Concerns about violence in video games are nothing new.
I came of age in the ’90s, the decade that gave us congressional hearings spurred by the cartoon ultraviolence of the glorious and notorious Mortal Kombat. In nightly news segments, then-Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-CT) and other paroxysmally concerned politicians wrung their hands, desperate to convince my parents that overexposing my sister and me to pixelated fatalities would inevitably lead us to decapitate the family dog or commit any number of other morally degenerate acts.
Fortunately, my parents didn’t listen to Lieberman. If they had, I may never have gotten a job working as narrative lead and co-writer on Mortal Kombat 11.
Being that I grew up playing violent Mortal Kombat games and, for the past few years, have made a living writing the most violent Mortal Kombat game of all time, you might assume that I enjoy, crave, or even occasionally indulge in violence.
That assumption could not be further from the truth.
[Ed. note: This post contains major spoilers for Mortal Kombat 11.]
The pill in the pudding
I’m a pacifist who believes violence is never justifiable, except in cases of emergency defense. I’m a parent who fears for my child’s safety in a country overwhelmed by utterly senseless gun violence. I’m a law-abiding, patriotic American citizen who is anxious about the rising tides of authoritarianism and police brutality around the globe. I’m a student of history who mourns the millions of souls lost in the industrial-scale wars of the past century. I question whether dropping nuclear bombs on Japanese cities in 1945 was a morally justifiable act. The realities of violence are repugnant to me.
When it comes to fictional media, games or otherwise, I believe that people are naturally drawn to depictions of violence as a hypothetical means of contemplating real-world terrors.
That doesn’t mean that all violent media gets a free pass from me. I often feel that contemporary creators are extraordinarily lazy in their reliance upon violent acts. The range of possible human expressions is so rich and varied, and yet, as Chris Plante has said, so many games limit and reduce their protagonists’ modes of expression to “shoot” and “kill,” leaving no space to consider other, perhaps more constructive, relatable ways to overcome obstacles and resolve conflicts.
Given all this moral hand-wringing of mine, how the hell do I justify working on MK11, a game that’s all about violence? From my perspective, there’s more value in Mortal Kombat than the ultraviolent graphics ostensibly suggest. There’s a pill in the pudding, as rapper Danny Brown explained to NPR in 2014.
Brown is a Detroit icon whose works expertly weave the stimuli of hip-hop shocks and fantasy fulfillment (the pudding) with layers of social commentary (the pill). For example, start with his instant-classic 2011 album, XXX. The album’s title is undoubtedly a reference to pornographic content, and it lives up to that promise in odes to cunnilingus (“I Will”) and toasty party bangers like “Blunt After Blunt.”
But in its title track, XXX reveals itself to be Brown’s meditation on turning 30 without yet achieving the success he envisioned for his 20s. Far from a celebration of 24/7 clubbing, “Party All The Time” is a parable about a groupie girl who does just that, only to end up “lost in the fog, head in the smoke, laughing at the world ’cause her life is a joke.”
From track to track, what seems like a party album on its face is actually a rumination on the struggles of wasted potential, drug addiction, and economic despair. All that nuance may not resonate at a conscious level the first time you listen to a Danny Brown album, but you feel it, and that’s by design. As an artist and an entertainer, Brown knows that fans come to his shows to dance to party bangers, but they’ll be feeling his message long after they leave.
Mortal Kombat 11 mixes pudding and pill in its own ways. You’ve got that trademark hybrid of stylized ultraviolence, popcorn thrills, and kitsch, and characters drawn from martial arts, fantasy, and sci-fi. That’s pure pudding. It excites the senses and ignites the imagination on all the primary, visceral levels. But all that pudding won’t nourish you on its own; it won’t arm you mentally or emotionally to deal with the struggles of life as we know it.
The most nourishing aspect of MK11 is its core fighting gameplay. It’s accessible enough for newcomers while providing a nearly endless skill curve for dedicated players. The primary mode of expression is “fight” and “kill,” but the fighting in MK11 is a complex and layered esport, an outlet for competition and achievement that engages millions of fans around the world.
Players may come to Mortal Kombat 11 for violent spectacles, but they stay for the spirit of competition, and for the opportunity to express themselves creatively by stringing together their moves and finding strategies even the designers could not anticipate.
Few players have time to learn the ins and outs of every character in the game, which makes choosing the right one all the more important. To spend hours training with a character is to build a relationship with them, to know not just how they fight, but how they think, speak, and feel.
I think that’s why players were unexpectedly drawn to the short character bios seen in arcade-era Mortal Kombat games. As series co-creator John Tobias explained to Stephen Wilds: “We walked into an arcade on one of our test locations and the players weren’t playing the game. 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.”
As the roster of characters expanded from game to game, so did their lore, and those brief, tantalizing biographies evolved into hourslong cinematic tours of the in-game universe. Over 25 years later, Mortal Kombat has accrued a deep bench of familiar, iconic characters, providing a strong foundation for new stories.
One could say the same thing about the iconic rosters of the Street Fighter and Tekken franchises, but their story modes are far less celebrated by fans and critics. Why?
Show for the kills, stay for the feels
What sets the stories in Mortal Kombat games apart is their commitment to developing emotional motives to drive and justify the fights.
“The tale excels with smaller moments, too,” Eric Van Allen wrote in his review of Mortal Kombat 11. “There are genuinely poignant story beats.” Those poignant beats are pure pill. The heroes of Mortal Kombat 11 fight in a fantastical world of gods and monsters, but their hearts are grounded in the same emotional reality that we all share. That’s the hook. Every game has fights, every game has high-impact action, but not every game moves you.
Which brings me back to the initial question: How do I justify working on a game that’s all about killing? By telling personal stories about heroes who overcome anger, fear, selfishness, and dogmatic thinking, the all-too-human root causes of so many real-world conflicts. Our heroes are juxtaposed with villains who willfully embrace such destructive tendencies. The contrast between heroes and villains happens to express a core value of my pacifism: Villains provoke conflict; heroes resolve it.
Resolving conflicts in MK11 mostly means you “fight” or “kill.” But thanks to the magic of story, we can also envision other means of resolution, such as acts of compassion and mercy, which punctuate the most critical and epic moments of the MK11 saga.
This is exemplified by Raiden’s story in Chapter 11, a climactic confrontation between him and Liu Kang, with roots that go back decades. And we’re going to have to dig into the lore in order to discuss the ending.
Fans of the 1990s Mortal Kombat games and the hit film adaptation knew Liu Kang as the hero, the Chosen One, appointed by the benevolent Thunder God, Raiden, to defend Earthrealm from conquest.
But Liu Kang and Raiden both fell from grace in the 2000s. Liu Kang died in Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance, which came out in 2002. Raiden traded benevolence for wrath one game later to become Dark Raiden. Liu Kang was resurrected — not as a hero, but as a murderous zombie villain.
Both characters found opportunities for redemption when the MK timeline was rebooted in the ninth game, 2011’s Mortal Kombat, but those opportunities were squandered. Liu Kang defied Raiden’s orders, leading to a fight in which Raiden himself killed Liu Kang.
2015’s Mortal Kombat X once again resurrected Liu Kang as an undead villain and turned Raiden into a grim, dark version of himself. That game ended with Dark Raiden declaring war against Revenant Liu Kang, who had become the Emperor of the Dead.
Which brings us to Mortal Kombat 11. Kronika, a powerful deity with control over time and destiny, is on a mission to reboot the timeline yet again. In the process, she pits the past and present against each other by pulling characters from the past into the present. The previous, honorable versions of Raiden and Liu Kang confront their tragic futures, and they don’t like what they see.
Past Raiden has every intention of changing his future for the better, but soon enough, events spin beyond his control. His desperate drive to defeat Kronika leads him to yet another battle against Past Liu Kang. History repeats itself. They fight, as they must. It seems as if the violence is inescapable, and it locks these characters into a horrible loop.
Until it doesn’t. Past Liu Kang repeats a key phrase from 2011 as they prepare to fight: “Enough of your madness. If you must die, so be it.” In that moment, Past Raiden sees a vision of multiple past timelines. He battles and kills Liu Kang in every one.
Raiden is now fully aware that he is, essentially, a character in Kronika’s fighting game. His literal fate is to fight, and fight, and fight. He refuses to battle Past Liu Kang, but even then, Kronika forces him to fight the evil Revenant Liu Kang from the future. The only way to end that fight, Revenant Liu Kang declares, is for Raiden to kill him.
But now Raiden is aware of this cycle of perpetual violence, and he breaks it with a spectacular act of mercy and self-sacrifice. Raiden has learned the lessons that history has taught humanity time and again, but which we often conveniently ignore. Fighting leads to fighting. Feuds only end when we humble ourselves to make peace.
War is over, if you want it.
Will everyone who battles through Mortal Kombat 11 derive these same morals from the story? Maybe not consciously. But I hope that they, and you, feel it.
Disclaimer: Shawn Kittelsen is an independent contractor and thus does not represent NetherRealm Studios or Warner Bros. Games. All views and opinions here are his own.
Shawn Kittelsen is a freelance writer and narrative designer. Most recently, he’s served as narrative lead and co-writer of Mortal Kombat 11 for NetherRealm Studios/Warner Bros. Games.