This article is part of our History of PC Gaming series.
You’re not dreaming. The Matrix 4 is happening. Co-creator Lana Wachowski is back to write and direct the movie (her sister Lilly is busy with other projects), while Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss are set to reprise their iconic roles. Sati’s question at the end of The Matrix Revolutions — Will we ever see Neo again? — has finally been answered by Warner Bros.
Sure, it took 16 years to set the next Matrix movie in motion, but a lot has changed about Hollywood, blockbuster franchises, and how movie studios view nostalgia and genre storytelling since 2003. Popular franchises don’t end anymore, they simply reboot or revive. The Matrix 4 is a particularly interesting case of a long-dormant franchise coming back from the dead to cater to our nostalgia. Despite the fact that The Matrix Revolutions gave us a definitive conclusion to the story, what’s coming next isn’t a reboot but a continuation.
Wachowski and co-writers Aleksander Hemon and David Mitchell face a very tough task with this direction. They not only have to deal with the inherent expectations that come with reviving a beloved franchise that hasn’t faced the sort of modern internet scrutiny Marvel and Star Wars movies “enjoy” today, but they also have to bring the series’ main characters back from the dead as well as create a new conflict for them to tackle. There’s also the big elephant in the room: the sequels, which can be described as polarizing at best (I like them), come with their own baggage. Some viewers would argue the original classic didn’t even need a sequel, so what could possibly justify a fourth movie?
Interestingly enough, this surprise fourth Matrix movie won’t be the first time someone has tried to continue the story beyond Revolutions. In 2005, Monolith Productions, in conjunction with WB and Sega, released The Matrix Online, an MMORPG that told the story of what happened after Neo defeated Smith. Dealing heavily with the stories of Morpheus, the Merovingian, Seraph, and other characters from the movies, the game is a pseudo-Matrix 4 that you never saw on the big screen.
The Matrix Online was marketed as the official continuation of the story (with input from the Wachowskis), meaning that the events of the game remain canon to this day. What a strange trip back into the Matrix awaited fans of the movies, as The Matrix Online dished an ongoing narrative that began with a race to recover fragments of Neo’s residual self image from the Matrix and delivered its biggest twist when it killed off Morpheus.
Allowing you to create your own character within the Matrix once you accepted the red pill, the game thrust you into Mega City and the power struggle between its three factions: Zionites, Machines, and the Merovingian. Like in the movies, each faction had its own goals and beliefs. Zion’s main mission was to protect humanity, including the bluepills still plugged into the Matrix, while those who aligned themselves to the Machines sought to protect the status quo of the virtual world. The Merovingian dealt with the affairs of Exiles, programs which had been replaced or were no longer useful but refused deletion.
But the story wasn’t as clear cut as that. As the narrative progressed, smaller groups formed within the factions, creating all kinds of new and interesting directions and roles for users to play in the live events that made up the game’s very best moments. For example, a Zionite organization called E Pluribus Neo believed that the only way to save humanity was to free all of the bluepills from the Matrix. Meanwhile, the Machine-affiliated Cypherites sought ways to get plugged back into the virtual world (hence, their name). All this was going on while Morpheus, at the end of his rope after Neo’s death, led a terrorist cell, detonating “code bombs” that ripped apart the veil of the Matrix and caused bluepills to go insane and die in the process.
If this sounds wild, that’s because at it’s very best The Matrix Online was a wild time, pulling no punches in its storytelling, taking some very strange detours in the process, such as when the Lupines and Blood Drinkers (werewolves and vampires) revolted against the Merovingian. The Assassin who eventually killed Morpheus (under the Merovingian’s orders) was actually a “disposal program” embodied by a swarm of flies dressed in a trenchcoat and a porcelain mask…
Another early story featured a new line of Agents with red eyes, which were actually Exiles in disguise working for the General, the digital version of the Sentinel that led the attack on Zion in Revolutions, and whose goal was to reignite the war between humans and machines because it lacked a purpose otherwise. The General’s Red-eyed Agents began attacking players with fragments of Neo’s RSI and eventually used these remnants of the One to create “N30 Ag3nts” (no, I’m not kidding), which were more powerful Agents that looked like this game’s version of Keanu Reeves. Yeah, the game went there!
After the Assassin murdered Morpheus, Niobe created a faction with one goal: bring Morpheus’ hero to justice. But the Assassin had a much bigger plot in mind, unleashing a new group of enemies known as Corrupted on Mega City. Upon death, these enemies spewed a virus on the Matrix, and the villain hoped that this would eventually cause the downfall of the entire digital world as its code became completely corrupted. Luckily, that didn’t come to pass.
The Corrupted storyline also introduced the very first female Agent, named Pace, who was designed to be more human than her predecessors and work alongside redpills (the players). She also spoke with an Italian accent for reasons.
While Niobe was busy chasing after the Assassin and the Merovingian was fighting the creatures of the night, Seraph and the Oracle fought the General, who at one point created a digital clone of Morpheus in the Matrix in another attempt to spark a fight between the Zionites and the Machines. Sati was kidnapped, the Oracle was almost killed, and the Merovingian took control of the General by overriding his code.
This web of storylines eventually led to the inevitable: the end of the Truce between man and machine. When the Machines discovered that the humans had been stockpiling EMP devices and building a second city in the Real World (known as New Zion), the Architect decided that humans would no longer be able to free bluepills from the Matrix. The conflict had begun all over again.
Unfortunately, The Matrix Online never got the chance to finish that story. Despite the game’s twisting storyline, The Matrix Online suffered from many huge issues during its short lifespan (only four years). Gameplay was repetitive and buggy, the graphics and animations were often subpar, and leveling often consisted of countless boring quests without any real purpose. Worst of all, the game’s servers suffered from low player counts, a death knell for any MMO. When The Matrix Online was finally shut down in 2009, the MMO had less than 500 active users still playing the game.
Its technical setbacks, abysmal subscriber number, and a crowded MMO market at a time when every publisher was on a mission to release an online game after the success of World of Warcraft certainly didn’t help The Matrix Online much, but these very factors also allowed the title to remain niche and go as crazy with its story as it wanted. What The Matrix Online lacked in cold, hard numbers, it more than made up for with its dedicated fanbase that helped build its legendarily weird four-year narrative.
The Matrix Online told its stories through scripted missions, cinematics, and the impressive live events dynamically created by the game’s Live Events Team, a group of developers whose job it was to roleplay as major characters like Morpheus, the Architect, the Oracle, and the Agents. These developers would interact with other players, never breaking character, in order to organize in-game activities and further the story beyond the scripted narrative. It was sort of like storytelling jazz, as the LET rallied their factions into conflicts with one another or delivered speeches and hints about the plot. This dedication to roleplay led to some surprising twists in the game, such as when a group of players decided to rally around Morpheus and prevent others from disarming the code bombs threatening the Matrix, sitting on the bombs so that other users couldn’t target them.
After Sony Online Entertainment took over development of the game a few months after launch, the studio restructured many of the systems in place, including the LET, which was largely disbanded, these vital storytelling roles instead given to volunteer players who continued to organize live events themselves.
One story remained unfinished due to this restructuring and it might be the most important one of all: the mystery of Sarah Edmontons, a woman who had mysteriously awakened from a coma and walked out of a hospital at the start of the game. During Morpheus’ mission to reclaim Neo’s body, it was revealed that the One hadn’t been “recycled” (liquified to feed the human batteries still plugged into the Matrix) after his death. This brought on many theories as to what the Machines had done with Neo’s remains.
Some players theorized that Sarah Edmontons (an anagram for “Thomas Anderson”) was actually Neo reincarnated in a new host. As insane as that sounds, this was par for the course for The Matrix Online, and it’s a shame we never got to see how deep the rabbithole went with this particular mystery.
Is this the most extreme possible continuation of The Matrix story? That’s up to The Matrix 4, of course. But the fact that something as weird as The Matrix Online was allowed to exist as an official and major piece of the franchise shows just how many different directions you can take this universe. Wherever the creative team takes the next movie, it probably won’t be anywhere as strange as this video game oddity.