily infiltrate that high-security power plant in Reloaded. In reality, they had to battle a small army of well-trained and well-equipped guards in order to make it to the control room. It also offers a complicated (arguably unnecessary) explanation for why the Oracle looks different than she did in the first movie. Given that the actress who played the Oracle in the original Matrix passed away before she could reprise her role, it felt odd that the Wachowskis would concoct a bizarre explanation for her change of appearance that involved a child of destiny and other plot points that only added to the clutter of an already busy story.
Enter The Matrix helps round out The Matrix story, but much of what it adds was never really expanded upon outside of the game. Ghost, for instance, is one of the game’s main characters and is shown to be one of the most capable members of the red pill resistance. Yet, we barely see him do anything in the films. Niobe and Ghost encounter the Keymaker, who tells them they must help give Neo the key to the Source of The Matrix. Even though the Keymaker says the key cannot be replicated, it turns out not to matter much when the Merovingian destroys the key in the game. Neo eventually finds a way to reach the Source anyway and the destruction of the key proves to be a largely irrelevant plot point that fans don’t need to know about in order to get the gist of the story.
Unless you get excited by riveting dialogue such as, “Anyone moves and your brain is a Jackson Pollock,” you probably came to Enter The Matrix looking for world-building and compelling action. We’ve covered the problems with the game’s action. And well, the world-building in the game basically tells you that the only things that really matter all happen in the movies.
So why didn’t they just make a game where you play as Neo? The strange thing is that they kind of did. For instance, both Ghost and Niobe have the ability to slow down time and dodge bullets. In the era of games like Max Payne, it would have been weird to have a Matrix game that didn’t have that feature. Yet, its inclusion in the game doesn’t really make any sense. Didn’t Trinity claim that the only person she’d ever seen move so fast (besides the Agents) was Neo? If Ghost and Niobe really are so skilled as to dodge bullet, then why don’t they play a bigger role in the movies?
Eventually, Shiny Entertainment did make a game where you play as Neo. It’s called The Matrix: Path Of Neo. That game satisfied the fantasy of playing through your favourite sequences from the movies, with a new finale that altered the ending of the series, per the Wachowski’s suggestion. But that’s a story for another time.
Too weird to live, too rare to die
Enter The Matrix sold well enough (roughly over 3 million copies), but when it’s talked about today, it’s usually referred to as an overhyped curiosity whose blend of strange ideas and terrible execution made it an unfortunately worthy companion piece to The Matrix Reloaded. What should have been Max Payne plus an original (and essential) Matrix story ended up tasting like a half-baked piece of fan fiction.
Yet, in the sad history of movie tie-in games, Enter The Matrix stands out. It bothered to expand its source in a way that went beyond the common tagline “See the film, play the game.” Yes, it was downright weird, and yes, it was far too ambitious for its own good, but in the age of cookie-cutter Star Wars games, it’s easier to love an adaptation that wasn’t afraid to get weird with it and that tried to satisfy fans rather than cash-in on the movie’s fame.
Enter The Matrix is often remembered for its battles against the undead, leaps over gaping logic holes, and epic automobile karate matches, but there’s another world where it’s remembered as the game that tried to kick off a new era of cooperation between filmmakers and game designers. The fact that we never fully entered that brave new world has always been a tough pill to swallow.
For more weird Matrix game memories, check out our recent recap of The Matrix Online!