clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
The original Mortal Kombat logo. Midway Games/Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

Filed under:

Mortal Kombat began something special: the idea of fighting games with lore

How a ‘failed’ Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle ignited a franchise

I fell in love with Mortal Kombat’s lore the first time I saw it, and all it took was that dragon. The same one that might have caused you to click on this story.

I stumbled onto the game in late 1992. I was around 11, at an underground arcade when I should have been bowling.

The black and yellow symbol immediately intrigued me, and still stands out as one of my favorite video game icons. Just below that was Johnny Cage in the middle of a fierce scream as he performed a flying kick.

His look made me think about Bloodsport — one of those awesome movies that played seemingly around the clock on TBS — and for good reason. Mortal Kombat originally began as a vehicle for Hollywood martial artist Jean-Claude Van Damme.

Bloodsport - GIF of Frank screaming Warner Bros.

“So the fiction behind Mortal Kombat was kind of already in development even prior to us chatting with Van Damme, and when he ended up not being involved, we just kind of marched ahead,” series co-creator John Tobias told me over the phone. “So the idea of his involvement was he was either going to play himself in the game, in the fiction of the game, or he was going to play a character in the fiction of the game. His character is eventually what became Johnny Cage.”

I didn’t know it at the time, but my obsession, and the obsession of many of my friends, with the cinematic works of Van Damme had already primed me to care about the story of Mortal Kombat — and care deeply. The names weren’t there, nor were the likenesses, but the visual language was similar enough that my eyes locked onto the game almost instantly.

I watched as the two characters on the screen traded lightning and ice attacks on top of a tall bridge known as The Pit. There was also a ninja and a demigod fighting in the background of the level, in the night sky as clouds floated past.

These characters looked more realistic than what I was used to from other fighting games, and the violence was cranked up. Everything about it made Street Fighter 2, which was my favorite game at the time, seem tame. Outdated. I wanted to know more about this mystical world and all its unique fighters.

Searching for the story

It was hard to find much information in those early days that went beyond the individual character endings or the small bios that would sometimes show up on the screen and in the manuals for the home console versions of Mortal Kombat. I wanted to know so much about who these characters were and what they were trying to do, and there was so little information out there to go on.

What I didn’t know was that the creators of the game had no idea that fans would care about this aspect of Mortal Kombat, and the format of the arcade game itself made it nearly impossible to deliver much story to the players.

“We walked into an arcade on one of our test locations and the players weren’t playing the game,” Tobias explained. “They were standing around the game not letting anyone play, because they were letting the attract mode play through and they were reading the bios of the characters. And so we became concerned that, ‘Oh shit, the players, they’re not playing the game; they’re trying to read the bios in the attract mode. And if they’re doing that, they’re not putting a token in the machine.’ What I’m saying is that I don’t know that there was much more that we could do in the coin-op version of the game, only because most of the time the games are getting played, and they were being played by two players, not single-player. So the opportunity for us to tell exposition was almost nonexistent.”

It was unlikely that I ever could have been fulfilled by the Mortal Kombat story at the time, since arcade games as a whole were limited narrative vehicles, and the design of the game’s characters themselves were meant to hint at stories much more than tell them directly. I saw a lot of potential for what happened between the fights, but that was the idea; each character was more evocative than explanatory.

“We had to be careful of the setting, the theme, the high-level premise, each character’s individual stories, and how, even when the player looks at them, just in their mind they’re able to fill in the blanks,” Tobias explained. “So it’s almost like you’re telling a story without telling exposition. It’s just by the nature of who these guys are and how they look against each other, and how they fit into the larger world was an important part of our storytelling process in that first game.”

Whatever was happening in my head was always going to be more interesting than what I was told, but I didn’t know that at the time. The moments that set up the story in the sequels happened because the creative team was just trying to put something in, and not everyone could be a winner in the tournament. The goal wasn’t to launch a franchise.

“If I were to go back in time and tell myself, Hey, you know, this stuff that you guys are making up for the story, you’re onto something and it’s going to be bigger than you think it is, and so, take it seriously,” Tobias said, “I think we would have maybe taken some things a little bit more seriously and maybe embedded more in the character endings than we had initially. Like I say, the initial game, their character endings became these sort of outlandish stories, and we never really took them seriously because we thought that, well, you know, every character can’t be a winner of the tournament, so let’s just do these ‘what if’ scenarios.”

I didn’t know it as a fan yet, and Tobias didn’t understand it at the time, but these limitations were leading to one of the most interesting stories in fighting game history. It wasn’t about what we were being told about the characters; it was about what we were imagining might be happening with these characters.

“We wanted it to feel like there’s this larger world, and we’re just opening the door and letting you look into the room. Whether we were ever going to be able to let the player into that room and explore was something that we didn’t — especially with the first game, we didn’t know that we were even going to do a sequel,” Tobias said. “I think that those limitations that we had back then almost accidentally created the mysterious qualities of Mortal Kombat.”

The trouble with comics

I remember devouring the official Mortal Kombat comic books looking for clues, but they did more to ask new questions than they did to answer the ones I already had. And the story of the comics rarely seemed to line up with what I understood, or thought I understood, from the games. I was trying to find some kind of truth in the story, a single line that tied everything together, but that wasn’t something that often happened in licensed works back then.

“We didn’t really have a concrete bible,” Tobias said, referencing the sort of organizing, canonical guide that kept everything together, something that’s common for big movie or game franchises today. “There was one that was put together so the licensors had something to follow, but maybe it wasn’t as — we didn’t enforce it, I think, as much as maybe as we should have. And because of that, I think the quality of some of the things that were a result maybe suffered a little bit.”

Without strong rules about what other companies could or couldn’t do in the playground of the Mortal Kombat world, coherence suffered. But that only made me more convinced I could figure it all out; that there was enough I could buy or learn about that would help me understand the one true path to Mortal Kombat.

Cover of Mortal Kombat #1, Malibu Comics (1994). Bobby Rae, Patrick Rolo/Malibu Comics

I remember reading through the Blood and Thunder comic and not realizing it was a ‘what if’ scenario until I had finished it. Small details never made sense, like the official Mortal Kombat 2 tie-in comic from Midway Games in which Raiden says that Liu Kang had killed Shang Tsung ... even though Shang Tsung was still alive in the games. I didn’t understand why Scorpion was using his army of the dead to help Shao Kahn, or why Liu Kang had a swanky apartment in Chicago when the Malibu Comics books began.

I resorted to asking kids on the playground about the games, and I began collecting and trafficking in speculation that was mostly lies, although I kept hoping some of it was true or that it would at least soon begin to make some kind of logical sense. There was discussion of mythical nudity codes, and there was always the speculation that Sub-Zero and Scorpion were secretly brothers. My favorite rumor — or maybe it was a theory — was that Michael Jordan was going to be in Mortal Kombat 3. This was almost entirely based on the fact that Sub-Zero, Scorpion, and Reptile were playable in NBA Jam: Tournament Edition. The logic was flawed, but my friends and I were very excited by the possibility.

The creators themselves would hear outlandish rumors. Tobias told me that a friend’s younger brother had “seen” a fatality where Kano killed an opponent by shooting a laser out of his eye. That fatality didn’t exist at the time, and Tobias tried to explain that fact, but it was hard to talk people out of their favorite pet theories and conspiracies.

In a strange case of the tail wagging the dog, that fatality would show up in Mortal Kombat 3.

Fans were given the first, and best, Mortal Kombat movie in 1995 — and it’s a shame it never got a sequel — that fleshed out some aspects of the story, even if it didn’t jibe completely with what I had learned thus far. But it was the rare opportunity for the franchise to tell a story that made sense and fit into the world of games.

And that happened without much input from the game’s creators.

“We read the initial screenplay, we had conversations back and forth here and there, but we were always so busy working on the next iteration of the game that we didn’t bury ourselves in it, nor did they seek our input as much as we would have hoped,” Tobias told me. But the first movie went a long way toward establishing a set idea of who these people were, and how they fit together as a loose collection of good guys and bad guys.

Why care at all?

Why obsess over something that seems so ridiculous? Why spend so much time fussing over the story for an arcade game? I don’t have a good answer now, and even Tobias seemed surprised when I discussed the lengths I went to in order to understand the series.

“We were a little bit surprised that [the fans] were so taken by the story,” he said. “So when we would read about them asking questions about this player or that player, the fact that they were so intimate with the stories that we embedded into the game — again, it was just a sentence or two, but yet they would take those things and relate in ways that we hadn’t anticipated with the characters. I think that’s when we thought, wow. We [knew] that the game was popular and players liked playing it, but we didn’t know that they would get so involved with the fiction behind it.”

The world has gone through a series of large shifts since the launch of the first Mortal Kombat arcade games. Now the series primarily exists on home consoles, a platform that allows for detailed story modes as well as the simple competitive format of those early games. Characters now have room to speak with each other in cutscenes and narrative moments that go much deeper than the attract mode of arcade games ever allowed. Tobias admitted that he’s a little envious of that approach, but he also doubted it would exist without the ambiguity of the first games.

“Today, because of the capabilities of the newer consoles, you can tell all the fiction you want, and there’s very little left untold,” he said. “I think that’s great. Certainly, if we had the capabilities that we have today back then, we would have utilized it. But because we didn’t, I think it sort of helped build the mysterious qualities of MK, certainly with regards to the stories.”

And now, Mortal Kombat 11 tells a story where the classic characters have an in-universe reason to come back into the franchise to interact with who they have become in the years between the original arcade games and 2019. They argue with themselves and wonder how they could have made the decisions that have taken place in the lore of the games, in a way that connects the dots between many of the classic games and the more modern ones. That universal, single version of the story, the one that moves along a single line, the one that I had chased as a kid — it finally exists.

The former Johnny Cage sulks away from his current self in Mortal Kombat 11 Image: NetherRealm Studios/Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

This is my new headcanon, and my younger self isn’t disappointed at all with what the series has become. The latest trilogy hasn’t simply reshaped this incredible thing from my youth. This version was better, it was offering me more of it, and I was still hungry.

Every scene gave me something memorable to overanalyze and speculate about, and it made me feel like a kid. Except this time, there are answers and satisfying conclusions. The creators of the original game built a world that existed more in our imagination than in the game itself, and not even they knew how well that approach would pay off decades later.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Patch Notes

A weekly roundup of the best things from Polygon