Mortal Kombat — as a three-game trilogy turned media franchise — began its existence for me in 1995.
I was six years old when I entered my big brother’s room and looked upon the teaser poster for Paul W.S. Anderson’s Mortal Kombat. The silhouetted image of the robed Goro against the burning dragon emblem was one that made me wary of passing the bit of floor that would lead to his personal bathroom. Impressionable, and easily frightened, its tagline, “Nothing in this world has prepared you for this”, invoked the right kind of malice. Every time I was in his room I told myself not to look up at it, and every time I looked at it anyway. I didn’t know what Mortal Kombat was (other than a movie), but it scared me. I always expected the four-armed man to jump out of the poster.
I would fall asleep thinking about the imposing silhouette with four arms. I would wake up thinking about it. The name became synonymous with the lauded “Techno Syndrome” by the Immortals, but none of the fear I felt for Mortal Kombat diminished, even as I shouted the name in a gambit to aggravate my older brother.
To add insult to his injury, I discovered he owned a copy of Mortal Kombat II for the Sega Genesis. Now I knew it was a game, not just a movie. I asked if I could play it, and being the responsible big brother he was, he said, “no.” Every time I would ask, he would say “no”.
So I did the next best thing: I found excuses to go upstairs and bug him. I lurked in his bedroom because I really wanted to watch him play the game. On the few occasions I saw my brother playing Mortal Kombat II, he always used Jax and Johnny Cage. One day, he asked me to stick around long enough to see him perform a finishing move that aggravated my terrors.
My context for Mortal Kombat had expanded. It wasn’t just a song. it wasn’t just a movie, and it wasn’t just a game. It was nightmare fuel. I wasn’t prepared for the bloody or violent deaths I saw, but I tried to pretend otherwise. I would not give him the satisfaction that some guy falling into a pool of acid or being thrown into a ceiling of spikes scared me. Nope.
In some weird twist of fate, my younger siblings saw the 1995 film before I did (at five and four years old, no less). They would excitedly describe how some guy (Johnny Cage) fought another guy (Scorpion) with a dagger coming out of his hand. I was envious, and a little more than frustrated my siblings weren’t scared of the thing that haunted my waking and sleeping hours.
Mortal Kombat would fade into the relative background of my adolescent to-young adult development. I really wouldn’t think about it again until the early 2000s. When my big brother decided it was time to leave home, he bequeathed his Sega Genesis, and all its games, to me. After all, I was the most responsible party out of his three younger siblings. It was only right.
He also left the wall-sized Mortal Kombat teaser poster to me. The year of his departure (2001), we got a PlayStation 2 for Christmas that came with a copy of Mortal Kombat Mythologies: Sub-Zero for the PlayStation. We only played that game to see Sub-Zero fall dramatically to his death once we realized we couldn’t master the slip-n-slide platforming.
The fall of the following year, our parents bought us a copy of Namco’s latest game, Tekken 4. It was our first and only fighting game for a modern console at the time. As a result, we caught the fighting game bug. We had our mains (Jin Kazama, Ling Xiaoyu, Marshall Law), and the need to better each other escalated so we required another outlet. Pulling the Sega Genesis out of a closet, we indulged, almost weekly, in Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat II.
In Mortal Kombat II we mained the ninjas — Sub-Zero (me), Scorpion (my sister), Reptile (our little brother) — and alternated between Raiden (me), Johnny Cage (my sister), and Liu Kang (our little brother).
Where the versus and arcade modes of Street Fighter II and Tekken 4 encouraged us to sharpen our skills, Mortal Kombat II was a journey of accidentally discovering fishing moves and a never-ending defeat against the A.I. opponents in the first four rounds of the mountain climb to Shao Kahn. Try as we might, we never beat the game and we never troubled ourselves with doing so after a while.
At the height of our fighting game mania, I discovered a first-gen copy of Paul W.S. Anderson’s Mortal Kombat in our parent’s growing DVD collection. I watched the film obsessively, and it solidified Mortal Kombat as something I saw as infinity cool because of its unapologetic violence and handsome men with glossy shoulder-length hair trapped in the 70s’.
Five years later, the fight train rolled to a stop. I’m struggling to get out of a phase where I loathed everything about my early teenage identity enough to tear it pieces and destroy it. Tekken and Street Fighter survived the wares of perceived ‘maturity’ and time. But, Mortal Kombat?
Mortal Kombat stopped being this frightening thing, and eventually became something I lost affection for because of its association with my big brother. We had a falling out because I chose to take an extended break from school before entering community college. The added prioritization of his social life and friends, over a family he barely tried to talk to, only made matters worse.
The poster on the wall was now just a reminder of a person who seemed to loathe his family, but I never took it down. The 3D Era of Mortal Kombat within the ecosystem of the progressing PlayStation, GameCube, and Xbox generations was something my maturing sensibilities considered too disgusting, ugly, and juvenile to even consider at eighteen years old.
Four years later, I’ve mellowed out, but not by much. For a time there was a desire to give Mortal Kombat a second chance when it returned to the forefront of my mind. That died after spectating Mortal Kombat 9, the 2011 reboot of the franchise (following the collapse of Midway Games). MK9 is a game that feels like a hurriedly put together version of the first three games. It’s unpleasant to endure based on its character and environment design alone.
I finally took the poster down from the wall and folded it into a square small enough that I’ve long since forgotten where I put it. I repeatedly questioned why — to punishing degrees — I ever became enamored with the franchise. I never really had an answer that wasn’t disparaging.
Nevermind I was just a teenager who enjoyed things at face value and wasn’t expecting a familial heel turn. I hated past me for not being future me, an exceptionally harsh and self-critical person. The next several years were a journey of trying to forget Mortal Kombat and sneering at the very mention of its name. At twenty-two years old, Mortal Kombat was for edgy chumps, Street Fighter was that weird uncle that tried to keep up with the times, and Tekken was the deification of all fighting games.
2015 saw the release of Mortal Kombat X, NetherRealm’s second-ish Mortal Kombat game with Warner Bros. Interactive Studios. I haven’t thought about the series in four years, so it’s a little like seeing a ghost slink out of the closet. It’s a surprise to see TV Spots for the game using System of a Down’s “Chop Suey!” because the very sound of it takes me back the year 2001 when I first started playing Mortal Kombat.
I’m now in my late twenties. I’ve made steps toward a tentative reconciliation with my big brother because I’m an aunt now. He’s trying to set things right between the family, and I don’t want to be angry at him anymore (my energy was spent better elsewhere). Since then, my perception of good and bad media (or schlock) has also mutated. I reconsider things I was embarrassed to admit I liked as a kid. I try to make peace with the different phases of my teenage identity. I was tired of being hypercritical of myself, tearing myself down for liking silly things.
Reconsideration of the disdain I once held for Mortal Kombat was questioned, but I tell myself I don’t think I was in the wrong for discarding it. It was hard to reconcile liking it again. So much of it post-Sega Genesis had been fairly subpar, or forgettable. A lot of my favorite characters looked like bad Rob Liefeld designs, or they were dead and whitewashed. The hyper-awareness of the franchise’s sexual objectification of its female characters made it hard to say with a straight face, “I like Mortal Kombat”. Most sighed with exasperation when I brought it up in conversation.
References to Mortal Kombat’s orientalism, largely inspired by martial arts films people used to bootleg on VHS in the 90s, Japanese and Chinese mythology, and John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China (1986), was something that kept me questioning the decision to like it again. John Tobias’ Mortal Kombat wasn’t Akira Toriyama’s take on Journey to the West (Dragonball). But, in the same breath, I was telling myself to cease with self-flagellation.
I re-watched the 1995 film and its 1997 sequel, Annihilation. I accepted that Annihilation is irredeemably terrible (all the gloss in Robin Shou’s magnificent hair couldn’t fix that) even on the scale of bad movies. But, the 1995 film was schlock I could enjoy, right down to its Dr. Claw Shao Kahn and Power Rangers-esque ending.
Mortal Kombat — like a lot of other things that are retrospectively problématique — isn’t something I want to throw away at the moment. I can be more critical of it, sure, but tossing the franchise away is an exception I choose not to make when other things I used to enjoy (for example, Luc Besson’s Leon/The Professional) aren’t given the same benefit. Mortal Kombat has just as many problems as the 1999 remake of The Mummy, a film I adore despite its anti-Blackness. I instead hope that the franchise can become better than it is, yet expect to be disappointed for having such lofty expectations.
Raggedy as it looks four years after its release (NetherRealm always made ugly character models before switching to photorealism), MKX was leagues better than MK9 or its multitude of early 3D Era predecessors. The result with MKX, despite its shortcomings, was a communication that NetherRealm (supposedly) wanted the franchise to be better than it was. It’s the true transitional game of the franchise.
Mortal Kombat seemed to be trying to “grow up” (to a certain degree), but without losing that gory, juvenile edge that makes it what it is. They even advertised they were doing the barely bare minimum and working to represent their female characters better. This time they would have proportionate bodies, though most costumes remained on the fetishistic bent (Sonya, Cassie, and Jacqui were the outliers). The question was whether it could be better than what came before it. Whether it could build a winning foundation that could be used in later iterations.
Discarding suspense, the answer, for me, was, “Yeah, kinda.”
For the uninitiated (like myself), Dominic Cianciolo and Shawn Kittelsen have been the writing team responsible for the MK franchise since after 2011’s MK9 (or so says their IMDB profiles). John Vogel, one of the original team members that worked on the early Mortal Kombat games, and was the primary writer for the series since the departure of Tobias.
Cianciolo was, at the very least, introduced as a co-writer circa MK9, while Brian Chard and Jon Greenberg have followed John Vogel from MK9 straight into MKX. They hired Kittelsen as the writer for MKX‘s prequel comic of the same name, but nothing beyond that.
So, to clarify: Vogel, and co-writers Chard and Greenberg, were responsible for the bulk of the screenwriting present in the games Mortal Kombat vs. The DC Universe (2008), Mortal Kombat 9 (2011), Injustice: Gods Among Us (2013), and Mortal Kombat X (2015).
Of the writers that would write Mortal Kombat 11(2019), only their co-writer, Dominic Cianciolo, would be a primary writer. Shawn Kittelsen, writer of the prequel comic for MKX, would join him as a co-writer. So, the thinning out of the writers for MK11 seems to say — to me — that major problems that made MK9 and MKX either awful (9) or dissatisfying (X), seem to lie at the doorstep of lead writer Vogel, and co-writers Chard, and Greenberg. Bringing a comic book writer (Kittelsen) onto the latest entry of the game (MK11) to work with Cianciolo, really seemed to be the reset the series — originally written by a comic book illustrator and writer — needed to get back on track.
MKX is a big jump in quality compared to the games that came before it, sure. It was a little smoother, and the cast was smaller. That should make for a tighter story. But, for all these improvements, it wasn’t exactly more concise about how to balance the focus for its characters.
That seemed to be an improvement made two years later with the release of Injustice 2 (2017), where Kittelsen and Cianciolo seemed to solidify and find their voices for NetherRealm’s ‘revolutionary’ story mode formula or found themselves a good editor (Kittelsen is credited as an apparent “script guru”).
Besides the annexing of Vogel and co., I couldn’t tell you why Injustice 2 turned out as well as it did. Maybe on top of better prep time, I suspect that DC Comics’ oversight of NetherRealm and how they handled their brand characters was a likely factor to the level of focus that went into the otherwise smooth, if not uncanny, presentation of the story. Kittelsen and Cianciolo seem honestly more engaged with the characters at their whims, instead of treating them like instruments in service to the plot instead of the other way around.
Another four years pass. Mortal Kombat 11 was officially announced December 2018, with only a four-month window before its release at the end of April 2019. I’m at the razor’s edge of my 20s, and for all my reevaluation, my first inclination was to roll my eyes at the trailer. My brain, for lack of a better word, did a hard reboot on my opinion of Mortal Kombat and defaulted back to the 18-year-old’s perspective once again.
By January, another trailer came and went. I considered the less than mild disdain I was experiencing again now that the NetherRealm groundhog lumbered out of hibernation. I was certain I had come to terms with the series, loved it still even. So, I assumed it was the E-Sports angle. It was a Mortal Kombat game that was really gunning for the E-Sports crowd moreso than the last, which was the first to enter that space. The other issue was its release date: It seemed too soon. The news that Ronda Rousey had been cast as Sonya Blade was another blow. She would be her voice and her face model. Sonya isn’t my favorite character. This casting choice seemed short-sighted, but not out of place in the pile of problems this franchise carries with it.
I remained trepidatious about MK11, so I just sort’ve forgot about it until I saw a string of gameplay videos for Jacqui Briggs and Kitana. On the week of its release, my YouTube feed was over-saturated with pre-release walkthroughs and how-to videos from influencers and lets players who’ve been playing the incremental open-and-closed betas for the game (stress testing the online functionality). It was impossible to ignore it on social media, so like anyone, I relented about a few days after its release and decided to look into the game.
And I fell in love.
Fighting games are not a genre that preoccupies itself with telling or building an expansive narrative. A plot? Sure, it’s often something you can reduce to a sentence. As a bare-bones simulation of the martial arts movie, the most effort made in a Fighting Game “narrative” only does enough to tell you why a fictional tournament exists and the individual reasons the ensemble cast of characters are present. But stuff like character arcs, three-act structures, and the wherewithal to craft a story that would survive the ages? A lot of that remains absent in Fighting Games. If anything, there’s an unspoken rule that renders that kind of effort irrelevant.
Mortal Kombat is not what I call a well-written video game series. Whatever constituted as a “story mode” for Arcade Era, it was kept as simple as possible (so simple you can miss it), and the 3D Era (in the absence of John Tobias) seem to fall off the rails with more retcons and inconsistencies than a little. I never played the arcade story modes in the Arcade Era series. I stuck to versus modes with my siblings. As far as I was concerned, Mortal Kombat only had a legitimate narrative when Paul W.S. Anderson succeeded in making a film out of a bare-bones premise and even less to go on for character beyond archetypes the screenwriter Kevin Droney conjured in collaboration with Anderson.
Sub-Zero and Scorpion were bitter rivals because my sister and I hated losing to each other, not because I knew of their actual conflict. Liu Kang was the protagonist, the hero of the entire franchise, because the Anderson film made it so. I never knew about John Tobias’ original intention for Liu to be our point-of-view character, even after introducing his son. I viewed the arcade Mortal Kombat games as a medium with no tale and no legitimate protagonist. I didn’t even know Shao Kahn was the Lord Zedd of the series (after all, we never beat the game, and never faced him) until the movies said: “he’s the head honcho”. I always thought it was Shang Tsung.
The narrative at its most basic is, “A motley crew of martial artists battle warlords to save the realms”, and it worked for the three Arcade Era games because, again, Tobias kept things ridiculously simple on account of the medium it was being told through (arcades). Things don’t truly start getting messy until the 3D Era of the franchise. True attempts to make the series more narrative-focused, began in 1997 with Mortal Kombat 4, and Mortal Kombat Mythologies. (I hear both were written at the same time by Tobias, Boon, and maybe Vogel.) The latter was a game centered on Sub-Zero (Bi-Han). The next attempt was the 2000 game Mortal Kombat: Special Forces (a Jax Briggs game), and 2005 saw the release of Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks, a game about an out-of-character Liu Kang and Kung Lao.
One was a mainstream title trying to shake off its Arcade roots (so the presentation of the story is similar to MK1–to-MK3), the other three were games are situated in-between mainstream Mortal Kombat releases, trying to become more cinematic. All of them were an attempt to place the narrative front and center, to become more than the trademark über violence the series could no longer coast on to garner success. To be blunt, even with the gradual progression and attempts to deepen the bare-bones plot thread in mainstream entries and not spin-offs, Mortal Kombat’s world-building and narrative presentation post-’97 was (and kinda remains) a mess.
It’s a soup of inconsistent ideas that, despite the increasing lulls in game releases, only got worse as time rolled on. Most of what passed for series lore was confined, at first, to prequel comic books. If you were looking for more (because the hardware of the Arcade Era could not compensate for that kind of storytelling), well, you were out of luck if you couldn’t get the comics. In the 3D Era, details and factoids about the greater ‘narrative’ changed from game-to-game, seemingly on the whim of whoever was responsible for writing it. Characters died, came back, or were killed for inane and often inexplicable reasons. Character motivations changed just as much as the events that seemingly governed them.
When you add in the element of attempting to manipulate the future? It’s time to hang up the hat and surrender to the chaos that is poor housekeeping. So much of Mortal Kombat feels like an under-cooked turkey. I can acknowledge that it’s because it’s a series of games where its lead idea man (Tobias) refined things as he went along, then departed, leaving them without a guide for their franchise ship. It was also never intended to be an expanded universe, sure, but that’s not an excuse after the fact, now is it?
There was a definite effort made to construct a coherent story for the Mortal Kombat series by Ed Boon, and other parties involved in Acclaim and NetherRealm, but let’s be real here. It’s not necessarily that the later ideas resulted in the disharmony of Mortal Kombat’s world-building- all the right ingredients are there. It’s just that the parties involved didn’t have the wherewithal to maintain the story threads without undermining one thing after the other. Every time the ‘stakes’ of a story were raised, something else became irrelevant or incidental.
Acknowledging every single game in the franchise was meant to be a continuation of the game that followed it, means accepting Mortal Kombat is a tangled ball of rubber bands slow-cooked over a fire. There’s no salvaging it. You must commit it to ashes or go mad worrying about the mess the dev team created. Mortal Kombat is a hamster wheel forever cycling the beginning of its thread with no means to push the story forward.
So that’s what kinda made MKX interesting. It attempts to reconcile the overly drastic events of MK9’s highlight reel of the first three games and tries to free itself from the series time loop. It tries to cut the fat and keep everything about its story simple as can be. The heart, the strength of MKX, lies in its character interactions and the desire to move past supernatural warlords killing people in a tournament. Unfortunately, as a middle-of-the-road story, MKX meanders because it doesn’t seem to know where exactly it wants to go.
It establishes multiple conflicts in Outworld, but much of the conflict that drives the story forward is preoccupied with wrapping up what happened after MK9 in flashbacks. So, the only real thing of note that happens in present-day Outworld is the introduction of D’Vorah, Mileena’s death, and Kotal Kahn’s rise to power. It creates new characters (you can take or leave) but doesn’t trust them as they are to stand on their own, so their story beats in the game throw the narrative off course. They’re also regulated to the side in favor of the surviving characters of the previous entry.
MKX wants to be a story about people thrust in the role of guardianship without a safety net. Raiden is on the outs with most of the heroes despite understanding his actions. Sonya Blade and Johnny Cage are the mentors to a new generation of fighters in a post-siege Earthrealm. Cage has seemingly matured from the self-absorbed Hollywood asshole to the dad who had more time for the daughter than Sonya. Sonya is too preoccupied with defending Earthrealm to be a good mother, but will take her daughter’s easily earned loyalty as a soldier regardless.
Scorpion and Sub-Zero are fighting to reclaim their humanity as allies, Jax is too shell-shocked from his time as an undead slave to enter the fight again. Those are the strongest elements of the story. The game goes through the motions to establish that the characters are still suffering the folly of Raiden’s mistakes to rectify the future as told through his misbegotten visions. Most of the surviving heroes spend their time trying to rescue their allies from the hands of Quan Chi’s undead thrall. But, at least two characters (ally and foe) pose a threat to that seemingly at-hand victory.
Scorpion kills Quan Chi, Shinnok tries to destroy the Earth, Liu Kang, Kitana, and the other heroes are still dead, and Raiden becomes the totalitarian Ubermensch that will shoot you dead if you look funny at Earthrealm. The heroes don’t succeed, and it’s here the tone of the narrative takes a dire turn. The disappointing realization that the game establishes its white characters (Johnny, Cassie, and Sonya) as the heroes to defeat the game’s East Asian-flavored antagonist makes it hard to walk away from MKX with any kind of satisfaction that’s not mixed. For a franchise that started out told from the point of view of a Chinese protagonist (Liu Kang), one that was killed in the previous game for the second time in the series, that’s fairly damning.
Like I said, as a transitional story with shortcomings, MKX is still leagues away from the sloppy, unfocused plotting of most of 3D Era games and the rushed mess of MK9 before it.
MKX wants to be about forward momentum, and at the very least, sticking and living with the consequences created within the narrative, and it is quite the hole they wrote themselves into. Kitana and Liu Kang are the new antagonists, and the same could be said of Raiden. Our point-of-view characters are uncomfortably white, and the new minority characters are treated like sidekicks in comparison.
MK11 takes what was learned from MKX and Injustice 2 and crafts what is probably the most cohesive narrative of any Mortal Kombat game. And I mean narrative, not a basic plot description befitting the Arcade Era. In retrospect, maybe that’s not saying much for this franchise, but more than “just an effort” was made by Kittelsen and Cianciolo, and it shows.
Unlike Injustice 2 (a game you can get into without ever having played Gods Among Us or the comic book tie-ins), MK11 comes with the prerequisite that you have to involve yourself MK9 and MKX to know what’s happening. Otherwise, things like the Cyber Lin Kuei, Shinnok being tortured by Dark Raiden, and the constant iteration that “Raiden got us all killed!” from our fallen heroes are gonna baffle the hell out of you.
Where MKX functions as a sort’ve aimless story that wants to keep pushing forward without direction, throwing out ideas (Kombat Kids) and establishing the new normal (Dark Raiden and Netherrealm rulers, Kitana, and Liu Kang, etc.), MK11 is almost a reactionary party against the idea and is fairly laser-focused about where it wants to go.
I’ve no idea how MKX was received (my feelings about it are mixed), but MK11’s direction results from the developers realizing the hole they backed themselves into with the unnecessary extremes they took in the previous two games, or an attempt to appease their Arcade Era fanbase with the return of some classic characters omitted or killed in the previous two games.
Though I’ve heard MK11’s story was being written at the time of MKX’s production, it doesn’t stop MK11 from feeling like a last-minute, but welcome Hail Mary to course correct. It does everything in its power to steer the trilogy narrative preoccupied with nostalgia toward restoration and beginning anew.
But, finding out that MK11 was going back and revisiting the events of Arcade Era of Mortal Kombat (I, II, III) with a time travel story was worrying. It seemed like NetherRealm Studios was about to repeat the same mistakes that caused the franchise to be such an inward-looping mess to begin with. Undoing everything MKX appeared to be moving away from didn’t seem like the best idea.
MK11 does indeed do away with most of what its predecessor set up. If you were particularly attached to MK9 and MKX, it’s not gonna be a great time for you. Takeda Takashi and Kung Jin are exiled from the narrative altogether, having less relevance to the plot than Kombat Kids Jacqui Briggs and Cassie Cage do as military grunts. What was left of the Outworld conflict with Kotal and Mileena’s armies is resolved offscreen. Dark Raiden is blessedly annexed from the narrative, but it’s so comically fast, that the ad hullabaloo made about him seems misguided. Yet, his absence works well as a cautionary tale for Past Raiden.
The only MKX-thing that really seems to stick is, well, Evil Liu Kang and Kitana, D’Vorah’s determination to make everyone hate her, and Kotal Kahn’s jobberness. Oh, and Erron Black, whose past and present iterations I couldn’t tell apart if they actually appeared at the same time. He looks even more generic in MK11, so I can’t be blamed.
Despite the 2011 reboot timeline being set in a more modernized period, the classic roster characters we spend time with are designed like the Mortal Kombat characters of the Arcade Era. Despite the references to MK9, it’s easy to pretend these characters got yanked out of the original timeline. The antagonist of MK11, Kronika (with a fantastic performance by Jennifer Hale), is all about looking back with the intent to mend perceived flaws and begin again.
This game is all about retconning the issues of MKX and MK9 out of existence to start all over again. It plants itself in opposition to going forward with the consequences of those stories and starts tapping the undo arrow on the word processor.
Time travel typically does more harm than good to a story unless the writers responsible for tackling the subject know — with no doubt — how to approach time travel. The more technical aspects of a story like Back to the Future (1986) and Life is Strange (2015) fall apart under scrutiny because of the conceit of the Butterfly Effect (changing the past, creating alternate realities, undoing anything) creates too many inconsistencies to account for.
Stories using the stricter model of time travel, like Remedy Entertainment’s Quantum Break (2016), establish what you can and cannot do with time travel (change the past) and what time travel is (a loop, or affirmation of choices you have to live with) and almost never breaks their internal logic.
MK11 seems to follow the principals of Butterfly Effect time travel. Though the bitterly undead Liu Kang asks, “What can be done? The past is the past, is it not?” Kronika says in so many words that the past, present, and future is anything she wants it to be. MK11 skirts around a lot of the time travel bullshit with Kronika’s declaration to not change the past, but to restart time itself with the creation of a New Era™ to rectify the grievous mistakes facilitated by Raiden. Yet, you still get moments like young Sonya shooting young Kano dead and erasing old Kano from the present, Kano physically reacting to his past self being hurt, and the undead Liu Kang stealing the soul of his younger self, and somehow not killing himself as well.
Everyone has progressed naturally from where they were left off in MKX. Jacqui and Cassie are leading Special Forces squads into battle, Liu Kang and Kitana have rallied every undead fighter of the franchise to their cause to annihilate Earthrealm, and Raiden is shoot-first-ask-questions-never. Sonya and Johnny’s status as mentors is more or less solidified and capped off perfectly with the unexpected death of Sonya Blade in the Netherrealm. Her self-sacrificing kamikaze leaves the forces of evil crippled indefinitely, and Cassie without her mother.
As extreme as the story turns in MK9 and MKX were, MK11 takes what is typically the climax of a story and dropped it at the beginning, leaving the path forward closed off. Or so you would think.
Then Kronika enters the narrative with the promise to start anew, to right the mistakes made by the gods that are beneath her. Suddenly, that desire to move forward? It’s challenged by a blank slate opportunity and it loses.
Time travel in MK11 creates the right amount of conflict between the past and present of the world’s narrative, but it’s more in service to the cast versus the plot. The most plot-related detail you get regarding time travel is that the damage done by Kronika is likely irreversible, the past and future are stuck together like watercolor paints bleeding over a newspaper. Everyone who appears in the future, appears randomly, a side effect of her otherwise immense control over time. The villains or heroes she chooses to recruit are used to run inference. Very few know the location of her keep, which is concealed at all times. Raiden, for the first time in his life, has to navigate a crisis on his critical thinking skills, as the Elder Gods are seemingly killed by the damage done to the timelines.
The story focuses more on past and present characters trying to reconcile with their grim futures or family members they never knew as young twenty-something adults in similar positions. Johnny Cage can’t stand the person he used to be, Liu Kang and Kung Lao question validity of their undead selves’ righteous anger toward Raiden, Jax Briggs bonds with his future daughter Jacqui, but is rattled by the realization that he becomes a fearful shut-in after the death of his wife (among other things).
The narrative values character relationships and their dynamics, and I think that’s what makes this such a striking story compared to the previous games in the franchise. A lot about how you receive the characters is reliant on ye olden Mortal Kombat knowledge (you really can’t go into this game blind), but never has there been a Mortal Kombat game that has realized its characters quite like this. And it’s here that the production value shines through in MK11.
For the longest time, Mortal Kombat has been chasing its own shadow, trying to match the tone required of the often goofy, comic book-esque violence that made the game famous. The result for each iterative game was something close to Prince of Persia: Warrior Within (2004). Woefully edgy and lacking the maturity required to tell whatever story each game tried to execute. Its trademark violence remained, but as its audience aged and shifted, the franchise failed to evolve, failed to get better. It was Steve Buscemi holding the skateboard by its axle and courting a disinterested crowd, old and young.
MK11’s presentation is not only film-esque and “with the times” in its design, the very gameplay format of the genre — Player vs. A.I. — allows the story to be told through cinematics in a far more cohesive way than a third or first-person structured game, where the narrative has to be structured around the gameplay, sometimes to its detriment. MK11’s tone also gels with the over-the-top violence in a way that doesn’t damage the desired presentation of the narrative.
Brutalities and Fatalities are prohibited within the story mode (you get Fatal and Krushing Blows), which requires cinematics to gel, almost seamlessly, from gameplay to cinematic as two characters size each other up before the announcer declares the battle begun. Even that awkward camera zoom-in they started in MK9 finally works to the advantage of the cinematics.
The story of MK11 centers itself on reevaluating the past and decides the future borne from it is not what it wants. It pits its cast of characters against the inevitability of time and the fluxing nature of a permanent death with fairly weighty results. Raiden lives in fear of an iteration of himself he has never met but may become despite the timeline having no presumed effect on his fate. Before you get a complete picture, Kronika’s position to remove him from existence itself seems like the best outcome for all. Considering all that’s happened on his watch, Raiden’s demise seems earned, inevitable. Then the eleventh chapter socks you in the mouth with a genuine twist that left leaves you gobsmacked.
MK11 consistently delivers on solid interpersonal drama and conflict that drives home the finality of the character’s circumstances, especially in the small number of deaths that happen throughout the game (none of which feel unearned from my perspective).
Because MK11 is more concerned with going back in the literal sense of the word, the biggest problem for older Mortal Kombat players, in some iteration, is losing the old canon. Many people believe that MK9 was the best the franchise offered ( ಠ_ಠ). That the reboot that began almost eight years ago is being undone, will no longer exist, gets their goad. They cry because Kronika restarted the universe and another must be created, ‘nothing matters’. It was all meaningless. Their desire to go forward with the tangled mess the reboot continuity created has effectively been negated by the developers wanting the opposite.
Time travel, used once again to unburden themselves from a self-inflicted error, gave NetherRealm the carte blanche to just wipe the slate clean a second time. I’m glad for it. I don’t believe the reboot continuity had much to offer in the end given its choices. All the reactions I’ve seen opposite of mine are coming from people who’ve followed the series since the 90s, 2002, and 2011. They have expectations, wish-lists, hopes for any given story. Not to mention complaints about power levels to entertain. I don’t.If I didn’t think MK11 was any good, I’d probably be ignoring its existence outside of the content of my favorite characters.
In this circumstance, it might be ‘easier’ for me to accept, because I don’t care for the grand majority of the Mortal Kombat’s material. If it isn’t Mortal Kombat II or the 1995 film, I’m indifferent, mixed, or can live without it. I kinda pretend most of it doesn’t exist unless I need to do the opposite. With MK11, most of the characters (I think) get a conclusive ending, see their arcs close, or get close enough to either before the end. (Really, a decent recovery from MK9 was enough.) The grand majority of the cast, whether they appear directly after or in another installment, will inevitably reappear in a (hopefully) less mangled continuity. “The rest,” as they say, “Is silence.”
The finality of how MK11 ends its narrative feels like the right choice for an alternate universe that restarted itself in the middle of its old timeline hoping to streamline things. To shake the dead weight of previous games post-Mortal Kombat 4, but failed and just created an even bigger mess. So, yeah, the big reboot that undoes everything was necessary.
The antagonist of the story mode gets her way, we’re back at the beginning of time, but she doesn’t live long enough to restart her loop and ruin people’s lives all over again. MK11’s ending deliberately puts Liu Kang back in the protagonist’s role, after almost twenty-odd years, then places him and Kitana in the position of the architects of the new universe. There is a lot you can do with the fact that two of your biggest heroes have become the new guardian hierarchy of a new universe.
Or maybe they’ll do nothing with it. Maybe they’ll leave MK11 as it is and break away with new gods, rules, and characters whenever Mortal Kombat comes back around to collect its non-annual paycheck from the masses. I’d be perfectly okay with that, because, god, does this franchise need to jump out of the hamster wheel it created for itself.
I would love to see them get creative with their new timeline, but it’s kind’ve pointless speculating, wishing, and hoping for anything. History shows not even NetherRealm seems to know what they’ll come up with until they get to the doing. I’m completely prepared to get stuck in yet another canon loop that repeats that events of Mortal Kombat through Armageddon to Mortal Kombat 11 all over again.
Nostalgia is a monster that lives comfortably in our memories and snaps at change. And while the nostalgia of its fanbase (that refuses to allow change to happen and stick) can be a problem? If players can latch onto characters like Erron Black, Cassie Cage, or Jacqui Briggs with relative ease, then replacing or introducing new characters and new stories shouldn’t be a problem. Just don’t repeat the disaster of the 3D Era ushered in with flatulent fanfare. If Tekken can survive new character introductions better than Street Fighter did, then perhaps Mortal Kombat will too.
MK11 feels like a game born out of a wish to put a rest to what was started almost eight years ago with the 2011 reboot, and maybe what began twenty-seven years ago in 1992 after John Tobias pitched an idea for “a game about ninjas”. I know my opinion will change over time, but for now, MK11 is one of the best Mortal Kombat stories to come out since the 1995 film and one of NetherRealm’s best since Injustice 2.
I’ve never been this happy about Mortal Kombat since I was a teenager. There is so much terrible shit surrounding the production of this game that sours the actual playing experience. There is so much about how this game was built that screams they needed more time to polish, but I am aglow with happiness about the story. And as a time travel story, I think MK11 works pretty well.
I can walk away from Mortal Kombat again, but on better terms and with better memories. Contentment in the face of starting all over again is a solid feeling to take away from the game’s story mode.
I’m not gonna say I’m ready for the New Era to begin. I’m still kinda adjusting to the idea that this series will live in un-death even as I wither away. NetherRealm Studios has taught me to lower my expectations on all aspects of their games. My brain will inevitability reboot back to “ugh, not Mortal Kombat”, but I can be pessimistically optimistic about it in the meantime.
That feels great and terrible.
This story is part of a four part series focused on Mortal Kombat 11’s story mode.