Mortal Kombat 11's art director Steve Beran has seen a lot of fatalities, given that he’s worked on the series since the ‘90s. His favourite in the new game involves “bloodsicles,” where the character Skarlet stabs an opponent over and over with spikes made from their own frozen blood. Then she pops an eyeball out the back of their head.
“You think it’s over, but the final push with the eyeball at the end is just [chef kiss sound],” Beran told Kotaku.
In some ways, the Mortal Kombat series’ fatalities are a relic of a bygone era—a blood-spattered artifact of pure ‘90s edginess. The series, however improbably, remains a fixture of the fighting game scene decades later, and fatalities, like everything else, have changed with the times.
Yesterday, developer Netherrealm threw a big, bloody bash in Los Angeles to debut Mortal Kombat 11, which will be released for PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, and PC on April 23.
While Netherrealm wanted the event to showcase all of the changes it’s made to this latest version of the game, it was inevitable that MK11's higher-than-ever-fidelity take on viscera-mutilating ultraviolence grabbed everyone’s eyeballs. (Sometimes literally.) I laughed at the sheer ludicrousness of it; others, like Kotaku’s Mike Fahey, understandably had some trouble stomaching it all. Speaking during an interview after the reveal, Beran said that the team’s goal is to keep the fatalities funny—just not too funny.
“To some degree, there’s a filter we have,” he told Kotaku. “More often than not, we never do anything that’s terribly sad. I don’t think it’s ever intentional. I think we’ve just done it so long that they tend to be more funny than anything.”
But funny doesn’t mean slapstick. “Mortal Kombat has always had a sense of humour, but there’s a line where things become corny,” Beran said. One fatality move from 1995's Mortal Kombat 3 that was too corny was the character Kabal inflating his opponent’s heads and popping them. “They were like balloons,” he said. “That’s way too silly for something we’d do now. It’s too Scooby Doo—not Scooby Doo necessarily, but Bugs Bunny.”
The key to a great fatality, Beran said, isn’t extreme grossness, but rhythm. “If there’s too much of a drag between beats, it’s like ‘Let’s tighten that up,’” he said. “It could look cool, but if there’s not this dah, dah, dah, we adjust it to make it feel right.”
If they like the rhythm, the proposed fatality gets sent off to creative director Ed Boon, one of the creators of the original 1992 Mortal Kombat and still involved with the series. “Ed’s involved in every single fatality,” Beran said. “He usually adds something to it.”
Making horrific death come to life in-game is another process entirely. Beran put special emphasis on effects, noting that the game’s chunky stew of spilled blood and torn flesh dredges up reactions from the pits of people’s stomachs thanks to hours of testing.
“We do a lot of testing of, like, how liquid will land on carpet, how it’ll react on dirt,” he said. “And we do tests and talk about them like ‘Does that look how you’d think it would look?’... If I get blood on my shirt, it’s gonna get dark, so it needs to react appropriately. Our tech artists dig into that and make it look very real.”
Fatalities come at the end of a match of Mortal Kombat, because it’s hard to keep fighting after you’re dead. In the middle of a Mortal Kombat 11 match, you can also pull off similarly brutal moves called “crushing blows” and “fatal blows.” These also tend to produce bone-crunching, organ-smoothie-making results, which are sometimes amplified by X-ray zoom-in effects to drive the point home. Those force the team to examine ultra-violence in different lights.
It’s one thing to put an elaborate, cringe-inducing sequence in which somebody’s skull becomes a cracked bowl for a sloppy helping of brain soup once a match is over. It’s another to risk interrupting a match’s rhythm with one in the middle. Crushing blows, as it turns out, are the development team’s response to that very issue with a similar feature called X-ray blows from 2015's Mortal Kombat X.
“Some players thought X-rays were too long,” Beran said. Crushing blows, he said, are faster, “a good punctuation that makes you grimace and then gets you back into the fight very quickly.”
In a series as nonchalant about flying eyeballs, ripped-off faces, and torn-open mouths as Mortal Kombat, you’d figure there wouldn’t be anything that’s off-limits. And you’d be right—for the most part.
“It’s weird finding the barometer of what is too much,” said Beran. “Some of the most tangible seem to be [like] the Baraka one where the victim is getting spiked through their hand. That’s more cringeworthy to me than someone getting their head smashed. It just seems more realistic. I don’t think that crosses a line, but it gets more of a reaction than something that’s more cartoony.”
One thing that’s definitely off the table is a mode in which mid-match acts of limb-smashing, face-perforating violence create lasting damage that affects the character’s’ ability to fight. It “sounds like a neat idea,” Beran said, “but then when it feels like you’re just beating up a wounded thing, it doesn’t feel as competitive anymore.”
Given that Beran has worked on these sorts of scenes for decades, I wondered if there was anything that grosses him out anymore—if he views gnarly, nearly-photo-realistic violence differently than other people might. He doesn’t really think of it on those terms anymore. “I hate to keep saying this, but I think it’s more just the beats to me,” he said. “It’s not so much what’s happening. It’s more just the animations.”
But fatalities are far from the only thing that the Mortal Kombat team obsesses over. Beran stressed, too, that Mortal Kombat’s art team spends countless hours obsessing over materials, trying to get the details of everything from metal and leather to dirt and glass just right. “Metal looks like metal. Leather looks like leather,” he said. Back in the day, the team pursued realistic detail to set Mortal Kombat apart from more stylised competitors like Street Fighter. Even though the look and feel of Mortal Kombat 11 is very different than, say, Mortal Kombat II the underlying spirit is similar.
“It’s almost full circle,” said Beran. “Even when it was low-res, we’d hire real actors and videotape them and capture their moves. Now I think it’s just on a bigger scale... It’s very common now, but at the time, it was pretty groundbreaking—especially to have huge characters on the screen, that was unheard of. Back then, we tried to make it realistic, and I think we just stuck to that.”
Mortal Kombat is also known for its story, another important focus for this team. “People have grown up with Mortal Kombat,” Beran said. “They know the story and have a general idea of the conflict between characters. Not to sound cocky about it, but I don’t think any other fighting game does a story mode like we do. It’s a full-length movie in the game.” An ambitious undertaking for a series that used to prominently feature several palette swaps of the same ninja as central characters.
“Ever since MK vs DC, even though it was our first dabbling into it, I think we got better and better and better at it,” he said. “This story, I couldn’t be more proud of. Just visually and storytelling-wise, I think people are gonna be really pleased.”
And if that’s not your thing, well, there’ll still be brains getting forcibly scooped out of people’s heads. Something for everyone.