You’ve Seen the Movie, Don’t Play the Game

Enter the Matrix, yet another crummy movie-based video game.

The video game Enter the Matrix was released the same day as The Matrix Reloaded, the movie that inspired it. By then, the game had already generated a fawning cover story in every video game magazine in the world, plus two Wired magazine stories, and front-page treatment in the New York Times’ “Circuits” section. Writers dutifully gaped at the 244-page script the Wachowski brothers wrote for the game and at the kung fu the stars did for it. Enter the Matrix, everyone agreed, was the beginning of a New Age of Entertainment Synergy, in which there was a seamless flow from movie to game to anime to …

Unfortunately, now that people have actually seen the movie and played the game, everybody seems to agree: They’re equally mediocre.

This shouldn’t be a surprise. I used to write video game ads for a living. One of our clients was a company with a richly deserved reputation for putting out awful games based on licenses purchased from television and movies. During a meeting about a particularly awful licensed game, I remember one of the marketing people saying, “That show’s so hot right now, we could put out any piece of crap and people would buy it.” The client’s company then put out several pieces of crap based on the license, and as predicted, people bought them. It’s worked out for Enter the Matrix, too: Gamers bought a record 1 million copies in its first week on the shelves.

What’s surprising is that gamers haven’t figured out that they should stop buying these games. Historically, movie video games suck, a trend that dates back to the Atari age. Chris Charla, who designed the game Disney’s Tarzan, said at a recent conference that “ET for the 2600  … really works hard to earn its reputation as one of the worst games ever made.” [Correction, May 29, 2003: Charla did not design Disney’s Tarzan.] Charla went on to say that “in the years after ET almost destroyed the game industry,” licensed games “became synonymous with … slapped-together mediocrity.” From that perspective, Enter the Matrixis right up there at the top end of the curve. Dave Perry, whose company Shiny won the Matrix game sweepstakes, knows that: The first game he ever made, way back in the days of the Sega Genesis, was called Global Gladiators. Based on a McDonald’s license, the game featured the side-scrolling, platform-jumping adventures of a bunch of kids who traveled the world and fought evildoers against a backdrop of Golden Arches and Mickey D’s clamshell boxes.

The trend spans all consoles. The makers of Batman Forever for Super Nintendo told you to “Brace yourself for endless action” but delivered two-dimensional, side-scrolling tedium. South Park for Nintendo 64 and PlayStationpromised a hilarious adult-themed game but delivered repetitive Quake-clone monotony. And the Starsky and Hutch game that’s in the pipeline for GameCube, PlayStation 2, and Xbox? Odds are, the developers didn’t pick up the license because they had a burning desire to do a great game about a lame ‘70s TV show; they did it because they needed an easy hook for their lame mission-based driving game.

Why are movie- and TV-based games almost always so bad? Usually, the answer comes down to money. Games cost a lot to produce: $5 million and up for the big games, “AAA titles” as they’re called in the industry. Licenses cost money, too, money which would otherwise be spent designing and making the game. Shiny reportedly paid $10 million just for the right to put Neo in their games (which is strange, because you can’t actually play Neo in its game), and Enter the Matrix’s budget topped out at about $20 million. That number includes sizable marketing expenses, along with paying Jada Pinkett-Smith to deliver lines and to spend hours doing kung fu with Yuen Wo Ping. When you’re dealing with Hollywood, $20 million isn’t very much at all.

Besides, the more you fork over just to participate in the Wachowski’s Gesamtkunstwerk, the less you can pay your stable full of coders to come up with artificial intelligence that makes Agent Smith act smart, or to pay artists to come up with a Matrix that looks appropriately real (or is that appropriately fake?). The end result is a short game filled with boring repetitive hallways and boring repetitive streets and boring repetitive fights, with a bunch of stuff tacked on that’s more movie than game. Which happen to be the qualities everybody is complaining about in Enter the Matrix.

Until recently, games with movie tie-ins were largely an afterthought, expensive Happy Meal toys. Games were rushed out the door to get the product to the public while the license was still hot. But as the gaming industry gets bigger, the way that deals are made is changing, allowing games to be developed more or less in tandem with movies. Maybe that will help: The new Lord of the Rings games are notable exceptions to the bad movie game rule. Or maybe it won’t. As Enter the Matrix proves, there can be such a thing as too much involvement with a movie’s creators. A 244-page script does not make a game more fun. Neither does an hour of movie footage. In fact, since you watch those components instead of playing them, insisting on their inclusion actually makes the game worse.

But until gamers wise up, companies will keep buying licenses and putting out crummy games. Can you blame them? It’s hard to resist the lure of easy money and guaranteed sales. That’s why there’s another Dukes of Hazzard game on the way. I’ll go out on a limb now and bet that it’ll be awful, too.

[Correction, May 29, 2003: Chris Charla did not design Disney’s Tarzan.]