Thursday, May 28, 2009

AdVantage Point: Matrix Online (2004)

Give an idiot a scanner and a comic book and let him pick out all the advertisements for video games.
This is AdVantage Point -- a chance to document the winding timeline of comics/gaming history as it was canonized by the adverts. Musings, rantings, observations, stream of consciousness.

Reinterpreting most developed fictions as an interactive experience isn't all that hard.

The basic construction blocks of video games are much the same as any other domain of fiction, complimented by using recognisable pro-nouns and concepts to establish a sense of verisimilitude in the interactive landscape. The best games possess the same attention to detail as any comic book, novel, or movie, no matter how incidental, making those comparable mediums and their recognisable locales ripe for plundering as video game levels.

The Matrix (1999) deliberately expanded upon the culture and technical references of video games and computing. Describing the multimedia franchise as a fitting choice for a licensed MMORPG would be an understatement of the obvious, if not the inevitable!
If ever there was a fanbase and commercial premise ready to embrace the infinite, it was the "free minds" enamoured with the cultural clash of kung fu action and existential lite-philosophy that took place within an artificial reality construct referenced in the film's title. I mean, essentially, the movie was about a giant "secret-best" MMO!

To deviate momentarily, I have to admit to being relatively late to the Matrix party.
Despite an instant campaign of approval reminiscent of Agent Smith's expanding ego in the sequels; I had a hard time looking at the film as anything but an overblown green anime/comic book hybrid starring Keanu "Whoa!" Reeves. For whatever reason, I didn't appreciate the type of cross-cultural references that helped further anime's growing popularity in the West, and other comparable ideas discussed yesterday [Musi(c.)PSX: Superthruster].

Fortunately for me, after a couple of stubborn years and some female encouragement, I finally got over my prejudices to discover a most excellent film, indeed.

This goodwill, for the most part, even extended to the much maligned sequels, which in my opinion, immediately felt like the logical continuation of those same anime/comic book styled adventures. Sure, I could've done without most scenes in Revolutions that weren't set in the Matrix itself, but I suppose after that first intrigue-filled viewing of the original film, that was true of all of the movies. Which is probably why I still watch Reloaded the most. That, and my giant man-crush on Daniel Bernhardt. Ahem.

The announcement of an on-going video game that expanded the now concluded adventures of the Matrix characters seemed like quite a brilliant idea! If I'd been more of a PC gamer with a wallet that justified paying periodical instalments for one game, I probably would've jumped all over the MMO like Neo on Trinity.
Alas; circumstances were such that no matter how accepting I had become of the escapades of these vinyl-clad digital warriors, I was not going to play Online.

Judging from 1up's own six-part pseudo-blog on the developments of "MxO," I apparently escaped a fate worse than techno-assimilation. I'm personally a little reluctant to place that much faith in the monotoned labourings of Monsieur Sharkey, but can't argue with some of the predicaments he found himself in. Shame he didn't last longer.

To date, my experiences with MMOs remain limited to a handful of naively enjoyed brief liaisons with reviled freebie, Runescape. Conversations with WoW diehards who share an interest in turning everything into an MMO pitch have taught me that this ignorance is true bliss.
Without the familiarity and acceptance of the fantasy game's internal conventions, I've been able to avoid becoming a slave to the machine world, unaware and uninterested in established task trees and methods of indulging the MMO experience.

Matrix Online immediately appealed to my sensibilities as an avid and seasoned superhero fan.
The inclusion of comics writer and acclaimed creator of Concrete, Paul Chadwick, was a vote of confidence for the game's ability to sustain a live-action plotline comparable to the on-going adventures of comics, where the craft was successfully honed over sixty-plus years.

Execution might have been lacking, but by featuring a cast of characters, new and old, in a massively developed open-world, Matrix Online developed a simple MMO model that I believe is far more viable than the grinding of more popular alternatives. MxO allowed players to embark on adventures to align themselves with factions from the film, whilst also developing simple skill sets familiar to fans of the movie, achieving an interactive brilliance of simplicity.
Live events and a regularly unfolding storyline that encouraged players to strive toward encounters with big name NPCs, mirrored the type of story-driven action found in any comic book, combining it with the simple conventions of neophyte-friendly gaming. Easily subverted emote-actions also meant seasoned avatars were likely appeased, easily rendered pantsless by combat.

To the best of my knowledge, much like the franchise in general, it seems the Matrix Online is now a distant memory. Ten years after the first film, it's really quite extraordinary to observe the shift in fervor. Once inescapable comparisons to The Matrix have faded as cinema goers become increasingly exposed to the superhuman exploits of DC and Marvel superheroes, and gain overdue perspective for what's truly possible. The sequels surely did their part to end widespread appeal, but in a reversal of roles, I think it's important we remember all the significant contributions this very late-late nineties/millennial series made.

EDIT: [May, 29] It seems Matrix Online had indeed still been running, but has just been announced for a final disconnect on July 31, 2009. How eerily topical.

In the lead-up toward DC Universe Online -- another brand perfectly suited to the MMO format -- I can't help but hope Sony Entertainment Online gained valuable insight from their acquisition of the Matrix Online game.
Sure, they led it to it's eventual demise, but the examples presented by MxO are no less admirable as a foundation for a friendly and accessible model of the MMO concept. With the diverse talents of contributors like Geoff Johns and Jim Lee, not to mention the vast universe of characters on tap for the series, I hope we have a ready-made model for success. The chance to literally interact with a comic book somehow seems even more obvious than the techno-hipster metaphors of a world based on computer programming. It also arguably has some proven measure of success, if you're inclined to use City of Heroes as a comparable example. Then there's Sony's other beloved MMO that I haven't mentioned; Everquest.

It'll be at least another year before we see if those examples, and Matrix Online, have contributed a legacy sufficient to support the superhero MMO franchise. Though admittedly naïve to a large extent; I like to think MxO, as a vestigial oddity of the turn of the millennium, will live on through DCU as a valuable example of what is truly conceivable when the WoW bullshit is pushed aside.

Yes! It was all about comics again!
You've been fooled by reality again, no? (Uh... No.)

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