If you, like me, were in the front few rows of Sony’s E3 press conference when they showed off Mortal Kombat X on stage, you would also have been deafened by the loud cheers of excited gamers. They were oohing and aahing at decapitations and exposed organs and lost limbs.
This isn’t new for a Mortal Kombat game. Mortal Kombat has always been known for its incredibly creative kill moves. It’s just the newest, shiniest version of bloody deaths in the fighting game series.
Even that Sniper Elite-style X-ray super move isn’t anything new. Mortal Kombat has been celebrating violent fatalities — and, more recently, close-ups of them — for a long time now.
But this year’s cheers were coupled with another kind of reaction. If you paid attention to Twitter and a few seats in the audience, there was certainly some cringing and flinching. Mortal Kombat X‘s boasting of the messy deaths they showcased on stage was maybe more exaggerated this year than any other.
So, during an interview at E3, I thought I’d ask developer NetherRealm Studios’ director of art, Steve Beran, to explain what Mortal Kombat gore is all about and why it’s there.
“It’s almost like a really weird artform seeing the musculature of the characters,” he said. “It’s kind of this gruesome beauty to it, like, ‘Oh my god, that was really nasty but it was really cool seeing the guy’s skin peel away and seeing the muscles in his face and a spike going through his head.'”
Beran: “It’s almost like a really weird artform seeing the musculature of the characters.”
I asked him how he felt about people who didn’t find beauty in the gore.
“It’s obviously very dark and gory but at the same time there’s always a sense of humour to Mortal Kombat that it’s almost unavoidable,” Beran said. “Because obviously you don’t want to make a snuff film or anything, but at the same time it’s all tongue in cheek and I think at the beginning people are kind of like ‘eeeeh’ and cringe, but eventually they’re laughing and applauding when they see it for the first time. That’s something I’m really proud of, that we found that good balance. Showing it at E3 for the first time and having it explode and getting so much attention is more than flattering.”
Beran mentioned that the team spent months simply designing characters, tossing concept art of them up on the walls and then mixing and matching ideas until they found good fits. Next-gen hardware and developing a Mortal Kombat game for those platforms for the first time excited him. “Art-wise, too, going to next-gen for the first time with the Mortal Kombat title, kind of the shackles are off,” he said. “There’s no really hardcore restrictions. We can use tons of polygons. We can use gigantic textures, so you can zoom up on Scorpion’s face and…wow, he’s sweating! There are a lot of really cool details that we can add that we could never really add before. It lets us get much more cinematic with everything. We’re trying to plan stuff out more with unique presentation of getting more sophisticated with the camera. There’s more camera jiggle…”
But in getting excited about creating characters and coming up with fatality ideas, there’s certainly a point where it gets to be too much.
Beran: “If something seems too easy, or it seems like a cheap shot or not terribly creative, that’s usually the line we draw,”
“It could get silly real fast,” he said. “You always have to put a filter on. I think Ed Boon [co-creator of the Mortal Kombat series and current NetherRealm creative director] is kind of the filter for that. We’ll take in a lot of ideas from the whole team, but there is a line where, ok, that’s getting goofy and…”
“How do you know where that line is?” I asked.
“It’s hard to draw the line,” he said. “You obviously want a reaction but if something seems too easy, or it seems like a cheap shot or not terribly creative, that’s usually the line we draw where it’s like, that’s not worth doing. But luckily we have enough voices at the studio that people feel free enough to bring up ideas and they’re thick-skinned enough, too, if their idea gets shot down.”
For more details on the game itself, Beran also spoke with PlayStation Access, that just put up a fairly thorough interview with him coupled with gameplay: