'Matrix' Saga Continues Online — Without Morpheus

Neo's butt-kicking guru met his bitter end in multiplayer game 'The Matrix Online.'

Say what you will about the "Matrix" saga, but don't call it predictable. Who would have expected Keanu Reeves' Neo to meet his end in the trilogy finale? Who would have expected so many fans of the first film to be critical of the sequels? And who would have expected one of the biggest characters in the movies to be murdered not on the big screen but in the new "Matrix" video game, two years after the movies supposedly put an end to the sci-fi saga?

But it happened. At 9 a.m. on Thursday (May 26), members of "The Matrix Online" massive multiplayer game witnessed Keanu's butt-kicking guru, Morpheus — he of the obscure riddles and gravity-violating kung-fu — meet his bitter end at the hands of a mysterious assassin.

George Lucas didn't wait to kill Emperor Palpatine in the video game versions of "Star Wars" — he did it in "Return of the Jedi." But that was 1983. The reclusive but ever-modern "Matrix"-creating Wachowski brothers like to do things a bit differently, a philosophy that now extends beyond their movies to their "Matrix" game, a shared experience that went live in March.

"They wanted to start with something significant and meaningful and shocking, and this was it," said Paul Chadwick, the writer whose job it is to follow the brothers' broad outline and script the day-to-day events of the online "Matrix."

Chadwick has a background in comic books, where the death of the big heroes can be as permanent as a stomachache. But he says Morpheus will be taking the big sleep long-term. "I suppose never say never," he admitted, though if there are any plans for a resurrection he's not aware of them. And he's plotted at least a full year of "Matrix Online" events with the Wachowskis. Still, for what it's worth, one of the toughest characters Laurence Fishburne ever portrayed is dead. "I did it not in joy but in sorrow," Chadwick continued. "I'm sorry to see him pass."

Morpheus' demise was not without controversy. In the days leading up to it, the developers' live team, who orchestrate the game's big monthly story-advancing moments, carried out a Wachowski-Chadwick plot that had Morpheus, in the words of some users, "turning terrorist." According to storyline, Morpheus wanted to reclaim the body of the fallen Neo, which was being held by the Matrix's machine overlords. Morpheus tried to pressure cooperation by planting bombs throughout the Matrix infrastructure. That's how the live team, including developers who controlled Morpheus himself, set things up. Players aligned with the game's three factions — the establishment Machines, the maverick Exiles, and even Morpheus' own group, the emancipating Zionists — had been assigned by their in-game leaders to defuse the bombs and stop the out-of-control digital Laurence Fishburne. But not everyone wanted to stop him.

"We support Morpheus' actions," Scott Hauenstein, a 31-year-old tech-support rep from Wisconsin, who had been playing in-world with his wife and an online clan since the game was in beta in October, said Wednesday. At the time, Hauenstein didn't know Morpheus was about to die, though he suspected something was up. "I think it's probably going to end up badly for Morpheus," he said. Hauenstein and his clan had been siding with Morpheus based on the character's earlier noble actions. "The methods of his madness we don't know for sure," he said. "He would never want to deliberately harm someone who is not a target."

He'd also been impressed by the man himself. The big-license online game "Star Wars Galaxies" only sends Darth Vader in to meet players on ultra-rare occasions. But some of the story leads of "The Matrix Online" would regularly make close contact with players. Hauenstein remembers Morpheus meeting his group and telling them to "Shake the Matrix [and] let them know we will not fail."

The next task for Morpheus' followers, however, will be to figure out whodunit. Chadwick promised that the murder mystery will unfold every few weeks through the course of "The Matrix Online"'s first year. Players will be encouraged to figure out not just who the assassin is, but what Morpheus was really all about. That means, in fact, that thanks to the wonders of flashback scenes, "Matrix" users haven't heard the last of Laurence Fishburne's voiceover work in the game. "We're going to milk Morpheus as long as we can," Chadwick said. "He's a great character."

"The Matrix Online" enjoyed strong if not stellar reviews when it was released earlier this year, and is suffering the growing pains of occasional server troubles that temporarily plagued even the widely lauded "World of Warcraft" late last year. But Chadwick believes the latest plot twist should keep people interested. "A lot of people will want to join the investigation to find out who the killer is," he said.

And they might be enticed to help take him down. The assassin will be around to take players' attacks. In fact, the game will give public credit to anyone who plays a hand in weakening Morpheus' killer.

Hauenstein, once in the dark about today's turn of events, was ready to game on. Already logging an estimated two to five hours a day on "The Matrix Online," he said a Morpheus death "would only get me more enthused to play, because I'd like to see where they go from it."