The Matrix Resurrections has an incredibly smart take on showing video games in movies

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Movies and TV have a notoriously tough time depicting video games. They tend toward presenting games as either generic arcade titles or as impossibly full-featured virtual realities, neither of which captures the typical experience of playing one. But The Matrix Resurrections, a film that’s all about virtual reality, has managed one of my favorite takes on it yet by embracing its own world’s unrealism.

Below, I’m going to talk about a few specific plot points from The Matrix Resurrections, which premiered yesterday in theaters and on HBO Max. It’s a movie I found a lot of problems with but that many of my colleagues at other publications enjoyed, and if you don’t want some light spoilers, you should stop reading now.

All right. Let’s talk about games.

The Matrix Resurrections opens with protagonist Neo living inside a new iteration of the Matrix, a simulated reality designed by machines to keep captive humans docile. In an early twist, we learn that The Matrix itself now exists inside the Matrix — but not as a film. Instead, Neo (living as Thomas Anderson, just like in the first film) is a renowned game designer who created a world-famous trilogy of video games with the same plot, characters, catchphrases, and stylistic elements as the first three Matrix films.

But although a large chunk of the movie is devoted to discussing these games, the film stays away from specifics. We know the first installment won an award in 1999, the graphics are detailed enough that a Matrix-trapped Trinity can recognize her in-game counterpart two decades later, and it’s implied to have some kind of linear narrative with a main character, so it’s presumably not a version of the real-world Matrix Online MMORPG. (Maybe a third-person shooter? An immersive sim? A point-and-click adventure game?) When characters reference scenes from the games, director Lana Wachowski makes liberal use of old Matrix film footage to illustrate them; these could be live-action cutscenes, but they’re never explicitly described as such.

Resurrections probably leaves the games’ details vague because they’re a symbolic part of a story about art in general and the Wachowskis’ experiences specifically. But intentionally or not, it’s an interesting choice within the fiction of the series. It’s one of the rare times we can envision the Matrix’s rough edges beyond being an excuse for superpowers — a moment that’s potentially unrealistic in a very realistic way.

In our world, virtual spaces are usually about evocative symbols, not precise simulation. Developers bend supposedly objective rules to create realistic-feeling tension. Prestige narrative games — the genre Neo seemingly works in — are full of what game designer Robert Yang has referred to as “primal gameisms”: illogical conventions that people stop noticing as they focus on progress and achievements. Players can run around a first-person shooter (even in a VR headset!) without constantly wondering why they don’t have a full body. They implicitly grasp that a lockpicking mechanic is a simplified representation of finagling a door open, and depending on the game, that they can’t open the door by kicking it or reaching through a gap.

The original Matrix portrays its simulation as a hyper-realistic space that can be hacked to expose its unreality. But The Matrix Resurrections hints at an eminently recognizable world of quick and dirty shortcuts. For all we know, there’s never been a literally playable Matrix installment — just something that produces an after-impression of moments from the most amazing game you’ve ever seen. The film footage isn’t purely a metatextual device for the audience — it’s a translation of how people inside the Matrix remember the experience, the way many of us remember our own favorite games having better graphics or more intuitive controls. (Unfortunately, that does deprive me of imagining Trinity struggling through a convoluted 20-year-old point-and-click interface to learn the truth about reality.)

This would mirror all the principles that Resurrections’ villain — a program dubbed The Analyst — suggests his Matrix is based on. It’s a place where, to some extent, people understand they’re being fooled and just don’t care. They like the comfort of fondly remembering old stories at the expense of anything new or real. They experience things the way someone has told them to experience them, even when there’s nothing actually there.

To reiterate, I think The Matrix Resurrections doesn’t do a great job of developing a lot of its themes. But it handles this particular piece in a perfect marriage of style and story — even if I would have loved watching Carrie-Anne Moss play a real fake Matrix game.

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