Jax grabs his opponent’s arms, holds them up over their head, and then—with a squish—he jams them all the way into their body so only the hands are visible. He takes a moment to light a cigar. He grabs his opponent’s mouth and rips the head in half. He puts out his cigar on the tongue as blood gurgles out.
Jax wins. Fatality.
Even if you haven’t heard of the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), you’ve seen their work. Before every game commercial, a big letter comes up “Rated E for Everyone,” “T for Teen,” or “M for Mature.” Their ratings can be found on every single game box in the lower righthand corner. When the original Mortal Kombat was released back in 1992, the ESRB had not yet been created. Its release was one of the reasons it was.
Mortal Kombat is one of the most infamous game franchises of all time. It’s pretty simple, really: Two characters hit each other until one of them dies. Rinse, repeat. Fighting games don’t get much simpler than that. But what made Mortal Kombat stick out was its “realistic” depiction of violence. The characters were digitized versions of real actors so each punch looked, sort of, like one person actually punching another one. It wasn’t a cartoon, and censors were not pleased.
But what really stuck out, then as now, was the “Fatality” system. When a player has truly beaten his opponent, the victor has the chance to make the victory just a little bit sweeter. And by sweeter, I mean bloodier. “FINISH HIM!” the announcer booms. Press the right combination of buttons and you’ll be treated to a jaw-dropping display of virtual violence.
Sub-Zero freezes his opponent’s torso with a frozen punch. He follows it up with a regular punch—one that leaves a gaping hole in their body. Only its spine remains, but not for long. He reaches in and snaps the spine in two. Then he lifts the body up, rips it in half, and drops the pieces to the ground.
Sub-Zero wins. Fatality.
Though Mortal Kombat X is the tenth official iteration in a series with many more spinoffs and side projects, the “X” is a letter, not a number. Mortal Kombat 9 was just called “Mortal Kombat,” one of those reboots that’s so popular with games these days. Mortal Kombat was a step forward for the series, and many critics and fans hailed it as such. I didn’t play Mortal Kombat. Not the 2011 one, anyway. I did play Mortal Kombat in the arcades when I was young, though. It wasn’t a good game, really, but it was definitely fun to punch off my friend’s digital head.
But as gruesome as it was for the time, there was an innocence to the violence. It was all so absurd, and the digitized, grainy people stuck out against the “horrific” injuries they would endure (and inflict). Since then, the games have kept pace with technology, looking “better” with each volume. And with improved visual fidelity comes increasingly disturbing visuals. They don’t necessarily look real, but they don’t look so fake anymore either. There are two ways that this could have gone: Either they could have played up the humor (see: Babality), or they could have gone all-in and made a game for people who relish the violence.
Guess which way they went?
Mileena pulls out two blades and sticks them into her opponent’s head. She yanks, and it rips right off. And then you see what that mask of hers is hiding: an enormous mouth with enormous teeth. She goes to town on the face. And with only four bites, all the flesh is gone. She throws the head back down beside its still-bleeding body and walks away.
Mileena wins. Fatality.
Even outside of the fatalities, the game seems designed to elicit a degree of sympathy-pain. Particularly powerful attacks will cause the screen to zoom in and show an X-ray of a character’s body. You’ll see a series of bones snap in vivid detail. I witnessed a character’s testicles literally pop under the pressure of an uppercut—and that was in only my second fight.
Blood flows freely. Nearly every strike triggers a geyser of blood from… somewhere. When I booted up the game for the first time I was forced to fight in a snowy forest. The blood stays on the ground, so by the end of the fight there were many pools of it sitting in the snow. It would have been far more compelling imagery if it had meant something. But in Mortal Kombat, nothing means anything.
There’s a story. I don’t know why, but it’s there. There’s a story mode, too, and it consists of lots and lots of fights that you wish you were playing occasionally broken up by fights that you are playing. It’s hard to know when one will become the other, and it’s even harder to understand why you’re supposed to care.
There might be a competent fighting game underneath the violence, but Mortal Kombat X knows that you’re only there for the show. The minds behind it know that if you spent $60, you’ll probably spend a few more to just see everything. And so the game offers you three skull chips. It doesn’t actually tell you what they’re for, but when you look at the character’s moveset, you see them next to the list of “Easy Fatalities.” On the other side is a simple button press. Rather than a series of movements you could easily mess up, you can get instant satisfaction. But once you’ve used the three freebies, poof. If you want more, you’ve got to cough up some dough—99 cents will get you 5, and for $5, you can get 30. Cool, right?
No. Not really. It’s gaming cynicism at its finest. “You don’t want to put in the work?” the game says. “Fine. Pay for the privilege.” You can avoid it. You can go into the training mode and practice, though you don’t immediately have access to the second tier of fatalities (far more elaborate and brutal than their first-tier counterparts). You have to play the game to unlock those. It’s a cash grab. And for what? To experience the disgusting imagery that the good people at NetherRealm Studios came up with.
Mortal Kombat X is the kind of game that keeps overly protective parents up at night, convinced it will turn their children into heartless killers. And it revels in the guaranteed controversy. It knows exactly what it is, and it shoves your face in it.
But you don’t have to give in. If you want to see the show, you can just watch it on YouTube.