Extreme Violence in 'Mortal Kombat 11' Still Feels Wrong, and That's a Good Thing
Despite the moral panic of the 1990s, playing decades of 'Mortal Kombat' hasn't numbed me to the game's extreme violence, which is precisely why it still works.
Image: Warner Bros.
They called it Mortal Monday. It was September 13, 1993 and I had just turned 10. Mortal Kombat was moving from the arcade to the home console and every kid I knew wanted to get their hands on the brutal fighting game. I had poured over the pages of GamePro, learning how Kano would rip the beating heart from the chest of his opponents and that Sub-Zero could rip the spine from the body of his fallen opponent.
My parents weren’t going to let me play it. Violent video games were all over the news in the early 1990s and Mortal Kombat was the poster child of a moral panic—one that said violent video games were rotting the minds of children and turning them into violent psychopaths. As with rap music and comic books before it, politicians and pundits were blaming video games for the nation’s ills. There was even a Senate hearing lead by Democrat Joe Lieberman showing discussing and showing footage of the game's famous fatalities. The hearing—which played footage from the notoriously goofy Night Trap while Senators hefted the blue light gun from Lethal Enforcers—was ridiculous.
I talked my parents into it. At 10, I was able to explain that Mortal Kombat was just a video game and I understood the difference between fantasy and reality. It helped that I would be playing the game on the Super Nintendo, which had cut out the blood and toned down the fatalities. But the game still felt transgressive. Playing it still felt like breaking a rule.
Mortal Kombat 11 is the latest game in the decades old franchise and, I’m happy to report, that after almost 30 years, it maintains its ability to shock.
Almost thirty years later, as a grown ass man sitting in his house, watching Scorpion grab Sub-Zero and impale his head on a spike in 4K I yelled unbidden, “Oh god no!” After 27 years, Mortal Kombat still feels grotesque and ultra-violent in a way that makes me uncomfortable. When I land a “krushing blow” and the camera zooms in to reveal the intimate destruction of bones and tissue, I wince. When, during a fatality, the Kollector bends over his victim and rips the limb from limb, gore and viscera arcing through the air, before pulling head away from the body and stuffing it in his backpack, I cringe. When Baracka rams his bone blades into the skull of a victim, pulls out their brain, and bites into it, causing blood to splatter across the screen, I gag just a little.
But I love it. I love it the same way I love horror films and other people love roller coasters. The body thrills at the plunging carnival ride and releases all kinds of chemicals during a horror film. We're all fascinated by the macabre to various degrees, and Mortal Kombat 11 is a safe place to experience those carnal rushes without hurting ourselves or others.
None of it would matter, of course, if Mortal Kombat 11 wasn't also a very good fighting game. This has always been the case. Mortal Kombat pulled players in with controversy and spectacle, but they stayed because it also has real substance. Developer NetherRealms Studio included a robust training system that teaches a novice player about advanced fighting game concepts such as canceling and reading frames. It’s also customizable. Similar to NetherRealms Studio's Injustice 2, players can pick a favorite fighter, level them up, and earn cosmetic and gameplay rewards that alter the way the character functions, so there's a lot to do even if you don't want to play against other people.
Mortal Kombat 11’s exquisitely rendered gore is a far cry from the pixelated hearts and viscera of my youth, and it shocks me just like the original game did. That's probably because Mortal Kombat has been steadily upping the ante for all these years, and making those fatalities more creative and detailed as technology advanced and enabled the developer's morbid imagination.
There’s an argument that says people exposed to violence in media become desensitized to it. What's strangely comforting about Mortal Kombat 11 is not only that Mortal Kombat is still fun to play, but that decades of playing video games have not, despite Joe Lieberman's worst fears, numbed me to its extreme violence. Like any horror movie, Mortal Kombat's appeal hasn't faded precisely because it's still shocking.