The Matrix Online Updated Q&A - The Story Behind The Matrix Online
Writer Paul Chadwick discusses the story behind The Matrix Online.
There was a time when you'd approach all massively multiplayer games by making a character (usually some kind of elf) fight rats, goblins, and eventually, dragons, to gain experience levels either by yourself or with other players. These days, more online games are branching out into unusual settings, like The Matrix Online, which is being built on the story and world made famous in the Wachowski brothers' motion pictures. Writer Paul Chadwick explains how the game's story will follow that of the movies, and what we can expect from it in the future.
GameSpot: Why did The Matrix Online team decide to pick up the story after the events in the third motion picture?
Paul Chadwick: The Wachowskis have told the trilogy as they originally conceived it: birth, life, and death or, alternatively, mind, body, and spirit. It's complete in itself. But they ended the trilogy story in an intriguing way, at least to me. The enemy was not utterly destroyed; a common interest was found, a deal cut, and a truce established. A frustrating, mixed result, like real life.
Like the end of the first film, it begs for a sequel. And since a massively multiplayer online game can't have thousands of Neos and Trinitys and Morpheuses running around, it made sense to set the game in this new situation, pregnant with suppressed conflict and new mysteries.
The Wachowskis offered a theme for our first year: peace--and the things people do to wreck it. That's what the game's about.
GS: Tell us how the game's background story helped influence the design of the gameworld--or are the game's four districts simply random zones of urban sprawl?
PC: The world design came first, though once the story got written, a few new things had to be built. A sewage treatment plant, for one--I can't reveal why.
The main concern was giving different areas different character--a slum, an international district, a warehouse district. Different neighborhoods will have their own group of non-player characters whom you can return to each time you play the game. Good sources for rumors.
There are also monumental sculptures in the city, which make good meeting places and which have symbolic significance to The Matrix and its history. There are also zones players cannot enter yet, or they will be forced out by agents. There are echoes of Chicago, the Wachowskis's hometown. But it's not a close correspondence.
GS: Tell us about the involvement and appearances of major characters from the motion pictures and fiction. Which major characters will players get a chance to visit with, and how often? Are brushes with major characters from the movies planned to be special events that happen on a regular basis, monthly or bimonthly, for instance?
PC: Every couple of weeks a new cinematic sequence will be made available, depicting events involving surviving characters from the films--Morpheus, the Merovingian, Persephone, Niobe, the Oracle, Seraph, Sati, The Kid, and others. Implicit in these are actions players might take--causes to join, mysteries to solve, and vengeance to inflict. The organizations offering missions will respond in logical ways to the developments and send players on missions in their own interest, which grow out of the events in the cinematic. A rare few will involve, after great effort on their part, meeting one of these "celebrity" characters, and perhaps saving their lives, killing them, or receiving a great gift.
So players won't be hangin' with Morpheus and the crew on the corner. But they're in the game with the players. Link narrates the tutorial. But the game occurs entirely in The Matrix, so we'll never see him or other "freeborn" during gameplay, since they lack the sockets with which to jack in to The Matrix.
GS: Tell us about the role that players will actually play in the game's over-arching story. Just how much impact can one player have? How about a large, organized group of players?
PC: [The developers at Monolith are] in control of the story. But the behavior of players is integral to get to certain turning points. My analogy is a juggernaut, which must be stopped with a deep trench. People grab shovels. We have the software to keep track of everyone who does, and they'll have bragging rights when the menace is defeated--they can visit the list and put a screenshot of it on their Web site. And the one who digs the last shovelful necessary will be bathed in glory. I hasten to add that the game has no shovels. These group efforts will involve very cool wire-fu fighting and sleek weapons.
So players determine when mysteries get solved or injustices get avenged. If it's taking too long, we'll have employee players passing hints and tips on the street. But I'm told that's seldom a problem with games like this; there's always a fanatical group really applying themselves and sharing information.
The SentinelGS: Tell us about the pacing of the story's development. How often is the story in the world intended to progress...through monthly updates, for instance? How often can we expect to see major shifts in the game's story?
PC: Cinematics every couple of weeks with some delays, I'm sure, as glitches arise. Missions will change; some old ones will become irrelevant as the story moves on. Of course, there'll be entry-level missions always available to build skills and assets and to orient new players.
A city newspaper will be in vending boxes on an irregular basis (a couple of times a week, usually)--click on them for a pop-up window of the front page. The twist is that this newspaper, The Sentinel, is written by unawakened "bluepills," who don't know the score. So the articles involving "redpills" (awakened humans) clashing with "exiles" (like the Merovingian) will be oddly rationalized, as if written by slightly confused, drugged newspapermen trying to fit unreal things into their assumptions about the world. As redpills, players will be able to read between the lines.
In addition, we've decided to put foreshadowing in The Sentinel, and run stories that parallel thematically the global story of the game. When each new edition comes out (it's just two pages) players will want to parse it line by line with their friends.
The story will advance in small ways all over the place. First, clues will be encountered on missions, then be passed as rumors, then be made explicit in the cinematics. Or they may be in evidence in the environment. We're even embedding word puzzles in the environment that bear on the mystery du jour. Pay attention to graffiti, advertising signs, pamphlets lying on the street, and book spines in bookstores.
Finally, there's a straight text synopsis. You'll read it and say, "So that's what that meant! I knew it meant something!"
GS: And what effect will changes in the main story have on the game? Can we expect to see familiar locales look completely different due to altered weather effects, new additions in the form of new buildings and neighborhoods, or existing neighborhoods and other structures that get destroyed?
PC: Yes. You'll see a fight or a murder attempt in a cinematic, and then you'll be able to go to the site and see damage left by what happened there. The city will grow significantly in each expansion pack, I understand, but even in the first year, some areas open up that are refreshingly different. Surreal, you might say.
I've put a fair amount of viewable after-the-action damage in my story outline, because it's technologically simple and I think it adds enormously to the sense of reality of the game. And why are you mentioning weather effects? Did somebody leak the outline to you? Don't say more about that--it's supposed to be a big surprise!
GS: What exact details can you disclose about the plans for the game's intended story? We know, for instance, that the Merovingian and his minions will play a much larger role in the game than they did in the motion pictures (they'll be a third faction, along with Zion and the machines). How will this faction come into play? Will there be a struggle for power between the factions that players can cause, or at least influence?
PC: You'll need to choose. We've created incentives for players to stick with one organization or another. You lose skills and powers you've accrued if you hop around. But your pals can join other factions and then compare notes with you.
Factions will clash. But to progress, you'll need to take on missions where you work for your organization in a strategic way. Hanging out on street corners and challenging outsiders to fights won't advance your skills and assets much. For one thing, this nifty "interlock" fight system (which allows us wild wire-fu and even bullet time) requires consent. So you'll probably only fight players of similar skill and power. Weaklings will walk away (that's my plan for when I play).
As for story developments, I'm afraid I can't reveal much. "Peace and the things people do to wreck it" is our guiding theme. To which I would add, "the things artificial intelligences do to wreck it." The Merovingian isn't the only exile with a private agenda.
But there's much skullduggery, lying, betrayal, and plausible deniability in the story. Even some mental illness. A Citizen Kane-style inquiry into one character's background, a tragic love story, the return of characters some may have thought dead, and many new characters. And a city that seems to seethe with significant symbols and secrets. The paranoia of the first film is something we're hoping to capture.
GS: Finally, is there anything else you'd like to add about The Matrix Online's story, or about the game itself?
PC: I think massively multiplayer games are in a position similar to the early years of television. They're not entirely new animals, but they tell stories with their own limitations and advantages that didn't exist before. The rules are still being written and the technology will probably advance enormously. Looking at those early TV shows, it would've been hard to predict crosscut ensemble dramas like ER, or the hypercompressed moral and legal dilemmas of Law and Order, or the surreal shaggy-dog story, Twin Peaks.
I hope The Matrix Online will offer similar innovation, with its multiple mysteries, its "wow-factor" fighting style, its sleek look, its vast play space, and the accommodations of players' social behavior that the designers have built in (we have veteran developers that have worked on EverQuest and Asheron's Call on the team). It also has the richness of the original Matrix concept in its corner, with all its possibilities for intellectual play, satire, and the surreal.
Of course, there's a wrinkle that is entirely new, which excites me: This story goes on for years. We have events that are foreshadowed for months in this game. Maybe we can even expand that horizon...
GS: Thanks, Paul.