More than perhaps any other film series, the Matrix franchise warrants comparison to video games. Parts of it have transpired in actual video games, thanks to the Wachowskis’ decision to let The Matrix Online players “inherit the storyline” after the original trilogy. Single-player games like Enter the Matrix and Path of Neo, made with the Wachowskis’ involvement, also posit a bizarre alternate ending to Neo’s journey. It makes sense, then, that The Matrix Resurrections also leans hard into its video game themes.
There are plenty of movies that have turned into franchises that will not die, from Ghostbusters (1984) to Ghostbusters (2016) to Ghostbusters (2021). But Resurrections isn’t just a belated sequel; it’s something different, something stranger — but something familiar. In the world of video games, there’s a specific term that’s caught on to describe what Resurrections does: “spiritual successors.”
Other forms of media can have spiritual successors, too, but there’s a reason that video games take up almost the entire Wikipedia entry that defines this term. In the world of games, a sequel that’s built on top of the framework of the original entry often feels better to play; if you don’t have to build the entire game world from scratch, you can spend more time refining the individual pieces, which often allows for better writing, stronger themes, and riskier choices.
Remakes, remasters, and reboots in the world of games still carry reputation baggage, in the same way that other media’s revisitations of famous works can carry the baggage of their predecessors. But video game spiritual successors also have the ability to overcome the technical and spiritual limitations of their past iterations.
[Ed. note: This story contains spoilers for The Matrix Resurrections and Final Fantasy 7, both the original 1997 game and FF7 Remake.]
The Matrix Resurrections updates The Matrix for a modern audience, building upon a recognizable pre-existing framework to clarify the series’ core themes. It includes actual footage from the previous films as reenactments of major scenes. Some major characters, such as Agent Smith and Morpheus, have been literally recreated by others in the story; recast and reimagined wholesale. Others, like Neo and Trinity, are played by their original actors, but these “resurrected” versions of Neo and Trinity have actually been built from scratch by the Analyst – just as a video game remake would create new, updated models for its characters.
The video game aspect of Resurrections is also made much more literal within the movie’s fiction, where “The Matrix” is a trilogy of video games created by designer Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves). But, as it turns out, that only happened in a new version of the Matrix where Thomas has been trapped, and which he must escape so he can rediscover his true identity – Neo.
Until Neo makes that escape, however, he can tell his world is fake and wrong. The video games he made represent a memory deep inside him; their version of the world is one that’s closest to the truth, but they don’t offer the same sense of freedom that truly escaping the Matrix would afford. Neo keeps trying to probe that old memory, though, even going so far as to program and play around with a new version of his dead friend Morpheus on a hidden server. It’s a resurrection and a reinvention, and soon we learn that Neo’s resurrection is just as literal; the designer behind this new Matrix has brought Neo and his lover Trinity back to life, reconstructing and reanimating the corpses they left behind in Revolutions. Neo and Trinity’s beautiful longing for one another now serves as the inhumane battery for yet another dastardly system of control.
Like the other Matrix movies before it, Resurrections is a love story, but it’s also a commentary on the fact that Lana Wachowski knew the Matrix franchise would continue whether she and her sister came back to helm it or not. When Neo unmasks the Analyst, he receives no answers that satisfy him. He and Trinity have only been resurrected for one reason: To power the machine of the Matrix, of Warner Bros., of Hollywood, of capitalism. After they come to grips with the unsavory, nonconsensual circumstances of their having been forced back to life — a painful, draining form of life — Neo and Trinity escape together.
But Neo and Trinity don’t stay away forever. At the film’s end, they re-enter the matrix that once entrapped them. This time, they’re in control, capable of overcoming the Analyst and every other limitation placed upon them. The possibilities are endless: They can free other people and show them the world outside of the Matrix, or they can rebuild the Matrix into something different – or both. They’ve defeated the most important enemy, which is the system that forced them back into their standard narrative. When the screen fades to black and Neo and Trinity return to the realm of our imagination, they are truly free.
To quote another remake, “The unknown journey will continue.” That’s the ending line of Final Fantasy 7 Remake, the video game that Resurrections most called to mind for me. Like Resurrections, FF7 Remake starts out familiar, but then it transforms into something completely new.
Together, we can cast off the yoke of fate
Final Fantasy 7 first came out in 1997, only a couple of years before The Matrix. But unlike The Matrix, the original FF7 doesn’t hold up well.
It’s a lengthy slog to play, devoid of modern quality-of-life conveniences like save states and difficulty settings. Still, its story of a reluctant, laconic hero who gets dragged into a fantastical adventure and eventually must face the scariest truth of all — his true identity, buried deep under layers of denial and trauma — still resonates many years later, the same way The Matrix still does. FF7 became a similar flashpoint for video game storytelling as well, proving that a game with simplistic, blocky sprites could present a human story of grief, trauma, and love.
For years afterward, gamers begged for a remake of Final Fantasy 7. In this forum thread from 2002, fans speculated about an FF7 remake for the PlayStation 2. Rumors and hopes would continue all the way to the PlayStation 4, for which FF7 Remake was finally announced in 2015. The game didn’t actually come out until 2020, and by that point, expectations were high, to say the least. Yet FF7 Remake surpassed them — not by giving players a prettier, modernized version of the story they remembered, but by upending the entire paradigm of what a remake could do and be.
Some of the changes were straightforward, albeit far-reaching. For example, Final Fantasy 7 Remake has a much more complex battle system; building upon the core mechanics of the original while still feeling significantly better to play. FF7 also altered the infamous Honeybee Inn scene — little more than a transphobic joke in the original, now a joyfully queer dance scene. These were the sorts of refreshing changes I would have expected, as did most players. But FF7 Remake dared much, much more.
Any player who’s familiar with the original FF7 knows the story and where it leads. FF7 Remake makes this familiarity into a literal gameplay obstacle for the player, introducing ghostly apparitions that force characters to stick to the original path laid out in the 1997 game. The reputational baggage of the game’s predecessor becomes an enemy the player must fight to overcome. As FF7 Remake unfolds, the characters find ways to veer off the path, splintering their world into multiple alternate realities. Before playing FF7 Remake, players thought they knew how the story would go, but by the time the credits rolled, those assumptions were proved wrong. FF7 Remake brings new meaning to the “remake” in its title by remaking FF7 into something else entirely new.
That’s the thing about stories — they never really end
The Matrix Resurrections makes a similar gambit, although the critical response to Lana Wachowski’s solo revisiting of the sisters’ famous franchise has not been as joyful as the response to FF7 Remake. Perhaps that’s because Resurrections should be viewed with a similar video game lens. Carolyn Petit of Kotaku put it this way in her article “What The Matrix Resurrections says about video games:
Within the world of the films, what is the Matrix, after all, but an elaborate MMO, one people don’t know they’re playing but which nonetheless has systems that dictate what is and is not possible? Similarly, most games are made up of interlocking systems that dictate — or try to dictate — how it is that players interact with the game, what we can and cannot do … In a way, I think of Neo, Trinity, and the other members of Morpheus’ crew in The Matrix as akin to speedrunners — they are doing things within the systems of the “game” that most players simply can’t because the systems aren’t designed to allow those things.
Resurrections does not only present a remaking of the world of The Matrix, in the sense that the Analyst has rebuilt the Matrix and rebuilt Trinity and Neo to power it. Resurrections also introduces the concept of a “God mode” for Neo and Trinity at the movie’s end; they have graduated beyond hackers or speedrunners, into actual developers. Meanwhile, since Lana Wachowski co-created the original Matrix films and concept, she can operate in “God mode” as well, building a new story on top of the scaffolding of multiple established predecessors.
But just because Lana Wachowski could do it doesn’t mean she wanted to. Warner Bros. has been asking the Wachowski sisters to make a sequel “every year,” EW reported.
“It never was interesting to me as an idea to continue it,” Lana Wachowski said, via EW’s coverage of her panel at the Berlin International Literature Festival. But then, according to Wachowski, she experienced extreme loss: “My dad died, then this friend died, then my mom died. I didn’t really know how to process that kind of grief. I hadn’t experienced it that closely.”
One night, unable to sleep, the idea for Resurrections sprang into her mind. “I couldn’t have my mom and dad … yet suddenly I had Neo and Trinity, arguably the two most important characters in my life,” she said. “It was immediately comforting to have these two characters alive again, and it’s super-simple. You can look at it and say: ‘Okay, these two people die, and okay, bring these two people back to life, and oh, doesn’t that feel good?’ Yeah, it did! It’s simple, and this is what art does and this is what stories do. They comfort us and they’re important.”
Retreading an old memory can be painful, but under the right circumstances, it can also be healing, affording a sense of control and stability. You know what’s going to happen, so you know what to expect — and, maybe this time, you can change it. As Emily VanDerWerff explained in her analysis of Resurrections, the movie begins in the realm of the familiar yet uncanny: “The very first scene is a largely faithful re-creation of the first scene from the first film, with characters who amount to Matrix superfans offering commentary on what’s new and different.” But as Resurrections unfolds, its recreation becomes more uncanny, more wacky. The new version of Morpheus doesn’t philosophize on end; instead, he interrupts his recitation of his predecessor’s famous lines with “blah, blah, blah.”
Like FF7 Remake, this once-familiar world will be remade into something new — and thank goodness. VanDerWerff continues:
If we fans demand that our favorite characters return again and again, then we never afford them any sort of final peace or closure. We are asking them to constantly relive their own worst moments, in the name of our entertainment. We are inadvertently trapping them in a trauma spiral, and then in stories that insist you can confront your trauma and blow it up if you’re sufficiently motivated.
Final Fantasy 7 fans have already begun to speculate and fantasize about the parts of the original game’s story that they want to change. In particular, fans have wondered if Remake’s future installments will undo the game’s most memorable character death. Will FF7 Remake create a version of Cloud’s story that doesn’t traumatize him as deeply? Already the game has introduced the idea of an alternate universe in which Zack, a beloved character who died defending Cloud, somehow survives that fateful battle. Will that reality collide with the one that we know?
I’m not sure how FF7 Remake’s follow-up games will answer that question. Before I saw Resurrections, I would have said I didn’t want to see the original game’s deaths reversed. Now, I’m not so sure anymore. Thanks to Lana Wachowski’s God mode, I can see how retelling a story with resurrected characters — even characters whose death mattered to the story, the first time around — can result in a very compelling and healing journey.
I do hope that the Matrix series does not continue, though, and that Neo and Trinity get to remain free in all of our imaginations. As every gamer knows, playing on God mode gets really boring after a while, and Resurrections has nowhere else to go from here. That’s fine. It was worth unlocking everything before powering down the game system and letting it all go.