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The Matrix Awakens imagines the future of storytelling in Unreal Engine 5

Matrix movie veterans help bring Neo to virtual life for Epic Games

Keanu Reeves walking behind Neo dodging bullets in The Matrix Awakens Image: Epic Games
Toussaint Egan is an associate curation editor, out to highlight the best movies, TV, anime, comics, and games. He has been writing professionally for over 8 years.

A new interactive experience set in the world of The Matrix just went live, giving players an immersive, real-time look at Epic Games’ Unreal Engine 5 on PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X/S. While the playable demo, The Matrix Awakens, has no explicit connections to The Matrix Resurrections, the fourth movie in the franchise, Epic pitches the experience as “the future of storytelling.”

Polygon had the opportunity to speak with technical director Jeff Farris and art director Jerome Platteaux about how Epic’s collaboration with The Matrix Resurrections director Lana Wachowski came about.

According to Platteaux, The Matrix Awakens spawned out of Epic’s Special Projects team, a group of developers and technical artists within the studio devoted to producing an annual tech demo designed to showcase the latest innovations in Unreal Engine technology. “Last year we did the PS5 demo with [“Lumen in the Land of Nanite”], and a couple years before we did the ray tracing demo with the stormtrooper in the elevator,” Platteaux said.

For the 2021 demo for Unreal Engine 5, the team wanted to go even further, creating not only a showcase of the engine’s capabilities to render dynamic open-world environments, but something that they could actually let players experience for themselves.

“We thought that ‘Lumen in the Land of Nanite’ was an amazing demo, but we kind of missed that opportunity of letting people get their hands on it,” Farris told Polygon. “I think a lot of people believed that it was real, but there were obviously still questions. So with this demo, we wanted to take all these new systems and push them out into the world. Let’s go one step further, raise the stakes, and actually put this into consumers’ hands.”

From there, the question facing the team was whether the demo would be entirely original, or based on an existing intellectual property. It was through Kim Libreri, Epic Games’ chief technology officer, who previously worked as a VFX supervisor on the Matrix trilogy, and Platteaux himself, who worked on The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, that the team connected with Lana Wachowski, who at the time was in the middle of filming The Matrix Resurrections. With Wachowski’s permission, the team set about creating a stand-alone interactive showcase of Unreal Engine 5’s capabilities set in the Matrix universe.

The demo opens with a scene from The Matrix with Thomas Anderson, played by Keanu Reeves, asleep at his computer desk — recreated in real time with Unreal Engine 5. The model of the young Reeves was based on the original CG model of the actor used during the making of The Matrix Reloaded, now rendered in Unreal 5 with increased visual detail and fidelity. From there, the demo transitions to a live-action scene of Reeves written and directed by Wachowski herself.

“We asked ourselves: ‘Can we try to imagine what the future of storytelling can be?’” said Platteaux. The demo itself is an attempt to answer that question by example, using a blend of live-action footage and computer-generated real-time imagery realized through an interactive action set-piece and a traversable open-world environment. The Matrix Awakens feels like a natural continuation of the franchise’s roots in transmedia storytelling, albeit compressed into the space of a 10-minute demo.

The introduction of the demo, which includes footage of Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss reprising their roles as Neo and Trinity, respectively, was filmed in Berlin, where The Matrix Resurrections was in production at the time. The character of IO, the human resistance fighter who the player assumes control of partway through the demo, was based on a character originally introduced in the trailer for Epic’s MetaHuman Creator released earlier this year.

“It’s a good way to show that these characters can look really good, because they have to be right next to a real person like Keanu and Carrie-Anne,” said Platteaux. The Matrix Awakens trends a fine line between the heady philosophic musings and the blistering gunfire-laden gratification of the series itself, given player the ability to engage in a high-speed gunfight across a sprawling highway network before allowing them to roam uninhibited through an open-world city. All in all, it took a team of over 20 employees more than a year to complete production on the demo.

Asked about whether The Matrix Awakens has any explicit connections to The Matrix Resurrections, Farris and Platteaux stressed that the demo was an entirely stand-alone experience and only that — a demo, not a game. Unreal Engine 5 is due to be released in spring 2022 and will include access to the assets used to create The Matrix Awakens, a point that Platteaux emphasized with visible excitement.

“Some way, somewhere, we’ll see a small team being able to create large-scale environments with these tools,” Platteaux said. “Unreal Engine 5 is all about empowering those people.”

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