On September 13th, 1993, exactly four days after my eleventh birthday, the world slipped forever from my grasp. As with anyone for whom this happens, my reaction at the time was little more than a vague annoyance and sense of disapproval. I really never played Mortal Kombat, largely because it was very much Not The Sort Of Thing My Family Approved Of. This was not the Joe Lieberman sort of “this game shouldn’t be for sale” disapproval that constituted the main controversy over Mortal Kombat. I don’t even think it was a particularly outcome oriented objection; by this point in my life there was no real sense that I was likely to begin emulating media violence. But I flatly don’t think I could have gotten a copy of Mortal Kombat at the time Mortal Kombat was a thing.
Moreover, though, I didn’t want one. I was perfectly happy to embrace my censorship on this one. I did not like what I saw and knew of this game. Which was significant; I did see and know a fair amount. Video games were my thing; a topic of special and passionate focus even within the context of a video game friendly suburban middle school culture. Of course I knew about the massively advertised hugely popular video game where you could rip someone’s spine out. I just didn’t want to rip someone’s spine out.
To be clear, again, this was just me. My earliest genuine sense of political outrage was Lieberman’s video game censorship position, because even following the medium from afar in many cases I knew more about the games he was condemning than he did, and yet he was driving a national debate about them. I did not think that Mortal Kombat shouldn’t exist as a rule. I just didn’t want it. Indeed, for the most part I enjoyed not wanting it. I remember stray Mortal Kombat machines in restaurants, and the extended and mindful act of not playing them. (I could have gotten away with it. As a “come on can I try it everyone else gets to.” It was, in the end, a balance of financials; my parents would not spend $50 for something they disapproved of, but 50¢ was entirely achievable.)
These days, there’s a lot of people whose spines I’d like to rip out, but that’s just called adulthood. Eventually the realization that there are people you’d just rather not be in the world hits you in its full, ideological sense. This is not, to be clear, the same as the realization that you should rip their spines out. The decision to employ violent eliminationism is not the same as the taste of bile rising in your throat whenever you see them, whoever them may be. This is why the fight is our most basic play. We cannot help but split in two and struggle back to one.
Mortal Kombat vs Street Fighter II, for instance. In many ways it’s just another metonym for the big dualism of the era. Street Fighter II was by any standard better on the Super Nintendo. Its six-button control scheme might as well have been designed for the SNES port. The Genesis version required either the purchase of a new controller or an incredibly awkward method of using two-button combos with the Start button to perform kicks. Mortal Kombat, meanwhile, had a technically better port for the Super Nintendo, but was heavily censored to comply with the infamous Seal of Quality standards. The Genesis version was also censored, but considerably less so, and famously had a menu screen cheat that unlocked the blood splatters and proper fatalities.
The semiotics of this are revealing. The cheat was designed to be open knowledge, and would have been, like Up Up Down Down Left Right Left Right B A B A Select Start. Schools and networks of friends spread information like this well, as did the disposable press of magazines and off-license cheat code books. “The blood and gore is behind a cheat code” is in no way a defense against Lieberman and his ilk. Indeed, it could even be fairly described as incitement in its deliberate, winking cheekiness. It was reveling in its ilicitness, like a Playboy at a sleepover.
Inasmuch as I understand myself at eleven (and nobody understands themselves at eleven, then or now), it was this that I disliked. I do not find excessive gore pleasant, but I find it unpleasant in the deliberate and measured way that society would like; that is why we use it as a marker of horror. I wince and squirm, but I accept. Older now, I accept even that I am drawn to it. That there is something beautiful about its transgressive carnality. That it is seductive to imagine this system of rules we call society glitching to expose the pulsing meat within.
But Mortal Kombat visibly represented something else. This revelry in transgression; this sense that our wincing and squirming was something to overcome so that we might descend at last, forever into the roar and throb of blood and carnage. Transgression as a dare; a game of seeing how far you can go instead of what wisdom you can bring back. It was unsettling.
In hindsight what is perhaps most remarkable is how tame Mortal Kombat actually is. Its level of gore is only a bit beyond Prince of Persia, a game I thought nothing of when I first encountered it, around the same age and time, and indeed found more enjoyment splattering the Prince upon spike pits than in the game, which felt aggressively too hard, its timer a needless cruelty. The only thing that makes it feel substantively unsettling is the fact that the character animations were done with motion capture, so that they give the distinct sense of being video of human beings instead of cartoons, which gives the violence a little extra edge.
Other than that, it’s the attitude more than the content that provokes. Details like the gratuitous and very early 90s misspelling of “combat” or the aforementioned cheat code that make it clear that the game is seeking be edgy for the sake of it. Or, to put it more bluntly, the game felt mean. Not just in the way it incentivized violent cruelty within the game, but in the way it sought to antagonize the world doing it.
Much of what is unsatisfying here comes from the relative lack of actual depth to the game. Unlike Street Fighter II, with its elaborate system of evolving tactics for multiple characters, the characters in Mortal Kombat were all functionally equivalent, with special moves that were mostly near-clones of each other. Combat tended to be a swiftly executed brutality, as opposed to an intricate dancing chessmatch. This pushes the game more towards superficial levels; towards the iconography of its system instead of the mechanics of it.
It is also impossible not to understand the game in terms of the larger forces of the video game market, and the other major dualism of the era. Simply put, Street Fighter II was Japanese, Mortal Kombat was American. Morever, it was a relatively hastily assembled, cobbled together in ten months to compete with the popular Street Fighter II - a rush clone of a Japanese original. And yet only three of Street Fighter II’s eight original characters are based in east Asia, whereas five of Mortal Kombat’s seven playable characters are, to varying extents, presented as Asian, and all of them are distinctly either Asian or American.
In other words, Mortal Kombat is very much invested in using Asia as a signifier. The series icon is an Asian-style dragon, the red/yellow box art is clearly evoking the Chinese flag, et cetera, et cetera. This is nothing new, and indeed nothing the Japanese industry hadn’t been doing with US in games like Contra III and, more broadly, with the west in general through their embrace and reworking of the European fantasy tradition of the RPG in games like The Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy, and Soul Blazer. Of course the international nature of the video game industry led cultures riffing on each other. But it’s worth looking at how those riffs work. The Japanese use of western culture in RPGs is generally used as a mythological backdrop, and is specifically rooted in medieval Europe. Contra aside, there aren’t a ton of Japan-designed games situated in a vision of contemporary America.
Mortal Kombat, on the other hand, is entirely present day, and draws specifically from the tradition of martial arts movies. This is obviously not a tradition it invents, but it’s also not one it chooses incidentally. And it’s one that’s got no shortage of connection to the cyberpunk tradition (note that Kano, one of the characters, is a cyborg) that was popular at the same time, and in which Asia and particularly Japan was a popular setting/ethnic origin for characters. And for that matter, it connects to contemporary politics, where Japan was not yet widely realized to have entered the Lost Decade and was still seen as a super-efficient economic powerhouse capable of outpacing the United States through its discipline. Even now this rhetoric hasn’t changed that much; it’s just China that serves as the technocratic superior.
In every case, there’s a profound sense of “coolness” to Asia/Japan, whether based in the physical prowess of martial arts or the techno-economic prowess evinced by cyberpunk and US politics. Moreover, this sense of “cool” is in a relatively deep sense, including its connotations of detachment. This is, of course, entirely based on stereotype, but it’s a very fully realized stereotype based on a fantasy of intense social cohesion and discipline; the same stereotype that has Japanese people routinely killing themselves out of shame at being dishonored. It’s based on the idea that Asian culture is in some sense more inhuman and robotic, and thus more capable of ruthless efficiency, whether economic or facepunchy.
Which fits well with the aesthetic of Mortal Kombat, and not just because of the basic compatibility of capitalism and ludicrous amounts of violence. This sense of “cool” is exactly what Mortal Kombat demands of its players. It’s the grounds on which its deliberate provocation seeks to divide its tribe from the others. “Are you cool enough to revel in decapitation, or are you one of those overly emotional people who cares about feelings?”
And in that word we see the link from Nemesis to Gamergate. At last the cesspool where it bred stands revealed. A gaming culture based on a starkly simple test of skill: either you are good enough at controlling the cookie cutter Mortal Kombat character to beat your opponent, or they are better than you. None of that evolving and ever-shifting tactical terrain of Street Fighter II. Just the raw binary of toxic masculinity, where there’s room for nothing but alphas and wimps, where the wimps get the violent decapitation they deserve.
A game based on giddy, mocking cruelty. A desire to upset people for the sake of it, because that’s another way of showing your power over them. One that seeks to hurt people for no reason other than a belief that aggressive provocation is an inherent good. That revels in pain caused. And perhaps most importantly, one where feelings - where the capacity for pain or for thinking “gee, maybe hurting people isn’t all that cool” - are weak. Which, at least in the context of American gender norms, can only be taken as a belief that women are.
Which is, in the end, the crux of it. More than any major video game before it, Mortal Kombat was about declaring video games to be the province of a very particular view of masculinity. One that I was never really a part of, and moreover one that I never really wanted to be a part of. And that simply had not been true of video games in the nine years that I’d been playing them prior to that point. Certainly not in any big, mass culture sort of way.
But here it is. My Nemesis, staring me right back in the face, eyes locked, waiting only for the voice that says “fight.”
I’m going to rip its fucking spine out.
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