Once again, we're talking about violence. Once again, we're talking about Mortal Kombat. It's like 1992 all over again.
We’re doing this again, are we?
I get it, the video game discourse is a giant ouroboros, a never-ending, endlessly repeating series of events that come back around like clockwork. Difficulty settings, review scores, the eternal ‘are games art’ debate are all due to rear their head one again at some point in the future but, for now, we’re back on the topic of violence in video games. A true classic of the video game discourse field, talked about for decades. Hell, you may even call it the ‘godfather of video game discourse’.
In fact, it’s awfully fitting that the discussion has, once again, been rebooted by none other than what appears to be a reboot of Mortal Kombat. The trailer for Mortal Kombat 1 dropped last week and, to the surprise of absolutely no one, it’s incredibly violent. Characters having their throats slashed, their eyes thumbed in and, in a spectacular sequence at the end of the trailer, kicked in half by an elder god whilst held up by two elemental dragons. Sounds ridiculous, right? Well, it seems to have, once again, touched a particular nerve.
The visual fidelity of video games is exponentially more impressive these days but it’s hard for me to see it as ‘realistic’. Grim? Absolutely. Disgusting? Your mileage may vary but, sure, I can see what you’re getting at. But ‘realistic’? It’s certainly meant to be pretty bloody horrible and I guess if I was to kick a man in half, it might well look exactly like that, but surely context matters here? I’ve seen the Mortal Kombat 1 trailer described to be ‘like a snuff film’ or like something you’d ‘see on Liveleak’. Two completely absurd statements that left me thinking – did we watch the same trailer?
I’m fairly sure I saw a couple of heads explode like bin bags full of offal – extremely violent, no doubt – but completely over-the-top to the point of intended humour. Something like The Last Of Us 2, for my money, is considerably more violent and shocking than any recent Mortal Kombat – Johnny Cage doesn’t cry out the name of his friend you just disembowelled with a makeshift shank, for instance – and is far more blunt, matter-of-fact and brutal.
Sure, some people made a bit of a fuss around the violence around the time we first saw gameplay footage, but now it’s so mainstream it’s even got its own HBO series. And yet, because it's regarded as some kind of higher art, not than a schlock-y fighting action game, there’s no outcry or people saying it would be better served by removing it. ‘No Russian’ in the original Modern Warfare 2 was a highly controversial sequence, featuring far more ‘realistic’ violence than anything seen in the Mortal Kombat 1 trailer. For what it is worth, I don’t want people complaining about the violence in either – I think both are extremely effective uses of violence, but the stuff you’re seeing in Mortal Kombat isn’t the same thing.
It’s at this point we need to look at the relationship with the old ultraviolence in other media. A fairly common thing to see in horror movies throughout the years is that they constantly up the ante, pushing the gore-filled envelope further and further and eventually they hit what I’m going to start describing here as the ‘Evil Dead point’. There comes a point with extreme violence where it crosses the Evil Dead point and becomes intentionally ridiculous. That doesn’t make it any less disgusting, horrific or, of course, violent but tonally, it’s completely different.
Martyrs and The Human Centipede are both horror movies and both feature a central set-piece of a ‘realistic’ medical procedure taking place to generate that uncomfortable feeling of horror in the audience but no one can tell me they’re coming from the same place – one is genuinely disturbing, the other is clearly played for to be laughably sick. Take the Saw films too, for example. Once it became clear that people were totally in it FOR the vicious deaths at the hands of Jigsaw’s increasingly convoluted traps, the series doubled down on how horrible they could make them. I can’t imagine anyone went into the cinema to watch Saw IV thinking “gee, I hope everyone makes it out of this one unharmed!” or watched a Friday 13th movie under the impression that they weren’t going to see Jason Voorhees stab a bunch of people up with a massive knife.
Without sounding too much like a psychopath, there’s supposed to be a grim appeal to the violence on show. It’s not the same as watching that lad walk around on Normandy Beach holding his fucking arm in Saving Private Ryan.
Now, crucially, Mortal Kombat isn’t just about the gore. It’s a consistently fantastic fighting game series from a mechanical standpoint with genuinely iconic characters and a rich tapestry of lore and backstory to sink your teeth into, as well as being a series that often serves the single-player gamer significantly more than others within the genre. It is, however, completely synonymous with violence. Since day one, way back in ‘92, people have been saying that the realistic violence in Mortal Kombat has been corrupting society. Sure, the big red blobs that fly off your character after a particularly meaty uppercut and Sub Zero tearing off his opponent’s head, with the full spinal column left intact, seem a bit quaint now. But back then, this was the most horrific, disgusting, realistic depiction of gore ever seen. Will someone, anyone, think of the children?
Now, NeverRealm has done itself no favours here, with reports around the launch of Mortal Kombat 11 that it had its crunching artists looking at photos of actual car crash victims or some fairly deplorable shit, but awful workplace practices aren’t the point of this article – obviously that is a bad and very stupid thing to have taken place. It’s also completely fine to think that Mortal Kombat is too violent! There’s a discussion to be had there, even if it isn’t something I agree with.
I just think it is a fairly bad faith take to say that this is anything more than intentionally daft gore that has been the selling point of entire genres in all sorts of different media for years and years. It’s also not accurate to say the older games were any more ‘comical’, as the original Mortal Kombat was meant to be as violent as the technology allowed at the time and even recent games have the sillier side of the series, like ‘Friendships’, still very much part of them.
Perhaps I’m desensitised, perhaps I’m part of some deep-rooted problem with violence in video games being completely normalised, but some of the takes I’ve seen thrown around about the gore in MK1 over the last few days have honestly made me feel like I’ve lived too long and seen too many discourse cycles.