“How do we know what is real?”
It’s a telling question asked by a seemingly real-life Keanu Reeves early on in The Matrix Awakens, a playable tech demo built in the new Unreal Engine 5 by Epic Games. Premiered at this year’s Game Awards, the interactive experience stars Reeves along with Matrix co-star Carrie-Anne Moss and was written by Lana Wachowski, the co-writer/director of the original The Matrix trilogy and director of the upcoming sequel. It’s available starting Thursday to play for free on the PS5 and Xbox Series X / S.
In an exclusive interview, Reeves and Moss talked with The Verge about making the Epic demo, how technology is blurring the line between what’s real and virtual, and what to expect from the upcoming Matrix Resurrections movie. Reeves also revealed that he thinks there should be a modern Matrix video game, that he’s flattered by Cyberpunk 2077 players modding the game to have sex with his character, and why he thinks Facebook shouldn’t co-opt the metaverse.
Apart from serving as a clever promotion vehicle for the new Matrix movie premiering December 22nd, The Matrix Awakens is designed to showcase what’s possible with the next major version of Epic’s Unreal Engine coming next year. It’s structured as a scripted intro by Wachowski, followed by a playable car chase scene and then an open-world sandbox experience you can navigate as one of Epic’s metahuman characters.
A big reason for doing the demo is to demonstrate how Epic thinks its technology can be used to blend scripted storytelling with games and much more, according to Epic CTO Kim Libreri, who worked on the special effects for the original Matrix trilogy. “We really believe strongly in big, massive open worlds not just for games,” he tells The Verge. “You want to be able to navigate massive, huge spaces just like you can in our world. So we’ve made that a lot easier to do in the engine.”
The main sandbox experience in The Matrix Awakens isn’t a game as much as it’s a tech demo that Epic plans to release for developers to build on and replicate. Everything in the virtual city is fully loaded no matter where your character is located (rather than rendered only when the character gets near), down to the detail of a chain link fence in an alley. All of the moving vehicles, people, and lighting in the city are generated by AI, the latter of which Libreri describes as a breakthrough that means lighting is no longer “this sort of niche art form.”
Thanks to updates coming to Unreal Engine, which powers everything from Fortnite to special effects in Disney’s The Mandalorian, developers will be able to use the same, hyper-realistic virtual assets across different experiences. It’s part of Epic’s goal to help build the metaverse. Libreri imagines a carmaker being able to load the same vehicle it creates for an internal simulation into a racing game or even a blockbuster movie. “I think an industry with more crossover between all types of entertainment and experiences is a richer thing.”