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'Matrix' Game Loaded With Film Parallels

Tight coordination with the movie directors spawns a long-sought fusion.

May 15, 2003|Alex Pham | Times Staff Writer

"The Matrix" film trilogy portrays the intersection of the digital and real worlds. Hollywood studios and video game makers have been looking for that fusion for years.

Since the advent in the mid-1990s of CD-ROMs, which allow personal computers to display vivid graphics, the two industries have struggled to merge the passive experience of the silver screen and the interactive experience of the small screen.

"Enter the Matrix," which hits stores today, parallels and incorporates bits of the movie "The Matrix Reloaded" as no other film-theme game has ever done. But the conditions that gave rise to the tight coordination -- the two directors are avid video gamers -- are unlikely to be repeated, say game industry veterans.

The game includes an hour of exclusive footage shot by the movie's directors and scriptwriters, Andy and Larry Wachowski. They wrote 244 pages of dialogue for the game, which features voice-overs from the film's principal actors, Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, Laurence Fishburne and Jada Pinkett Smith. The movie's set designer designed sets for the game. Ditto for the costumes. And the Wachowski brothers had carte blanche from Warner Bros.

"For the most part, those were unique circumstances," said Dan Kelly, vice president of business development at THQ Inc., a Calabasas game publisher that has worked with numerous movie studios to produce games based on films.

"The Wachowski brothers had a specific interest in seeing the game developed, and they were in a unique position to make that happen," he said.

The making of the typical movie-based video game is nothing like it was for "Enter the Matrix." After it buys the necessary license from a studio, a game publisher may get a copy of the script, a discussion or two with the director and limited access to the set during filming. The publisher has to negotiate separate contracts with the movie's actors to obtain rights to their digitized likenesses, and often it can't get actors to supply their voice-over talent.

And usually, a game company isn't called in for consultation until the movie is well into production -- a problem because it can take two years to produce a game and as few as 90 days to shoot a movie.

With "Enter the Matrix," developer Shiny Entertainment had 2 1/2 years to work on the game. It also had full access to virtually every phase in the movie's production.

"My expectation was that I'd spend a week on the set gathering reference material," said Stuart Roch, executive producer for Shiny, based in Aliso Viejo. "Here, I spent half a year on the set -- 12 weeks in Alameda and 14 weeks in Sydney, Australia."

The Wachowskis made sure that the game script complemented the movie's story line -- and then some. Moviegoers, for example, will see a character exit a scene and return later in the movie with a mysterious package. The explanation for how that character ended up with the package is only in the game.

"They had to write two scripts," Roch said. "This wasn't a lunchbox license. It was a unique creative collaboration."

The result is one of the most expensive games ever. The average game costs $5 million to produce.

Game publisher Infogrames Inc., which recently changed its name to Atari Inc., paid $47 million last year to purchase Shiny, which won the Matrix movie license the year before. Atari executives confirmed a reported $20 million in production costs, not including marketing expenses or the price of the extra hour of movie footage.

Despite all that, the early buzz from some previewers is that the game is pedestrian.

Games have come a long way. As the redheaded stepchildren of entertainment, they grew up in the shadows of the movie and music industries.

They began to attract attention after the CD-ROM became a regular PC feature. Computer and video game sales soared in the mid-'90s, and Hollywood took notice. Game divisions were created at major studios, including Metro-Goldwyn Mayer Inc., Fox, Walt Disney Co., Universal Studios and DreamWorks SKG.

Their games had high-profile movie tie-ins, but they flopped.

"There was a brief period of time when everyone thought there was this incredible merging of Hollywood and Silicon Valley," said Tom Zito, a San Francisco entrepreneur who ran an interactive movie firm in the '90s called Digital Pictures. "It didn't happen. And that left a lot of people disillusioned."

Hollywood found the technology far too limited, Zito said. More important, he said, movie studios found they had little talent for games.

"Being able to think like a game designer and being able to think like a filmmaker are two very different skill sets," he said.

"For a filmmaker, the narrative story is most important. Gamers don't really care about the story. At the end of the day, what matters to the gamer is how well the game plays. They want to be able to control the world, to do things in that world."

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