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Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Old Video Game, Morpheus’ Death Explained

In a promotional screenshot for The Matrix Online video game, a payer looks down on the streets of the Matrix's Mega City as another character stands on a lower roof.

Enter the Matrix and party like it’s 2004.
Image: Monolith Productions/Warner Bros.

When the third Matrix film, Revolutions, released in 2003, the series’ time flourishing at the box office was ostensibly done. As you well know, nothing’s ever really gone in the age of blockbuster franchise cinema, and now, we’re a month away from a fourth Matrix movie. But the latest sequel was never actually the next chapter of the tale after Revolutions—it was The Matrix Online. 

That was what the Wachowskis, back in 2005, really considered to be the continuation of the world they had crafted over their movie trilogy: a massively multiplayer online roleplaying game (MMORPG) where users cast themselves as newly self-actualized humans flung into the Megacity, the digital cityscape hub of the Matrix itself, after the events of Revolutions. The movie series ended with the cycle of reboots of the Matrix broken thanks to a truce negotiated by Neo between the human remnants in Zion and the Machine City. The Matrix Online picks up in the wake of renewed conflicts between humankind and the machines—one that, if what cryptic glimpses of Resurrections we’ve seen so far indicates, will have some wide-reaching ramifications in the new movie.

What Was The Matrix Online?

Image for article titled How Matrix: Resurrections Could Be Shaped By Video Game Lore

Image: Monolith Productions/Warner Bros.

Originally created by American video game developer Monolith Productions—and eventually overseen by Daybreak Studios and Sony Online Entertainment after its release—as an MMORPG in the vein of Everquest and World of Warcraft, The Matrix Online launched in 2005 with the blessings of Lana and Lilly Wachowski as an “inheritance” of the Matrix storyline. With the structure and cycle of the movie saga’s worldbuilding laid out in Reloaded and Revolutions, The Matrix Online was about as close as audiences were going to get to a new chapter of the franchise—the Wachowskis were done, the cycle of conflict covered in the original movies had come to a close. But the game imagined the immediate fallout of Revolutions’ ending and, during its four years of operation, the “Continuing Story” narrative that rolled out over weeks and months and years as it progressed paved the way for a renewed cycle of conflict.

Players in The Matrix Online—referred to as “Redpills,” awakened humans who had become aware of the false nature of the Matrix—could join one of three emergent factions that had come to exist within the digital reality. Two of them were obvious choices: One faction was Zion itself, the last surviving human city in the real world, who fight to protect redpills and their safety within and without the Matrix itself. The other was the Machines, humans aligning with the Matrix’s masters in order to maintain the current status quo and prevent “Bluepill” humans still unaware of the Matrix’s true nature from being caught in the crossfire. The third faction was more of a wild card, the Merovingian, working with the character from the film to eschew the proxy wars between Zion and the Machines and protect the self-aware programs of the Matrix in the process.

That conflict picked up basically right where Revolutions left off: Zion wanted Neo’s body back after he was left in the Machine City, but the Machine faction had no idea what had happened to his physical form. When the game was shut down permanently in 2009, much of its living history was lost, and the story had built up to a climax that would never be seen by players… until maybe now. That depends on if Resurrections really does see Lana Wachowski commit to the idea that the events of the game matter to the wider Matrix universe.

What Happened to Morpheus and Neo in The Matrix Online?

Early on in The Matrix Online, Morpheus plays a major role in the quest to try and retrieve Neo’s physical form. He also assisted players in recovering fragments of Neo’s “Residual Self Image,” or RSI (the term for the digital avatar a human inhabits within the Matrix), so they could be reforged and bring the fabled “One” back to the digital reality. Morpheus eventually went rogue from all three faction bases, however, and in a bid to force the Machine City into returning Neo’s body, began planting “code bombs” across the Matrix. While harmless to the digital forms of redpilled players, the bombs would expose the code of the Matrix itself to bluepills, in an attempt to awaken them to the faux-reality and destabilize Machine control even further, and perhaps disable it altogether.

All three factions sought to either stop Morpheus from ending the Truce Neo had fought for with his actions or protect the code bombs as they went off in the hopes it would create more redpills. Then came a major twist. A mysterious masked program known only as the Assassin appeared and seemingly killed Morpheus. Each faction denied playing a part in the hit, but they all briefly united in an attempt to figure out who exactly had killed him—it didn’t last long, of course. As relations broke down, the game introduced even more extreme factions players could align with as the conflict between Zion and the Machine redpills became even more heated. There was the Zion-adjacent “E Pluribus Neo,” or EPN, who believed in exposing the truth of the Matrix simulation to every human being, and the Cypherites, Machine-aligned redpills who wanted to have their knowledge erased and be returned to the Matrix.

Eventually, the game’s storyline drew towards the path of open conflict between Zion and the Machines once more, when the latter discovered the existence of a new human city built in secret, aptly named New Zion, that Zion generals considered a home for the ever-growing number of humans freed from the Matrix. But whatever was meant to come of the battle was never seen. Low subscriber counts lead to Sony Online Entertainment shutting down The Matrix Online at the beginning of August 2009. The move saw remaining players prompted with the message “Wake up!,” only for their avatars to suddenly begin screaming and convulsing, contorted into broken forms before the game’s service officially disconnected forever.

What would’ve happened between the various factions as the conflict became open and Neo’s truce broke down, as well as what really became of either Neo or Morpheus, was still the subject of intense speculation. Some players believed certain quests in The Matrix Online suggested that Neo had re-incarnated in a new form, a woman named Sarah Edmontons—an anagram of Thomas Anderson, Neo’s Matrix name—briefly mentioned as having miraculously awoken from a coma before disappearing. Another subplot in the wake of Morpheus’ assassination saw EPN operatives seemingly attempt to reveal a heavily damaged fragment of Morpheus’ own RSI, but The Matrix Online’s paring back of features meant that these threads were ultimately never expounded upon.

How Does The Matrix Online Tie Into Matrix: Resurrections?

Image for article titled How Matrix: Resurrections Could Be Shaped By Video Game Lore

Screenshot: Warner Bros.

Right now, it’s hard to really say. We know that Keanu Reeves and Carrie Ann-Moss’ returns as potentially new versions of Neo and Trinity (especially the latter’s case, considering we saw Trinity die in the climax of Revolutions) already seems to suggest that a new cycle of conflict between Machine City and humanity has begun, with a rebooted Matrix as well. Many have also already speculated that Yahya Abdul-Mateen II playing a new version of Morpheus in Resurrections—original actor Laurence Fishburne is, as far as we know, not returning for the film—suggests that the events established in The Matrix Online are considered to have actually happened, and that the version of Morpheus we knew in the past cycle really did perish. On top of killing Morpheus, the game also established that player characters themselves could die (unlike in the films), without their human selves in the “real world” being threatened by their avatar’s death in the Matrix. Perhaps then, Morpheus’ “death” is potentially less of a total thing and the version we meet in Resurrections could just simply be the latest RSI of the real Morpheus.

Just who this new version is, and if they really are Morpheus as they claim to be, remains to be seen—we’ll have to wait for Resurrections to release on December 22 to see just how much of The Matrix Online’s code lives on in it.

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