(Preface: Most of my interest in games is in how they function as narrative pieces. As a result, most of the writing I do focuses on videogames, single-player games, games with a traditional story structure, games that rely primarily on cinematic and literary narrative techniques and the wide cross-section of all the above. Therefore I end up neglecting a lot that deserves more coverage and criticism and when I finally make the time to sit down and dedicate some words to games outside my comfort zone, I often find myself lacking the vocabulary to approach them properly. I’ve wanted to write about fighting games for several months but only after reading Zolani Stewart’s incredible analysis of Mortal Kombat 4 (“On Mortal Kombat 4.” The Fengxi Box. Dec 8 2013)—which I will be referencing throughout this piece—do I feel confident enough to give it a shot.)
The only thing that makes Mortal Kombat unique in the ocean of fighters during and since the arcade’s prime is, in a word, violence. King of Fighters or Marvel vs. Capcom are dances of parries and thrusts set to exciting music with flashes of colour to signify offensive and defensive tides. In most fighters, skill is a combination of twitch reactions, systemic knowledge, creative playstyles and risk-reward manoeuvres. The Mortal Kombat series, on the other hand, is based purely on hard and fast attacking. Stewart addresses this in his own writing, “Everything in Mortal Kombat 4 is so fast, and there’s so little variation in its frames across movesets and characters. I find this incapacity for nuance in its play to be intriguing, because it communicates a blind aggressiveness and a drone-like approach to hyperviolence.” However, what further differentiates Mortal Kombat from other fighters is the hopeless tone of its violence. Violence in Mortal Kombat never ends, and unlike most fighters, where combat is distant from violence, this is not a good thing.
Mortal Kombat has always lent itself to button mashing, far more than most of the fighters featured in pro circuits. And it makes sense, other than a handful of special attacks, characters are largely indistinguishable, flinging their hands and legs at their opponent recklessly and spewing blobs of bright red blood upon contact.
The level of violence in Mortal Kombat—as early as the first and as late as the pseudo-reboot of MK9—would not make sense in many other fighters. Soul Calibur features characters with anime-inspired weaponry slashing and impaling one another, but there isn’t a drop of blood and there shouldn’t be. Soul Calibur is stylistically distant from violence. Yes, characters only interact with one another by fighting or by preparing to fight (like every other fighting game) but they aren’t actually hurting one another, they’re creating flashy bursts of colour to deplete their opponent’s health bar in a fair competition. The loser cries in frustration and the winner poses for the camera, but nobody dies, nobody bleeds and nobody carries any injury beyond perhaps a sexy face scar.
Conversely, violent, typically western fighters developed in the wake of Mortal Kombat have failed to capture the humanity of MK‘s violence. Primal Rage and Killer Instinct, while as dependent on unrestrained attacking as MK, feature casts of mostly monsters. Later sh(l)ock fighters like Mace and Thrill Kill don’t have the same impact as Mortal Kombat because there’s so little humanity in the characters, they’re either monsters or motherfuckers. Notable fighting parody, Clay Fighter featured stop motion model snowmen and anthropomorphized toffee that grimaced and flung themselves about cartoonishly. Clay Fighter is closer in spirit to MK than any of its ripoffs because—probably unintentionally, I’m willing to concede—Mortal Kombat begins in a world worth preserving defended by people one would want defending it before gradually violence degrades everybody to the same, common flaws and problems. The “dark and edgy” monsters of Primal Instinct and Thrill Kill are as empty as the overtly cartoonish monsters of Clay Fighter, the only difference is that Clay Fighters knows and appreciates what it is. Mortal Kombat is different because it is about fighting.
The fact is, for most fighting games, “fighting” is a misnomer. Most fighting games portray competitive comic-book reenactment more than one character’s attempt to harm another character. The best emissary I’ve found for fighting game violence is relatively unknown Jackie Chan‘s Fist of Fire, an old arcade game that these days can only be played through emulation. The game features nine playable characters, three of whom are Jackie Chan in different outfits. These characters form a predictable, balanced fighting game cast including a slow but strong character, a fast and weak one, one with good mix ups but unsafe combos, a keep-away character, a rushdown character and so on.
When the losing character’s health bar empties, they fall to the ground while their death wail echoes across the arena in typical fighting game fair, but the losing character will then sit up and clap, or flash a thumbs up and chime, “good fight” before the winner performs their victory dance or pose. Fists of Fire does feature the same blood spatter effect of early Mortal Kombat arcade games but it feels so out-of-place. These people shouldn’t bleed, they’re competing in an athletic competition. They’re just playing. These characters fall down and get up immediately to congratulate the victor, never suffering any consequence more serious than comedically flying off-screen and disappearing into the stratosphere. When they reappear on the character select menu it makes sense, they didn’t suffer any more physical trauma than the player who selected them. That’s the ideal fighting spirit distilled right there: bow before fighting and shake hands after the match is over.
I think what makes Mortal Kombat different is that it departs from that spirit completely. The goal of Mortal Kombat is to murder the person on the opposite end of the screen. The single-player campaign is about murderers trying to murder one another, and two-player contests are based on aggressive mechanics. Mortal Kombat is simply an unrefined fighter. Characters don’t move differently, they don’t have different stamina levels and unique combos are virtually nonexistent: a skilled player knows the special attacks and overpowers their opponent with the sheer volume of offence at their disposal. And of course, the winner is encouraged to prove their mastery of the game in a taunting mechanic. Mortal Kombat matches do not end with a handshake or a thumbs up, the goal is to chase an opponent from the arcade tower by humiliating them.
Of course, what I’m talking about are the fatalities. Upon winning a match of Mortal Kombat, a skilled player can input a combination of buttons to stylishly and brutally execute their defeated opponent. It’s the reason why the ESRB exists, it’s the earliest concrete moral panic created by a videogame and it continues to be MK‘s most immediate marker of individuality. Every Mortal Kombat character has died innumerable times only to be restored and killed again match after match. Characters have their heads torn off, their hearts ripped out, they’ve fallen into spiked pits, they’ve been flayed or burned alive, they’ve been split in half or blown to pieces. After so many games the entire cast has been killed and pasted back together countless times. Even within the canon.
One oft overlooked oddity of Mortal Kombat is that it doesn’t have a clear hero. One can’t help but associate Street Fighter with the character Ryu, Virtua Fighter with Akira, Dead or Alive with…well. (Ahem) Mortal Kombat doesn’t really have a face.* Liu Kang is Earthrealm’s champion for the first three games, but he’s canonically killed in the events of the fourth game. Mechanically, Liu Kang is the intro character, the jack-of-all trades start-up for beginners, his moveset is the easiest to master with the most straightforward application. He’s the universe’s moral centre of gravity and the pick-up-and-play character for first-timers. And the game gets rid of him.
Notably, when Liu Kang dies, the series takes on a much darker tone. Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance and Deception were considerably less loved than the series in its arcade days but I found it had the most consistent gameplay and story. Mortal Kombat seemed more experimental in those days and, while it didn’t always pay off (MK vs. DCU anyone?), I admired the developers’ spirit: one that tried to make the series about something. It was also the period that saw the most plot development in the MK universe. Sure, fighting game plots are incoherent and messy, but Midway/Netherrealm made it clear that they cared about their story even if they were making it up as they were going along. Importantly, this is when the series’s trademark violence fashioned a bleaker undertone.
Characters are still martial artists, but punches and kicks are graceless and wounded characters reel and stumble against every impact. Blood is still globular and unrealistic and fatalities are as ridiculously over-the-top as ever, but between the lingering injuries on characters’ faces and the general plodding and awkward brutality of fights, Deadly Alliance and Deception are the first fighting games—even within Mortal Kombat—that made fighting feel painful.
This is also when the game becomes more intimate. As discussed in Stewart’s article, “One of the most significant things about Mortal Kombat 4 is how it de-prioritizes the spectacle event, as it doesn’t communicate spectacle but solitude.” Where MK 1-3 stages featured audiences, even if one composed of hooded figures or a living forest, battles in Mortal Kombat 4 were private duels, where the outcome seemed to matter only to the participants. However, where MK 4 still featured fourth wall breaking victory poses, Deadly Alliance and Deception remained within the duel. The loser would fall when their health ran out but both health bars would refill instantly. The loser would get back to their feet and the winner would stretch out and ready themselves for the next bout. Fighting is uninterrupted and constant. Of course, after both rounds were over, the winner would pose to the invisible player and break from the game, but they waited until the fight was over, so long as there was a fight, there was only the fight.
Finally, this “era” of Mortal Kombat (concluding with the more refined, outlandish and “fighting game-esque” combat of Mortal Kombat Armageddon) marks one of the bleakest plot arcs I’ve played in a fighting game. The hero, Liu Kang, has been killed and resurrected in his decaying body, Raiden, once the spiritual guide for the good guys, is driven into a tyrannical rage, Kung Lao has taken over as Earth’s champion only to be defeated and killed, the remaining heroes are brainwashed by an evil God, any neutral characters abandon any loyalties in favour of personal interests. By the time Armageddon props up the true threat to MK‘s universe, the massive cast that the series has accumulated is so rigidly divided by arbitrary partitions they’re more interested in killing one another than controlling the dangerous power that they’ve unleashed.
Deadly Alliance and Deception are about evil manipulating good, of evil betraying and begetting greater evil. Contrast this with the first “era” of Mortal Kombat or even number 4—that Stewart eloquently argues is the bridge between them—which follows a standard fighting game plot of fighters in a tournament. MK and MKII is about warriors of heaven besting harbingers of doom. MK3 and the games derived from it are about the forces of evil throwing out the rule book and taking over the world, only to be repelled by the happy few that shouldered the burden of defence.
Deadly Alliance, Deception and Armageddon are about the slow attrition and failure of the virtuous characters established early in the series. Victory is bought with violence and deception. This is Mortal Kombat, after all, to win you have to form a deadly alliance, deceive or beckon Armageddon. Ultimately, your enemies must be put down fatally to be rid of them. Heroes either refuse to stoop to the level of their enemies and get killed or they embody the philosophies of their enemies and bring about more violence. After MK3 there are no heroes, only revenants, antiheroes or reflections of a better time.
After MK 3, the only games in the series that don’t end with the world in a worse off place are set in the time before Mortal Kombat 4. Sub-Zero and Jax starred in their own lambasted spinoffs, respectively 1997′s Mortal Kombat Mythologies and 2000′s Mortal Kombat Special Forces. Similarly, Liu-Kang and Kung Lao adventure in 2005′s good but overlooked top down brawler, Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks. All of these games are prequels expanding the timeline around the first and second Mortal Kombat tournaments. The only point in the timeline where virtuous characters can logically succeed are in the earlier points in the lore, before violence becomes self-perpetuating.
The only way to escape the despair the series descends into is to not only return to the series’s roots, but to shift genres entirely. The longer Mortal Kombat is a fighting game, the more brutal it becomes. Characters have more fatalities and they become more ferocious, fights slow down, they become more clumsy and injuries linger; all the while characters become less virtuous, more desperate and they focus more on personal rivalries over the big picture they were supposedly chosen to defend. While platformer and brawler offshoots clearly have enough violence to earn the Mortal Kombat stamp of approval, they never cast any doubt about who the hero is, the swarms of enemies are unambiguously villainous and combat is fast, stylish and leaves no permanent mark against a wounded hero. As the series develops, the less logically consistent any lasting victory seems. The series must continually return to an earlier point in canon to give the player any sense of achievement.
In fact, Mortal Kombat 9 is only able to reboot the series by showing a dying Raiden atop Armageddon‘s tower send a message to his past self before series antagonist Shao Khan bashes his head in. As Raiden relives the seeming hope of Mortal Kombat and its two immediate sequels, he’s flabbergasted that he’s racing toward his own doom. Like the player in the 90′s, he can’t see how the success of his champions leads him down the path to destruction. Only by smashing everything and orchestrating the death of his friends (and personally murdering Lui Kang) does he avoid the dismal fate of Mortal Kombat Deadly Alliance through to Armageddon. Only in destroying all of his own combatants is Earthrealm safe. Vulnerable to the next inevitable attack, but now subject to a different doom than portrayed in Armageddon.
Mortal Kombat benefits and suffers from most of the conditions of most fighters, it’s characters and plot are a knotted mess that’s often better displayed through alternate media like comics and cartoons and it uncritically relishes in its violence. However, a number of interesting things still emerge from the storied series; the further it develops the more futile and self-destructive violence becomes. The games have progressed to a point where armageddon is the only logical conclusion. It’s a distinctly unsettling moral given how most fighting games seek to either de-fang their violent content or amplify it for its shock value. Violence in Mortal Kombat has the unusual condition of being rooted in play and actually reinforcing a theme.
*Recently the undead ninja, Scorpion, has taken on the role of MK‘s “face”: figuring in powerful poses in advertisements and box art, taking more prominent and empowered roles in the games themselves, and appearing as a guest in Injustice: Gods Among Us. His silhouette has even become Netherrealm Studios’s new logo. I personally find that Scorpion’s new privileged role as MK‘s mascot dilutes the impact of such an otherwise bleak and hopeless series. The appeal of the series is in how there aren’t any heroes, that no one of the “kombatants” is any more special than another because they’re all just thugs in a celestial gang war. Furthermore, Scorpion’s appeal is in how his strict code of honour makes him such a dunce: he rejects help from clearly moral forces and accepts it from clearly manipulative ones. He’s interesting because he’s so self-centred and believes so strongly in promises and he’s driven by revenge but only because he allows himself to be wronged so easily. He’s predictable because, frankly, he’s so tragically dumb. By positioning him at the core of the newest phase of Mortal Kombat, Netherrealm has stripped him of his most interesting flaw and made him more of a vanilla chaotic-neutral badass without any deeper appeal. But clearly somebody with decision-making power disagrees with me.
Further reading: Gallaway, Brad. “Can Mortal Kombat survive without the ultraviolence?” GameCritics. Mar 5 2011.
sidbiscuits. “Did she just money-shot herself with his neck blood?” The Border House. Aug 26 2011.
Stewart, Zolani. “Martial Artists: How Fighting Games Can Look As Good As They Play.” Nightmare Mode. Aug 20 2012.