Corporate Kombat

Initially, I began this prose under the title “The Pyrite Ratio” to express the increasing corporatization of big tech across social media platforms and other forms of entertainment. However, the subsequent coverage and creation of extensions that allow internet users to view the dislike count of videos on YouTube simultaneously dissuaded me from covering the topic while rekindling hope in the human element in response to decisions they dislike. I previously covered the topic1 of media bias and poor journalism in the video game industry; it should be clear by now that the billion-dollar corporations who run these platforms are also practitioners of biased decision-making.

Take Mortal Kombat, for example; what was once a simple, gory fighting game series with not-so-serious characters that kept people entertained in the arcades has now become a media franchise exuding pathos. Midway Games, the original developer; and publisher of Mortal Kombat, had world-building and storylines in their games before NetherRealm Studios’ creation in 2010, to be sure. Who doesn’t remember booting up their sixth-generation console of choice2 and seeing Shang Tsung snap Liu Kang’s neck with Quan Chi’s assistance, killing the “main character” in the opening cutscene?

I could write a novella of the Mortal Kombat lore established during the Midway era; the point isn’t that elongated cinematic cutscenes ruined the tone; it’s the content within the cinematic cutscenes that changed the series’ timbre. Sure, the series’ original storyline amalgamated into a world-ending final tournament amongst every Mortal Kombat character ever, but amongst those combatants3 were characters such as Meat, who had one secret appearance and no backstory before Mortal Kombat: Armageddon, Mokap, another secret character who had one appearance before Armageddon and also just so happened to be a motion capture artist with extensive martial arts abilities, and Bo Rai Cho, an obese alcoholic monk who you can use to create a slippery puke puddle while fighting. Hardly a bastion of self-serious storytelling.

The lore in the Midway era was more like treats, little secrets, and Easter eggs hidden in the game for players to go out of their way to discover if they so choose. It wasn’t essential as the primary driving force of the games was getting together in front of the arcade cabinet or tv screen and battling gory round after round with friends. Nowadays, with online gaming and expansive 60-hour or more story modes, that kind of spirit won’t cut it. The competitive online experience is similar to hanging out with your friends and battling it out, but what if you’re not interested in playing online and want to play the story mode or have a group of friends you can fight? The mechanics of Mortal Kombat are still as fun as they’ve ever been, so that’s no concern, but what if you’ve been invested in these characters for over a decade and booted up Mortal Kombat X only to discover the story mode was a failed passing of the torch?

Am I asking for thought-provoking, genre-defining writing in a Mortal Kombat game? No, but I am not the one who decided to make it that way. If the writers are going to attempt a more serious tone, then consistency is key. Spending long sections of unplayable cinematic scenes to establish character identity and an emotional connection with the audience is practically expected of video games now, which is not a bad thing in a vacuum; just often at odds with a simplistic approach like Mortal Kombat. Jumping ahead 25 years, aging most of the returning fan favorites, and introducing their children, Sub-Zero and Scorpion ending their long, bitter feud, are all good ideas. However, making everyone else around the so-called kombat kids incompetent to ultimately allow generic exaggerated zoomer, Cassie Cage, to stand up and use the green glow inherited by her father to defeat the revived Elder God Shinnok; is not so great. Go ahead, look at what other long-time fans thought4 about it5 online; better yet, buy the game yourself and see if you can stomach the story mode.

I was looking forward to the storytelling possibilities of a reset timeline that the new studio could develop, especially with series co-creator and lead designer Ed Boon still in charge. However; the events of Mortal Kombat 2011 (or Mortal Kombat 9; if you prefer) led to another version of what was essentially the plot of Mortal Kombat 4 in Mortal Kombat X. Midway followed up Mortal Kombat 4 by ditching the arcades entirely and focusing on the home console market. That approach gave us Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance, shaking up the status quo by teaming up two infamous villains from the franchise, killing off Liu Kang, and introducing another world-ending threat soon to be revived by the Deadly Alliance, Onaga, the Dragon King. What did Mortal Kombat 11 do to follow up Mortal Kombat X? It introduced Kronika, a time-warping entity from a species known as Titans that predate the Elder Gods. She is also the mother of Shinnok and a new character called Cetrion and continuously resets the timeline attempting to keep the balance between light and dark.

While both plots seem similarly superficial to provide a reason for this fighting game to exist, there is a clear distinction between the two. Midway built upon the simple storyline every game, introducing new threats and characters as the years progressed, some more ridiculous than others, but kept the focus on scheming villains battling with the forces of good. While not complex storytelling, it does set a moral template amongst the gory chaos and addicting gameplay; good guys vs. bad guys; everyone understands that. Households who played Mortal Kombat: Deception or Mortal Kombat: Armageddon usually banned overpowered characters like Onaga and Blaze, but even though they displayed incredible strength over the majority of the Mortal Kombat roster, which consists of people already considerably deadlier than the average human, these characters were not reality-warping threats. Of all the possibilities I was looking forward to when Raiden reset the timeline, an MCU-like, time-warping villain retroactively fitted in was not amongst them.

The original timeline boiled down to a failed invasion of Earthrealm by Shao Kahn after failing to secure a tenth consecutive victory in the Mortal Kombat tournament setting off a chain of events that eventually culminated with him winning the final battle atop The Pyramid of Argus during Armageddon. That makes people invested, and ultimately, reading what fans think online reveals some people are happy Shao Kahn won in the original timeline because, as they see it, he worked incredibly hard to achieve his goal and did. Remember, this is the most iconic and arguably the main antagonist of the franchise, and a good deal of fans are perfectly content with the fact he won in the original timeline, including me. In contrast, the NetherRealm games seem to write characters doing whatever they need them to do at whatever moment is necessary for their story to continue6. What is there to get excited about when Mortal Kombat can take the DC Comics route and make Mortal Kombat 12 a “Flash of Two Worlds” rip-off7 starring the still-deceased former protagonist Liu Kang?

It’s not as if dead characters or characters previously thought dead hadn’t reappeared in later games, either revived or done playing possum, during the Midway era. However, ultimately, it’s a fighting game series emphasizing crazy characters and even crazier and brutal move sets; Midway understood this, and it’s why they had a balanced tone between silly zaniness and brutal violence for so long. The storyline played out during the opening cutscene before even getting to the main menu; you’d have to play the next game to see how the storyline progressed from there, leaving the many arcade endings as often unsuitable endings for fans of certain characters. The lore and story were there, but it wasn’t the primary focal point; as stated before, that won’t cut it nowadays. Instead, we need prolonged cutscenes consisting of contrived character actions and motivations interspersed with stretches of gameplay not always aligned with the story unfolding on screen, as well as paid DLC to replace unlocking characters from the Krypt or add on to the story later.

Of course, the main gameplay is still fun, so it’s not a complete loss, but who’s to say it remains that way? Mortal Kombat is a successful video game franchise selling millions of copies worldwide, so I’m not suggesting their creative team’s poor storytelling choices will sink their sales and reputation for a few less than stellar plot points. Reportedly8Mortal Kombat 11 was the highest-selling game of the franchise9, even after poor fan reception to the Mortal Kombat X story; ultimately, those sales figures are the bottom line for NetherRealm Studios. Fans can go online and shred the story to pieces for numerous reasons, but as long as people continue to purchase the game in record numbers, then it doesn’t matter. Go ahead and leave a dislike on their YouTube page; unless you have a dislike bar extension, you can’t see how many people agree with your opinion; heaven forbid a company allows comments. That’s the reality of corporate culture.

Editor’s Notes

  1. Havarti – 12/18/2020 – Video Game Journalism Does Not Matter
  2. PlayStation 2, Xbox, and GameCube. The Dreamcast ceased production in 2001, but it did have Mortal Kombat Gold in 1999, an expanded version of Mortal Kombat 4.
  3. Or “kombatants,” if you prefer.
  4. YouTube/SonicHaXD – 10/26/2019 – Mortal Kombat X SUCKS Series (Playlist)
  5. YouTube/TrueUnderDawgGaming – 1/25/2022 – The Most Hated Story in Mortal Kombat History!
  6. YouTube/SonicHaXD – 1/15/2021 – Mortal Kombat 11 SUCKS Movie
  7. Warner Bros. Discovery owns both DC Comics and Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, which owns NetherRealm Studios. Considering that Mortal Kombat characters have guest appearances in the Injustice series and vice versa, as well as the crossover game Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe during the Midway era, don’t be shocked if this ends up happening at some point.
  8. IGN – 7/26/2021 – Mortal Kombat 11 Has Sold Over 12 Million Units Worldwide
  9. Ed Boon did clarify they hadn’t surpassed Mortal Kombat X in sales the following day, so it’s worth noting. EventHubs – 7/27/2021 – Mortal Kombat 11 is not the best selling title in the series yet after all corrects Ed Boon

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