Is the Matrix a Syndicate Wars ripoff?

When the Matrix movie came out in 1999, it was praised not only for its impressive special effects and intense fighting scenes, but also for its intelligent plot. The central plot point of the movie is the discovery by the protagonist that the seemingly normal world he was living in is in fact fake. In reality, humans are enslaved, their bodies stored in liquid containers and what they perceive as their normal everyday life is just neural signals fed directly into their nervous system.

This clever idea may not have seemed completely new to all viewers, however. Those who had previously played the computer game Syndicate Wars, released three years earlier than the Matrix movie, may have noticed some similarities between the two stories. The game’s intro introduces us to a world where all people have a chip attached to their neck. The chip, so we learn, is used to manipulate how the people perceive the world, creating an illusion of an ideal, happy world. When the chip starts to malfunction, however, a grim and violent reality is revealed to lie behind the illusion.

Welcome to the Matrix

Welcome to the Matrix

The core of the plot of both stories is therefore basically identical. The similarities don’t end there, though. There’s the dark and rainy futuristic city, the trench coats, the excessive use of guns… There’s even a scene in the movie where the protagonist is given a choice between a red and a blue pill, which, as Syndicate Wars players will notice, resembles the two drugs used in Syndicate Wars to affect the behaviour of your agents: Blue Funk and Red Mist.

Red pill or blue pill?

Red pill or blue pill?

So did the Matrix rip off Syndicate Wars? The similarities are certainly striking and the chronology leaves open the possibility that the Matrix makers knew the game. However, even if the movie is in fact inspired by the game, it would not be right to simply call it a ripoff, because the core plot idea was not really new in Syndicate Wars either. In fact, the combination of both a positive vision of the future (utopia) and a negative one (dystopia) in one story is a frequent motif in science fiction. There are probably many books and movies that could be named here, but I will mention only one which seems particularly relevant: Stanisław Lem‘s The Futurological Congress.

Lem was a Polish science fiction writer with a very vivid imagination and a taste for black humour. He wrote The Futurological Congress in 1971, and the story seems relevant to Syndicate / Syndicate Wars in two ways. First of all, the book makes use of the exact same motif of “utopia as illusion”: The protagonist travels to the future and finds an ideal world: Peace all around the earth, everyone is wealthy and happy. As time goes on, though, he discovers that it’s all just an illusion, and that the reality behind the illusion is a nightmare: The world is destroyed by wars, everyone lives in poverty and poor health, but no one is aware of it because people’s minds are manipulated to create the illusion of utopia. The second point is the pervasive usage of psychoactive drugs. This is a core concept in The Futurological Congress: Lem describes a world where a large variety of drugs are available to manipulate people in any way desired. There are drugs to make people happy or angry, to make them believe something, and so on. In the novel, this was at first used by governments to manipulate people in certain ways, and eventually led to a large-scale use of hallucinogenic drugs to create a permanent illusion of a utopia. Note that this motif appears in the Syndicate games, too, where you manipulate your agents with drugs. As the Syndicate manual explains, you can adjust the Intelligence, Perception and Adrenaline (IPA) levels of your agents to change their behaviour, making them faster or more aggressive. Syndicate Wars had the same concept, although it was simplified to only the two drugs mentioned above (Blue Funk / Red Mist).

The most notable difference between the two storylines (Futurological Congress vs. Syndicate/Matrix) is that in Lem’s book, there is no computer technology involved in manipulating people and creating an illusion of utopia. In the light of the above mentioned similarities, though, it seems at least possible that the creators of Syndicate Wars were familiar with Lem’s work.

The motif of two realities, one as it really is (objectively) and one as we perceive it (subjectively), could be traced even much further back. In fact, the core of it is already there in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, written roughly 2500 years ago, in which Plato describes some persons stuck in a cave observing shadows on the wall of the cave. The shadows come from people passing by the cave, but since those inside cannot leave, they only get to observe the shadows. He then describes the philosopher as someone who understands that the shadows are not the actual reality, and that it’s necessary to see beyond the shadows on the wall to understand the true nature of things.

Toto Review: The Matrix [A Matrix review that mentions Syndicate]
List of dystopian literature on Wikipedia
Thread on retrogamer where Syndicate Wars / Matrix similarities are discussed (briefly)

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