Everyone has games and franchises that they give a little more leeway than others.
That’s always been Mortal Kombat for me. As a kid, the series had this air of intrigue, partially because of the media attention from the U.S. and what I could see on the occasional trips to the arcades next to the local movie theatre. It was also attraction by subtraction: one small fish and chip shop in my hometown had a Street Fighter 2 cabinet for some reason, and the more I played it, the less appealing it became.
That could have been the chips’ fault, but you never really know at that age.
So I developed a soft spot early on for a game that I was undoubtedly far too young to be playing, but managed to get my hands on anyway. It carried through to some questionable life choices, like paying multiple times to see Mortal Kombat in the cinemas — not the good Mortal Kombat with Christopher Lambert, the shitty Mortal Kombat: Annihilation in 1997.
And courtesy of Australia’s pre-R18 classification laws, I got a pang for the series once more when the franchise was rebooted by NetherRealm. Unsurprisingly, I’ve replayed the campaigns for MK9 and MKX several times, and planned to do the same with Mortal Kombat 11.
The only thing that got in the way was injury. I managed to crock my neck so badly that it was painful to stare at a screen, and because I couldn’t avoid that thanks to work, it meant most of my spare time was relegated to the couch with a pillow. (I’d gotten MK11 on PC, and even streaming through Powerwall Ethernet wasn’t a great experience.)
And while I was doing other things, watching TV with my partner and just recuperating, the reports of what it was like to work on the game started flooding in.
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Mortal Kombat is known for its gore, but like most video games, the gore wasn’t really something I watched. It’s a bit like watching Marcus tear an enemy ribcage with a chainsaw, or some of the execution animations in DOOM. They’re so commonplace, so rote, that these moments are really more downtime. As soon as an X-Ray begins to land, my brain goes, “OK, that’s my cue to think about something else for the next five or so seconds until the game starts again.”
That’s a pretty normal experience for many. It’s also pretty normal for most people to play games without thinking of the developers behind the game, and even rarer to have that experience when tales like this are fresh in your mind.
“You’d walk around the office and one guy would be watching hangings on YouTube, another guy would be looking at pictures of murder victims, someone else would be watching a video of a cow being slaughtered,” a developer who was diagnosed with PTSD, attributed to working on MK11 and being surrounded by all the gore on a daily basis, told Kotaku.
It was a bit of a conundrum for me especially. I’ve loved all the Mortal Kombat games. But outside of that, blood, gore and dismemberment is something I have little to no taste for. I’m not a fan of horror movies. Something like Saw is an absolute no-go for me.
I refused to watch the infamous Saddam Hussein video, or any of the beheading videos popularised by ISIS, because I figured I didn’t need the images of that seared into my memory. (I’d also have preferred not to watch the recording of what happened in Christchurch, but unfortunately I didn’t have the option that day.)
So why was my brain giving Mortal Kombat a pass?
It’s weird to discover yourself reacting to things you normally ignored, or didn’t notice. I wasn’t wincing or stopping gameplay with every broken bone and pierced skull, but as I worked through the chapters, I found myself noticing the fatal blows and counters more.
I remember recoiling a fraction the first time I saw Jade take a knife through the back of someone’s spinal cord. It didn’t stop me from playing, but it wasn’t something I could forget either. I’d previously ignored the gore and brutality so much that I can barely remember any of the specials from MK9 and MKX, and I’d played through those games multiple times. Now I was actively noticing it, and not by choice.
It wasn’t a reaction that kicked in uniformly. While NetherRealm work on a certain rhythm for each of their fatalities, fatal blows, and counters, some are more creative, over-the-top, or effective. D’Vorah’s fatality might be the grossest thing in Mortal Kombat history, although Baraka’s brain snack isn’t far behind.
I mention all of this only because it was constantly sitting in the back of my mind. MK11 is certainly more vicious than its predecessors — that cutscene with D’Vorah “poisoning” Kotal Kahn was particularly repulsive — but it was a marked mental shift, one I’d not had while playing a Mortal Kombat game before.
You can’t ignore the absence of that disassociation once its gone, however that comes to pass. For me, knowing more about the conditions and effect it had on developers was the catalyst. I wouldn’t advocate skipping the game: it’s still an enjoyable story, and the fights and mechanics are great for newcomers and veterans alike.
But you can’t unring a bell. So the next step is to wonder. What more could NetherRealm do for developers or contractors affected by animating and modelling the snapped spines, severed limbs and pierced eyeballs? What does the red line look like for NetherRealm? What does the red line look like for us as players? What is the difference between a fatality that’s funny and one that’s viscerally too far?
One answer might actually be the interactivity. Alex Hutchinson, who worked on Far Cry, Assassin’s Creed and has since been focusing on how non-game players view violence different to those who play games, told Kotaku earlier this year that the interactive elements help make the violence more abstract compared to the violence you see in films or TV shows.
It’s a theory that would explain why It can scare the shit out of people, and Saw might cause people to physically recoil, but Mortal Kombat would not. NetherRealm’s craft should be recognised here as well. Moves and fatalities are specifically made to be funny, with a certain rhythm and style that controls the degree of focus on the savagery and excess.
Unfortunately, we now know more clearly what the cost of that process can be.
That thought stuck with me as I unwound Kronika’s schemes, and remained as the credits rolled. I’ll replay Mortal Kombat 11 at some point, because it’s always been a game that I’ve mechanically enjoyed, and over the years the world and storytelling has become enjoyable in its own right.
But those questions won’t disappear. And while that probably won’t be enough to change anything, having that consideration might come as some small comfort to the developer who contracted PTSD helping put all of it together.