Now Fight (Mortal Kombat)
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.
The Super Nintendo Project will return in 2016.
November 9, 2015 @ 5:24 am
//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.//
In which case I’m glad that I usually played as Sonya Blade…
November 10, 2015 @ 12:42 pm
Wasn’t Sonya actually brokenly powerful in the first MK? Kind of a fun little accident – all these hypermasculine embodiments of extreme 90s extremeness getting bodied by one woman in workout pants.
November 10, 2015 @ 11:45 pm
I actually remember sub zero being the broken one in the first MK
November 11, 2015 @ 1:15 am
Never played MK1, so I looked it up. According to the page I’m looking at, her leg toss move in MK1 was basically a “win the round” button if you timed it right – it could lead to a true infinite. She could also make herself extremely difficult to hit up close just by ducking.
I’m not sure which version this is for, though – it may have been different for the console version.
November 9, 2015 @ 6:53 am
It’s telling that, for most of my childhood, circumstance caused me to avoid Mortal Kombat. I didn’t have a SNES until 1995. Once I could have played it while visiting a cousin, but he had lent his Genesis out. I remember seeing the cart, and wondering what in the world it could be. On another family trip to Nova Scotia, a year later, I got Mortal Kombat 2. For the Game Boy. And I liked it.
I did eventually rent Mortal Kombat, the original, from our local rental place once I got our SNES. It was okay, but they also had Super Street Fighter 2 and I much preferred to rent that. I would later buy that copy of SSF2, whereas Mortal Kombat faded away into the mists of time. I think I sold my Game Boy Mortal Kombat 2 at some point, but I cannot even remember when.
Looking forward to the next little bit of the SNES Project, now that your own Dread Beast has been revealed.
November 9, 2015 @ 4:33 pm
Frezo? Hey, I remember you from SMPS.
November 9, 2015 @ 8:01 am
‘”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?”’
Nailed it, utterly and completely. And I’ll go you one further.
The Street Fighter series is about a tournament – learn, adapt, practice, grow, and – as a result – win. There are winners and losers, and someone’s going to go home broken and bleeding, but at least they get to go home.
Games like Doom, Quake, Wolfenstein, and so on – which also attracted Lieberman’s ire – are violent, bloodsoaked, and full of cruelty, but the point of those games is the same: escape. You’re stuck in a bad place and you have to do bad things to get out, and it might even be fun, but the point of the game is to escape.
Mortal Kombat is about cool, detached characters fighting to the death while hordes of evil creatures cheer them on. There’s some token plot about Elder Gods and entering forgotten realms and whatever, but the tournament is clearly being staged for the enjoyment of those in power.
In other words, MK turns its characters – and by proxy, its players – into willing little slaves who revel in cruelty in a pointless quest for power. The whole time, they think they’re the cool individualist rebels bucking authority. In reality, however, they’re willing stooges, perpetuating their own series of oppression.
In other words, your Nemesis is the junior Tea Party.
November 9, 2015 @ 8:54 am
The “Project Wonderful” ad I’m seeing here is rather ironic. And older, overweight man, naked, a bit hirsuit, shown from the waist up, but cropped just above the mouth, giving him no identity. He holds a placard in front of his chest. It reads, “Got Moobs? Lose them without sprays, supplements, or surgery.” Not the sort of ad I’d expect to find at Eruditorum Press.
The ad goes to a link that makes it baldly clear that such a physique needs to be replaced by hard-cut muscles. As I said… ironic.
November 9, 2015 @ 9:18 am
There’s a point to be made about conformity too, I think. One of the good things about Street Fighter 2 is the huge variety of characters it has, the only thing they have in common is that they all want to win fights, which is kind of inevitable for a fighting game. Beyond that, they have all sorts of different motivations and personalities. But the inevitable consequence of Mortal Kombat’s schtick is that it creates a world full of people who don’t just want to win fights, but also want to kill their helpless defeated. (Erm, I presume, my sole experience with the franchise was a single playable demo a long time ago, so I’m dangerously close to criticising things I don’t have experience of here.)
Thinking more generally about games in which you play an unambiguous bad guy, which I certainly hope is OK since I’ve enjoyed it a few times, I think it’s interesting that I don’t want to do this for Street Fighter 2(+), I want to play a character who after winning, will go “that was a good fight” or spout some martial arts philosophy or something, rather than an Akuma or the like, but I still liked playing evil in Dungeon Keeper or TIE Fighter or even controlling a dalek.
I think it might be in reaction to flaws in narratives, or the typical narratives found in genres. When the Rebels monopolise all the good traits through pure authorial fiat, rather than because they represent the kind of thinking which leads to good in the real world, and they win mostly through the ability of the protagonists to instantly render any stormtroopers shooting at them incompetent, they represent a false hope which deserves to be shot down. But I’ve only started thinking about this an hour ago, so I’m likely to be wrong.
November 9, 2015 @ 10:26 am
Also the Empire totally has the best tune.
November 9, 2015 @ 10:49 am
Growing up this game was more of a checklist that I abandoned. I actually kind of preferred to try all the fighters I could. I actually really liked World Heroes 2 most out of all the fighters to be honest. I dunno what that says about me.
My favorite SNES game was Earthbound though.
November 9, 2015 @ 4:44 pm
Games are always striving to be more realistic. Always to their own detriment. Digitized sprites should have died with Pit Fighter, and yet here we are: we’d have to endure Batman Forever, Street Fighter: The Movie: The Game, and a handful of other clunky fighters with over-sized and under-animated actors shadow boxing at each other.
Now, that’s not to say MK didn’t bring new things to the table. The build-up to fighter Goro (not so much Shang Tsung…) is dramatic and well earned. But the inherent flaw of MK is that no one ever stays dead. The fatalities the scenery kills in MK1 had weight. Every playthrough was different, and some challengers would literally not survive the tournament. It was just senseless violence, it had a point.
By MK3 it had become a joke. The fatalities were just as goofy (if not moreso) as the Babality or Friendship finishers. Cyrax literally blows up the entire planet.
The disconnect is even larger in MK9, an otherwise-good game in which ordinary combos can shatter your opponent’s spine or jaw (thanks to intrusive X-ray cutscenes). The violence is senseless and worse, arbitrary.
November 9, 2015 @ 9:10 pm
In discussing this entry, my husband brought up an excellent point that further reinforces this narrative. He recalls there being a rumor when the later games came out (most prominently with Mortal Kombat II) that there were “sexual fatalities” where the player would be able to commit sexual violence on the other character. In some versions of the rumor they were called “pleasuralities” but they were always heard of from a cousin of a friend, etc. etc. I cannot think of a more GamerGate relevant rumor associated with something than the fantasy of committing sexual violence in a video game.
November 10, 2015 @ 12:33 pm
I never really engaged with Mortal Kombat growing up. I basically operated under the impression that anyone old enough to buy a Mortal Kombat game was too mature to “appreciate” it in the manner intended. (I had a rosier picture of adults back then). Looking back as someone who only played the series a few times at friend’s houses, my retroactive assessment is that Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 was the best one. It had the best roster, and came after the film infused the series with some much-needed camp and sense of fun. Still wasn’t remotely my cup of tea at the time, so I don’t regret missing out on it at all. I will, however, admit, that the recent entries in the series are guilty pleasures of mine that I enjoy with a shitton of qualifiers, because as Phil just demonstrated, holy shit does this series have problems.
I’m someone who watches streams of fighting games far more than I actually play them (I only got into them very recently and far too late to have time to get good), but it’s easy to see that the FGC generally (not just MK or SF but literally all of them) aren’t at all friendly to women. Even by e-sports standards it’s bad. The American games like MK, Killer Instinct, and Skullgirls do have a strong black presence (indeed, the EVO champion of MK & SG is black and bisexual), but I literally cannot think of a single prominent professional female player of any fighting game I’ve ever watched, though I’ve seen a couple streamers. And the central importance of Twitch and its noxious culture to the FGC makes it unlikely that will change. I’m not sure if this stems from the nature or history of fighting games or if it’s just an e-sport thing, but this is a community – more even than other gaming communities – that needs to either adapt or be destroyed.
Which is to say: finish them, Phil.
November 10, 2015 @ 11:23 pm
How does the reboot fit into this? It was made by the same devs as the recent DC Comics fighting game, and while it’s more violent, it has a lot of the same feel–bold but outgunned heroes struggling against an unstoppable evil. There’s actually a sense of tragedy as it builds up likable characters and then throws them into situations they can’t survive.