Courage to Play

Due to my age, my gaming socialization took place in the 90s – a decade that I therefore consider to be the most pop-culturally relevant in the history of mankind. But it wasn’t just the first attempts at 3D gaming that left their mark on me, the films of that time also play a special role in my life to this day. One film that perhaps best describes the ’90s hit theaters shortly before it ended: The Matrix. So when the umpteenth rerun ran on TV a few weeks ago, I couldn’t look away – and was fascinated not only by the now almost cutesy combination of action, teenage angst and the myth of the Internet. Because I realized again how much film and games inspired each other back then. Of course, this is most striking in the slow-motion gunfights from The Matrix, which were reflected less than two years later in the game design of Max Payne – whose developer Remedy Design remained true to this aesthetic until its latest game, Control.

But the obvious interaction between film and games was only one aspect, because the Wachowski sisters were obviously aware of the pop-cultural location of their work. With the short film anthology Animatrix, they sought an early alliance with anime, and with the video game Enter the Matrix, the universe was to be interactively further told on an par with the film. Enter the Matrix was accordingly hyped in the run-up to its release in 2003, and the production effort was correspondingly large. None other than David Perry, at that time one of the most dazzling and up-and-coming game designers with ambitious games like MDK or Messiah and snazzy leather jackets, was supposed to take care of the game quality. The script was written by the Wachowski sisters in analogy to the films; in addition, they shot another hour of film material, which, in cinema quality and with actors from the film trilogy, complemented the interactive gaming experience and was intended to make it an equal medium.

Now we know: Enter the Matrix was unfortunately not a very good game, David Perry ended his career as a designer after another, clearly unambitious and also very weak Matrix game and created the basis of today’s streaming service PlayStation Now with Gakai, and the next chapter in the Matrix universe will only be continued on the big screen in a few months after all these years. So, what happened to the connection between the film and the game?

The ambition to consistently follow through with the media break between film and games was actually promising. After all, the proximity of the two forms of media is still constantly being pursued today. For example, Ubisoft uses motion capture to make popular actors like Giancarlo Esposito and Jon Bernthal appear authentically in its games. At the same time, Netflix announces film adaptations of well-known gaming series almost every week in order to attract the young target group to its streaming service: Not only are successful brands like The Witcher and Resident Evil being converted into TV show formats, but with Castlevania there are also several seasons of a gaming series whose last spin-off was several years ago. And after Lara Croft and Sonic, even Super Mario will soon be able to experience passive screen adventures. On the other hand, there are still games based on the Marvel universe, Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. However, the deep interlocking with the movies that Enter the Matrix wanted to exemplify is completely missing.

So with all the happy handshaking between games and film executives, I demand a steady, high-quality gaming equivalent to film adaptations: Finally, give me real game adaptations! Not just games that are based on the same brand, but in which the protagonists look different and whose stories are not directly connected to the films and series. And in fact, games based on major entertainment brands are now the exception rather than the rule. In the last console generation, it became clear how much the big AAA productions have to rely on proven brands. Consequently, sequels to well-known game series like Assassin’s Creed or Call of Duty and, if you’re lucky, reboots and remakes of old classics, like Dead Space, are coming back again and again. The risk of establishing completely new brands is really only economically feasible for small productions and independent games. Consistently conceived adaptations could close a gap here: The brands would not have to be established first, the identification with the plot and protagonists would be given from day 1. And the abundance of elaborately produced series that are explicitly aimed at a young audience has probably never been so great. Why is there no equivalent of series spinoffs like Better Call Saul, why no opulent fantasy role-playing game with gripping Game of Thrones short stories penned by the series creators, why no humorous adventure game about coach Ted Lasso’s new footy season? While there used to be direct-to-DVD sequels, why not just develop direct-to-game sequels today? I, and many others, would be at least as excited to follow their favorite stories and heroes interactively as well, rather than just being presented with the next rendition of a well-known brand like the Avengers, detached from movie templates, or more sequels to existing AAA gaming IP. Instead, movies and series, if at all, are currently only abused as a supposedly clever marketing tool in the form of quickly produced mobile games. This doesn’t even seem skillful, but above all not intentional – and thus can’t meet the premium demands of the big screen role models.

My appeal to dare to play with films again takes me back to 2003, because this column is actually about the special moments we have experienced with video games. Enter the Matrix is a very special case for me, because I was deeply disappointed by the game. So disappointed, in fact, that after an hour of playing it, I didn’t want to touch it again. And yet, unlike many games I liked much more, it remains in my memory to this day. For the moment I took it home, the great expectations I had for a narrative equal to the movies, an extension of the Matrix universe. And that as an interactive video game. A moment that was really more of a promise that to this day has not been fulfilled. It’s about time!

Enter the Matrix is one of the most disappointing gaming experiences in the author’s life. And yet it also remained positively in the memory – as perhaps the most ambitious attempt to blur the line between game and film to date.

This post is also available in: German