In 1999, we answered the question “What is The Matrix?” Today we’ll answer the question, “What is The Matrix Awakens?” Like the original question, this one isn’t exactly simple, and both blur the line between reality and simulation in ways befitting of their generation.
Out now for PS5 and Xbox Series X and S, The Matrix Awakens: An Unreal Engine 5 Experience is an elaborate demo broken into three parts—a series of hyper realistic cut scenes, a playable action sequence, and an open world exploration—all made as a showcase for the upcoming Unreal Engine 5 by Epic Games, the latest iteration of a powerful 3D creation tool people can download for free to create—well, almost anything—on their computers. Written by Matrix creator and director Lana Wachowksi, and starring Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss, the demo shows how the Unreal Engine 5 software (which will be out in full next year) has advanced so much since 2014's Unreal Engine 4 that you’ll able to create simulations so lifelike, the hope is, at times, you won’t be able to tell what’s real and what isn’t, just like The Matrix itself.
The idea came from a dinner between Lana Wachowski, Kim Libreri, and John Gaeta. Librei and Gaeta were visual effects supervisors on the first three Matrix films and Lana spilled the beans that not only was she writing a new Matrix film, but she wanted them to come back. “She’s like, ‘Guess what, boys? I’m going to make another Matrix movie,’” Librei said in a video chat with io9. “[She said] ‘So are you going to come and join us?’ And we’re like, ‘Well, no, we have other careers. I work for Epic...but we’d love to do something amazing within the universe of The Matrix to show off our future upcoming Unreal Engine 5.”
And so the ball was set into motion for the world of The Matrix and Epic Games to create a mutually beneficial project called The Matrix Awakens. Once you download the experience, you’ll be greeted by what looks like footage from the original Matrix movie only... it’s not. It was created with Unreal Engine 5. And that’s not where the deception ends. Certain shots in the first section are the real Reeves, certain ones are unreal, some are obvious (such as one where he has short hair) others are not. Carrie-Anne Moss plays a huge role and she’s never real. Ever.
And while Awakens might be coming out at the same time as the fourth Matrix movie, The Matrix Resurrections, it has no narrative connections to it or the rest of the films in the franchise. “We didn’t want people to think it was from the new movie,” Libreri said. “We didn’t want to contaminate people’s perception of what the movie is and what’s not the movie. So we wanted to set this whole demo in the in the Reloaded era.” Specifically, the playable action scene. In it, Neo and Trinity appear wearing their outfits from the second film and looking 20 years younger.
Of course, the fact you’re watching these these cut scenes in the first third of the demo and trying to figure out which of them is real and which aren’t is exactly the point. Technology has gotten so good that the ideas of The Matrix, that of a reality so realistic it can fool people, continues to evolve and get more possible every day. “The things that we used to talk about as fiction are now becoming plausible in technology,” Gaeta said. “The Matrix is a cautionary tale and it’s not that we’re celebrating making a real Matrix, we’re celebrating the opening of our minds to the possibilities of that.”
Exponential growth is expected when it comes to technology. For example, Libreri explained that when he and the others made The Matrix Reloaded, the film was pushing digital technology further than most people thought imaginable. “When we would ask people to work on that movie, they would be like, ‘You’re crazy. You’re absolutely crazy. You’re never going to be able to do this,’ and we did,” Libreri said. And though it was advanced at the time, it still wasn’t quite right, which is why whenever you see a digital Agent Smith or Neo, they’re always wearing sunglasses. “We couldn’t generate the eyes,” Libreri said. “That’s why they’ve got sunglasses.” But now, with Unreal, not only can they do eyes, a shot that took 10 hours to render for Matrix Reloaded now takes 33 milliseconds on your home gaming system, according to Libreri.
After the Lana Wachowski-penned cinematic starring Reeves and Moss, The Matrix Awakens goes into that Reloaded-era set playable chase/gun fight. The player is in the back seat, shooting tires off cars driven by agents, with Neo and Trinity in the front seat. Then, when that’s over, the real showcase begins and never actually ends. The demo’s third and final section encourages players to explore the open world they just drove through blowing stuff up with Neo and Trinity. And it’s a massive space. Over a nearly 16 square kilometer in-game space, players can steal one of 40,000 cars, walk around over 500 kilometers of sidewalks, drive around almost 300 kilometers of roads, check out all of the 7,000 buildings and more. But there is no aim, rhyme or reason. It’s all there to showoff Unreal Engine 5 and, as such, there are toggles so viewers can see all the different geometry, physics, and AIs working to make the open world real as they move around it. There are, however, reportedly a few Easter Eggs for people who do enough searching.
“With the power of Unreal Engine 5, we can do this for real. We can actually show that a lot of the things that we talked about in The Matrix,” Libreri said. “You know, the good bits. The visualization. Not the putting people in vats of goop and plugging them to be batteries.”
Next year, with the release of Unreal Engine 5, Libreri promises more content will be coming in this world, including actual gameplay where players will be able to do more like maybe fly or fight or other things. But more than things his team creates though, Libreri and Gaeta hopes this demo gets fans excited for the capabilities of Unreal Engine 5 and that the community does Matrix-y things he never imagined. “We’re hoping that you see lots of little mini games and people take inspiration from this,” he said, [We hope] the demo takes a life of its own.”
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