INTERVIEW: Lee Kirton – From Driver to The Matrix

INTERVIEW: Lee Kirton – From Driver to The Matrix

Lee Kirton has enjoyed a thrilling career that sees him engaging with some of the gaming world’s most coveted projects. While Lee has an enormous passion for the games industry, the world of cinema is equally as revered in his eyes. There is an incredible amount of tie-in properties on Kirton’s track record that prove his love for filmmaking. In recent years, the once glorious age of movie tie-in games has seemingly come to a grinding halt.

With The Matrix Resurrections due to drop in December, it got me thinking again about the tie-in era. Despite a mixed reception at the time of release, Enter The Matrix and Path of Neo still enjoy loyal, passionate followings to this day. Kirton played an essential role in launching both of these titles, applying his passion to every facet of the process. I recently got the chance to sit down with Lee and dive into some truly incredible experiences over the course of his career so far.

Thanks for sitting down with PLAY. Your career has seen you lend your talents to a plethora of thrilling franchises. Can you tell us where you got your start in the industry?

I started at GT Interactive when I was 20 years old. Answering phones, being a runner, assisting the chairman of the business, and helping people sending guides out for games, talking on the phone. I had the mindset of go in at the very bottom, work hard, learn and listen to everyone. It was tough in certain ways and I had to prove I wasn’t just a nobody. Being incredibly interested in film and games, I wanted to apply my knowledge, love, and understanding to a role that would suit me.

In 1998 I was promoted to Executive working on the amazing Driver and the incredible eye-popping UNREAL from Epic. Working directly with these studios was amazing and seeing how they have grown in two decades is incredible. I was happy to be part of their journey. I was also working on Abe’s Odyssey and had the opportunity here alongside Driver to demonstrate some of my creative ideas.

Lee Kirton Matrix
Kirton partnered up with Huggy Bear for the Driver TV ad in Kings Mall Hammersmith. Some folks were lucky enough to get some Driver freebies back in the day too.

Slightly after this, Infogrames purchased GT Interactive in 2003 and I became part of the UK team managing communications. In 2003 the company changed its name to ATARI and I worked in our central team for a short time on the first wave of the “new Atari titles.” This led me to PR campaigns on titles such as V Rally, Stuntman, Unreal Tournament, Alone in the Dark, Enter The Matrix, and Path of Neo.

Was PR always the goal when you set out to work in the games industry? 

It was the first role I really wanted to do and I luckily worked for some incredible people who trusted me to do the job well. Wanting to be media trained, I was able to go on TV and give statements, improve my writing for pitching. Really, I wanted to present and talk to people, about the great things that were being created by great creators.

I always thought the developers and those making the games needed more exposure. It wasn’t about us, it was about them. I wanted to work closely with the developers and this made me incredibly passionate about the actual development of games and what I could do to support amazing teams. I loved spending time at Reflections, Eden Games, Shiny, etc. 

You’ve played a key role in launching classic games like Duke Nukem and Driver, and a personal favourite: Mission: Impossible Operation Surma. How did you begin to get involved with movie-based games? 

Like many publishers, you have your own IP, third-party titles, and licensed products. I was lucky to work on a number of movie-licensed games including Terminator 3, Terminator Dawn of Fate, Terminator Redemption, Mission Impossible: Operation Surma, Star Trek, and The Matrix franchise. I love films. They’re another passion of mine, so this was perfect as well. I grew up playing Ocean games ironically such as Robocop and Rambo. Even when the quality of movie licensed games was questionable, if I liked the movie I would buy the game, reviews didn’t bother me as long as I felt I was playing that character from that movie in those settings. 

Whilst working at Atari we would work on a number of Hollywood properties and during that time I was asked what my thoughts were on The Matrix, prior to the investment in Shiny Entertainment. When I first heard about it, it was shortly after I had returned from a holiday and I had gone to the cinema to see the original Matrix movie 7 times. My response for the future of the series was obvious. It changed cinema.

I love that your career is full of games that have led to loyal followings. Enter The Matrix and Path of Neo are still looked upon with fond memories, from both casual players and fans of the movies across the world. Can you tell me how it felt as a fan when you first knew you’d be working on these titles?

I have always tried to remain calm when told I would be working on something I truly love, but when I was told we would be developing Matrix games with Shiny and I would be working on Enter The Matrix and Path of Neo I was literally giggling inside with excitement. I loved David Perry’s work, I loved what I was being told, the confidential meetings, the trips to LA to learn how deep the Rabbit Hole went, working at E3 being near the stage when the first trailer was shown.

It was like the most amazing thing ever. I wanted to try and understand everything… I loved chatting to Dave about his work, seeing how passionate he was about The Matrix was highly motivating. I just wanted to do the best job on a series I adored and still do today.

Enter The Matrix and Path of Neo were unique for the time, in that the creators (The Wachowski Sisters) gave their full blessing and were heavily involved with their creation, especially the former with purpose shot footage. As someone specializing in communication and PR, what tasks did you face working with such a revered property? 

Working with colleagues in the central team, however, on a local level, I was driving the PR across consoles in the UK. For me, an interactive experience based on a movie that directly had involvement with everyone including stunt artists, directors, and assets is in an incredibly strong position for a licensed game—almost unheard of in many ways. This made for a powerful message.

The fact that Enter the Matrix is part of the Reloaded and Revolutions movies, with an hour of additional shot footage made this game very special indeed. Want to know more about The Matrix? Watch the movies, watch the Animatrix, read the comic, and play Enter the Matrix. All I knew was that between Warner Bros, Shiny, and The Wachowski’s something really cool and unique was being put together. 

Lee Kirton Matrix
Signed by Trinity and Morpheus themselves, from the Kirton “Loft” archive.

You get to play as Ghost and Niobe, and some were like “What?”, but I found it a great way to explore those great characters within the timeline of the movies and flesh out additional Matrix character stories. Enter the Matrix was a big deal. It had to be handled carefully due to the sensitive footage, nature of the story, and then came… Path of Neo.

“Be the One – Neo” – It felt a lot more flexible, due to it being the game of the movies with some additional amazing scenes, training simulations, crazy scenarios, and just epic action. It gave you the chance to fight in one of my favourite scenes in the Chateau and The Burley Brawl. I actually got to present the game to The Wachowski’s in London whilst V for Vendetta was being shot. 

Lee Kirton Matrix
From E3 to the big screen experience, Kirton saw a new era of blockbuster entertainment come to life.

That was a dream come true. Presenting the game with Shiny in a cinema in London to the Press was one thing, but to actually show the game privately in Shaftsbury Avenue to the movie’s creators was above anything I could have imagined. I was nervous yet professional and we chatted for a long time. Their passion is amazing. We chatted about the movies, they asked me a few things about my love of their work, we talked a little about V for Vendetta and then we said goodbye after a couple of hours and they wished me the best.

They were amazing and I’ll never forget that experience and the trust put in me. If only they knew how much of a treat it really was. I know Dave Perry did. V for Vendetta is excellent by the way and like The Matrix, it is more powerful and delivers more every time you watch it.

Within your role, you’ve had the task of assembling trailers, storyboarding, and personally working with some of the film industry’s biggest studios. What is it like to engage with such high-profile collaborators, as someone representing their vision? 

I have been lucky to get involved in different things within the industry due to my love and care for gaming, creativity, production, and marketing. I love music, film, games, and dazzling visuals so I’m always keen to find ways to put these together to deliver a powerful message. I love seeing new projects and thinking about ideas to explore the key areas which many forget, like music, maybe an incredible orchestral score and composer, the art style, the graphics engine and technology, the gameplay, and mechanics.

I actually once put a video together using gameplay I recorded from Path of Neo and carefully curating the gameplay to match that of the Lobby scene in the movie, the music perfectly paced. Officially we couldn’t use it as an asset, but it was a great tool to showcase the game and what could be done in-game, and this was way before social media and Twitch. I know in my mind what looks and sounds good so it’s great to work with so many talented people who allow you to be creative. 

Anyone who interacts with you on social media can easily put together you wholeheartedly love The Matrix franchise. Did you have your own expectations of what these games should be? 

I had my thoughts but I was blown away by the creative approach of Enter the Matrix. That game proves how amazing The Wachowski’s are and everyone involved. To have a game that exists in the universe between the two sequels, connected to the Animatrix offering more story whilst focusing on other talented characters is genius. Following that up with a true Neo experience was the cherry on top of the cake.

Unfortunately, the art of the movie tie-in game has dwindled in recent years. We recently made a video arguing that the world needs a new Matrix game, especially with renewed interest in the franchise as of late. If this were to happen, what would you love to see happen with it? 

Personally, as a fan of the series, I would love to see a new Matrix game. The technology available today, the ideas that could be explored, the combat and gameplay mechanics that could be created. Now is the perfect time for a fully-fledged big-budget Matrix game. If you think about it, a new generation is only just watching The Matrix for the first time, or hearing about “bullet time” and exploring all the content.

There’s a brand new audience plus those that watched the original movie in the 90s who are looking forward to Resurrections. That trailer. My god. I watched it and thought, “Game changer once again.” The marketing on the original Matrix was so carefully constructed yet told you nothing. Sometimes less is more and let’s be honest, the teaser website for Resurrections is also something else.

Finally, you’re an extremely busy man, working on a lot of titles for players to look forward to. Where can we next see your work in motion? 

I still love gaming, movies, and everything connected to both. I’m working on many exciting projects and regularly share news and updates on Linkedin.

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