The Matrix Online may have died in 2009, but there’s still a ghost in the machine

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The faint remnants of The Matrix Online still reverberate somewhere in the ether. I’m not saying it’s possible to jack in, but… well, do some Googling and you may or may not find a website dedicated to emulating this beloved, doomed MMO long after its funeral. You may or may not uncover a hyperlink that downloads a preserved version of the game client and a crack designed to jailbreak it from Sony’s rigamortis grasp. You may or may not be asked to fabricate login credentials, and you may or may not watch your computer seize up as it attempts to render assets that have been left to atrophy since 2009.

Against all odds, The Matrix Online keeps finding ways to stubbornly survive

But if you follow the white rabbit long enough—if you take the red pill and eschew the moldering firewalls like the brave pirates of the Nebuchadnezzar once did—you will eventually find those abandoned greyscale buildings, that queasy smog-stained sky, and a deep, permeating sense of loss. The Matrix Online shambles on, creaky but undeterred.

It will not take long for you to understand that The Matrix Online has grown shriveled and desiccated in its afterlife. The game was released in 2005, and Sega pulled the plug just four years later. The Matrix Online’s emulation project—the only way to play the game in 2021—was pieced together by a hacker named Rajko through reams of server code he scraped up as the game entered its hospice period. Rajko has toiled for 12 years as the MMO’s personal curator, and as of this writing, the emulation resembles more of a zombie than a messiah. A huge swathe of content is missing and will likely never be recovered. The project is not capable of providing combat, quests, character progression, or really, any of the game elements that a nation of redpills once enjoyed.

And yet, against all odds, The Matrix Online keeps finding ways to stubbornly survive. For those who grew up adoring this game and the greater Matrix mythos, that’s more than enough.

In stasis

“You [use the emulation] to chat, explore, equip clothing and weapons, and emote,” says Bitbomb, one of the many denizens of a Discord server dedicated to the ongoing resuscitation of the MMO. “Most recently, your character can finally sit on things. That didn’t work for the longest time.”

The Matrix Online deserved better. Hell, The Matrix itself deserved better. All the pieces were in place. The Wachowski sisters pioneered a dense fiction perfectly tuned for an ascendant generation of technophiles: a filthy dystopia embellished with snakeskin trench coats and mirrored sunglasses. They used Hollywood to realize a generation’s worth of latent cyberpunk wish-fulfillment. The franchise was downright monolithic for a few years, the first film scooping up nearly $500 million at the box office and earning a quartet of Oscars at the Academy Awards. Neo, Trinity, and Morpheus were quickly consecrated into a new pantheon of superheroes long before the Marvel revolution.

If you asked me what I thought the future held in 1999, I’d tell you that it seemed inevitable that The Matrix would continue to cultivate its multiversal empire with a litany of sequels, TV shows, comic books, and video games, securing its place as an omnivorous media juggernaut. The Matrix Online was supposed to be the ultimate capstone of that promise; a persistent metaverse where the saga could grow, twist, and iterate forever. The Wachowski sisters named the MMO as the canonical successor to the trilogy, so for a crop of newly-minted fans captivated by transhuman potential, a subscription was a no brainer.

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The Matrix Online

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)
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The Matrix Online

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)
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The Matrix Online

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)
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The Matrix Online

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)
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The Matrix Online

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

Afterlife

But you probably know the story from here. The Matrix’s two muddled sequels lacked the watershed, mind-bending clarity that elevated the original, and by 2005, the franchise’s zeitgeist had thoroughly passed through the nervous system of American society, leaving only a chittering niche of diehards behind. The Matrix Online earned middling reviews and a small, negligible playerbase upon release, and when it was mercifully snuffed out of existence, nobody really seemed to notice. But the passage of time has been kind to the pop relics of the early 2000s and right now, we are once again living through a hot flash of Matrix mania.

When I was hearing the same canned dialogue in WoW over and over, The Matrix Online was experimenting with spontaneous public theater

The fourth film in the series—The Matrix Resurrections—is about to enter theaters, and rumors of a fifth entry are already abound.

Those who adored this misadventurous MMO did not need a renaissance to reignite their love, but when I hit the dirty avenues of the emulation myself, I caught a few other newbies hiding out in the chat box, probing the ancient DNA of our once-and-future blockbuster. They, like me, caught the fever again. The Matrix has us, same as it ever was.

Nobody, not even the most ardent Matrix Online defenders, wants to argue that the game was unfairly treated by critics. “The flaws were numerous,” says Vesuvius, another Discord member who was perhaps the most effusive about the MMO’s legacy during my interviews. “The combat [was unbalanced,] there were bugs, exploits, and a PvP system with no reward other than bragging rights.”

All of those problems eventually proved untenable. The MMO held under 500 active players by the time it was shuttered, which is about as grim as a server population can get.

The Matrix Online

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

But Vesuvius believes that there are certain elements of the Matrix Online experience that haven’t been replicated before or since by any of the major players in the games industry. In particular he points to the game’s Live Events Team, which was composed of genuine Sony developers who would take control of important lore characters—think Morpheus or Seraph—and act out a crucial junction of the narrative in real time.

The idea of a studio reaching through the looking glass and manipulating the contours of the Matrix without any scripting or artifice is so perfect I can’t believe it didn’t make a bigger splash. When I was hearing the same canned dialogue in WoW’s Stormwind over and over again, The Matrix Online was experimenting with spontaneous public theater—a cavalcade of players chasing Niobe through the corridors, desperate to eavesdrop on any juicy intel. That is a bold bit of game design; maybe we really were missing out.

“The [live events] were unannounced, spontaneous, secretive,” says Vesuvius. “Even if an event took place on your server for your organization, there was no guarantee you could participate. Screenshots depicting the events were posted to forums on the following day. They were often the best way to stay up to date on the story.”

The red pill

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Enter the Matrix art

(Image credit: Shiny Entertainment)

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Other players I spoke to extolled the flexibility of The Matrix Online’s talent tree—another element of the game that is sadly impossible to resuscitate in the emulation. “We could swap out our abilities whenever we wanted. In other MMOs when you chose your role you had to stick to it, but I loved the freedom to change my loadout when it suited me,” says Dan, who tells me he started playing the game when he was 14 years old. Given how the rest of the RPG landscape has slowly sanded down the hegemony of the Almighty Spec, perhaps Dan is right when he says that The Matrix Online was ahead of its time. 

By and large though, these wayward fans are most fond of the way this MMO told its story. The Matrix Online was religious about its plot; dispensing frequent cinematics and universe-altering “critical missions” that slowly unfurled what life was like after Neo. In 2005, as it became clear that there was no more Matrix fiction on the horizon, this video game was the only way to get a taste of that endlessly cascading code. The Matrix Extended Universe goes places, and these players savored it to the last drop.

“Niobe revealed her true feelings for Neo. Ghost resisted temptation and corruption at the hands of a sexy machine liaison designed to appeal to humans. As the Oracle hinted, he went on to lead the charge absent of Neo and Morpheus,” says Vesuvius. “The lore was always the heart of the game.”

Resurrections

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The Matrix Online

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)
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The Matrix Online

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

For now, only a few people if Lana Wachowski pays that groundwork forward in The Matrix Resurrections. I love the idea of the band getting back together—Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, Jada Pinkett Smith—for an Endgame-style supergroup bonanza that still honors the scaffolding laid out by an old, dead MMO. Imagine the wondrous expanse of The Matrix where some of the most momentous inflection points are laid out in YouTube cutscene compilations.

After the franchise’s long, circuitous trip back to the pinnacle of pop culture, it would be almost fitting.

Vesuvius says that he desperately hopes the MMO remains canonically enshrined in the new movie, but others have made peace with the Wachowskis potentially pressing the reset button. “A reboot could be supremely inventive. I feel like I would be experiencing it with the same folks I did way back when,” says a Matrix Online lifer who goes by Sugaree. “The deepest feeling of satisfaction I got came from socializing. I’m not afraid of a reboot.”

Regardless of what comes next, The Matrix Online will never flicker out for good. The game is enfeebled—a shell of itself—but it persists because the memories have never grown stale. Take a walk in the uncanny metroplex of MegaCity, close your eyes, and be whisked away to an era where these streets were packed with kung-fu fights, leather dusters, and smoked ammunition. A crack of light is pouring into this tomb as The Matrix stirs once more.

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