Nothing lasts forever. Neither you nor I, and especially not video games. Despite the promise of digital immortality, recent games have suffered the slings and arrows of content being retired, servers getting sunsetted, and entire storefronts falling away into the sea. Oh, and who could forget the tragic death of Mario, who this year’s Oscar ceremony pointedly chose not to honour. On this week’s Splitscreen, we explore the ephemerality of games and talk to one of the few keeping a long-dead MMO, The Matrix Online, alive.
To begin the episode, Ash Parrish, Mike Fahey, and I talk about recent instances of games — or game-adjacent objects — coming to an end. Resident Evil Village’s time-limited demos? They blow! So does Nintendo’s decision to sacrifice Mario on his 35th birthday. And while it’s good that Sony ultimately caved to sustained negative publicity and decided not to kill the PS3 and PS Vita stores, there’s no way this is a permanent arrangement.
Then we move on to a discussion of how games — especially MMOs — can evolve over time and gain literal mountains of content, but as everything from WoW: Cataclysm to Destiny 2: Beyond Light has shown us, they can also lose a lot. For our final segment, we bring on a guest who understands how nothing in games is permanent better than just about anybody: Vesuveus, an archivist and podcaster dedicated to preserving the story, history, and community of The Matrix Online. While the game only ran from 2005 to 2009, players have been working to resurrect the technically-canon MMO ever since. He tells us about that effort and much, much more.
Get the MP3 here, and check out an excerpt below.
Nathan: What initially drew you to The Matrix Online? What about it has kept you involved with both it and its community for so long? I mean, the game went away in 2009, so it only lasted — what — four years?
Vesuveus: Yeah, just about four years. I also played in beta, so it felt a little bit longer. And they had some delayed releases, so I definitely got my beta’s worth. But initially, when I heard that there was gonna be a video game based in the universe of The Matrix, I was very excited. I really liked those movies. I think the sequels are ageing pretty well. I know before the announcement of Matrix 4, the sequels were kind of disregarded, but they were really good at universe building. The Matrix Online let you participate and influence the story. That’s how the game was marketed. There were some limitations there, but it definitely gave you a sense of accomplishment when you actually interacted with the live events team or the characters from the movies.
Nathan: Earlier in this episode, even, we were talking about other games that did these events that were run by GMs — actual events that were live and for the sake of that game one time only. I find it interesting that there’s this effort to restore a game where that part of it, the central draw, won’t be present. An emulated version of the game can’t impact The Matrix canon. So what’s the appeal of resurrecting a game like that?
Vesuveus: That’s a good point. It does kind of contradict the main draw — actually pushing the story forward. But I tell ya, we had some people that were so good at creating player events that people used to confuse them with the actual canon storyline. So having that open sandbox area, that void will get filled by some person or another.
Fahey: It doesn’t need to hook onto what the current Matrix canon will be. It’s fan fiction. It’s in the hands of the fans now. You can take that story wherever you want it to go, and there’s no problem with that coexisting with whatever the Wachowskis come up with.
Ash: Do you think of it as fan fiction?
Vesuveus: Oh yeah, any role-play that occurs now is definitely in that fan fiction realm. But you know, some of it is really good. People come in, and they just sort of relive some old memories. The emulator now is semi-functional, and we’re always a few months away from a breakthrough. So there’s always a little excitement. But some people come in, and they just do what they used to do when the game was live.
Nathan: It’s very interesting that there’s been so much effort put into recreating this game, because the main emulator — MXOEmu, which is a weird thing to say out loud, because it sounds like I’m talking about a bird — started a couple weeks after the game closed down. It seems like it’s been a very laborious project, even more difficult than emulation projects for other MMOs. Why is that? What is so difficult about bringing this game in particular back?
Vesuveus: Well, the code of the game is very difficult to crack. A lot of the data of the game was server-side. The lone developer, Rajko, has been able to crack just about everything that was client side. So there’s things you can do in the emulator now that other people won’t see on their end. But the server is pretty stable, so there’s not much crashing. At one point, he was trying to port the code over to Unreal Engine 4, but apparently it didn’t take.
Fahey: Jeez, that’s ambitious.
Nathan: I reached out to him about it a little bit. He was saying that the issue with bringing it to Unreal 4 is that it’s a newer engine, so he had to change things within the game and re-block a lot of objects and stuff like that. But then on top of that, because it’s a new and constantly updated engine, Epic would drop an update, and then he’d have to change his emulated game even more to accommodate it. That’d take a week, and then a few months later, another update would drop. It just became this cycle of busywork. So after a while, he was like, “Actually I’m just gonna emulate the original server, because this isn’t happening. It’s too much for one person to do.”
Vesuveus: He’s been doing it in his spare time. He’s never asked for a dime. So I think it’s just a job of passion for him. A hobby.
Fahey: A labour of love.
Vesuveus: Haha, that’s it, thank you. I couldn’t spit that one out. We just appreciate everything he’s done. It’s very frustrating for him, and sometimes you can tell he’s really frustrated. But he just keeps plugging away.
Ash: Do you have any idea of how many people at any one time are playing the game nowadays?
Vesuveus: Last year, during the lockdowns, we used to get in and do parties just about every month. We haven’t scheduled one in a while. The setting of the game is a city, and it’s pretty dense, so there was always someplace cool to go, like a location that was from the movies. So it was just a lot of fun to get together, cut loose, and interact.
But as far as players, I think we got up to about 25 before we crashed it. It wasn’t a total server crash. I guess we stressed one area of the game too much.
Fahey: It really was a beautiful game, and when I played it, I had high hopes that it’d be like Anarchy Online. I was hoping I’d get that sort of same vibe. It felt kind of like that to me: the urban cityscape and everyone hanging out and wearing cool clothes. So much potential there. I’m glad that it’s still there in some form. It would be a great loss otherwise.
Vesuveus: It was a very ambitious game. They tried to pick up where a cinematic universe — a very successful cinematic universe — left off. So I think that originally drew a lot of people in. Having some characters from the movies absolutely helped it, but there was one character who exited very early who, I think, hurt the game.
Ash: Is that Morpheus?
Vesuveus: It is. We’re not really sure exactly why Morpheus was killed off very quickly. It could have been that Laurence Fishburne was voicing him, and it would have been expensive to continue that throughout the arc of the game. But the development team found a way to bring him back.
Fahey: How did they bring him back? I know that one of our writers, Zack Zwiezen, wrote a big story about Morpheus being dead, and he also wrote about how the new Matrix movies are gonna screw that all up.
Vesuveus: I spoke with someone who was on the development team, putting on the live events, and he said that they had Laurence Fishburne’s likeness, and they had a lot of voiceover work. So they were like, “Well, we can’t do much more, but we can recycle what we have.” So the way the story went was, there was an antagonist who tried to use Morpheus to rile up the humans to break the truce against the machines. So he coded a simulacrum of Morpheus out of bits and pieces of code fragments that were in The Matrix. Because when Morpheus was killed, he was in The Matrix. So apparently you can piece somebody back together. It was, like, a limited version — a cheap imitation. But this simulacrum ended up becoming a character.
Ash: I love when there are larger, outside-the-game reasons for stuff that happens, but then they find a way to incorporate that into the game. So he acts the way that he does because he’s literally pieced together from all the stuff that was recorded before.
Nathan: I’m really curious about what The Matrix 4 is going to do with all of this. There’s a lot of narrative just sitting there, possibly for the taking. I imagine that if any of that ends up in The Matrix 4, then for people like yourself, that will be hugely rewarding. Do you think that’s how it’s going to work out?
Vesuveus: I’m about 50-50 on it. I’m hopeful that it’ll be considered canon. Laurence Fishburne not returning does lend itself to this aspect of the story remaining canon. But originally I thought it would just be scrapped and go the way of Star Wars Legends. But there are some very interesting characters and cool story arcs. So far it looks like they could springboard off where this story left off. But I think the way it might go is, it’ll tell a story that doesn’t really touch The Matrix Online, and then it’ll be up to us to argue about whether it’s really canon or if it’s scrapped.
For all that and more, check out the episode. New episodes drop every Friday, and don’t forget to like and subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Stitcher. Also, if you feel so inclined, leave a review, and you can always drop us a line at [email protected] if you have questions or to suggest a topic. If you want to yell at us directly, you can reach us on Twitter: Ash is @adashtra, Fahey is @UncleFahey, and Nathan is @Vahn16. See you next week!