Sunday 8 December 2013

On Mortal Kombat 4

Mortal Kombat as a series is often framed through a tone of lament within enthusiast fighting game communities. The narrative of Mortal Kombat in those spaces is mostly that of loss, a tragic state of decline after UMK3 that ends though the release of Mortal Kombat 9, where the series goes "back to its roots" in a glorious redemption. The PS2-era Mortal Kombat games, Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance, Mortal Kombat: Deception, and Mortal Kombat: Armageddon, as well as the Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe spin-off on the 360, act as the Dark Horses of the series--metaphorical scars  from a depressive period from which MK9 signals its departure. This means that within discussions about Mortal Kombat, the PS2-era titles receive little attention.

Fighting games, much more than games in other genres, are mostly evaluated by their ability to be played competitively. There's a focus on design, but a very cold part of design that aims for "balance" and focuses on the optimization process, rather than the ideas and feelings design communicates and the experience it molds. So there isn't much attention put to what fighting games do artistically. And with these current expectations we seem to have for fighting games, it isn't too surprising that the PS2-era games were generally seen as sub-par [1]. But when we look at the Mortal Kombat games from a different perspective, we see that they do have considerable value and are in fact quite interesting as games and as fighting games. Deadly Alliance, Deception and Armageddon represent their own focused, mostly homogeneous sub-series in the same way that MK3, UKM3 and MK: Trilogy do, or MK1 and MK2. We can split up the Mortal Kombat games into these kinds "packs" of smaller sub-series, each with their own visual style, tone and interpretation of the universe.

Mortal Kombat 4 represents the state of transition between the SNES MK games and the PS2-era titles. Yet it fits in neither camp; the game imposes systems that reflect both eras and presents a visual style similar to neither. MK4 also reveals the series' identity crisis during the late 90s, a certain confusion and stumbling that was seen from several sequels trying to refocalize SNES inspirations through the 3D aesthetic. And yet, Mortal Kombat 4 was the first game in the series to feel like it had real creative direction. It has a strong character, and its various elements are densely layered and focused to communicate a heavy tone, that's only occasionally betrayed by its occasional narrative stumbles. This is is pretty typical for an artistic work, but new for Mortal Kombat, which for the first four titles were mostly flat gore-fests with a very messy 90s arcade style [2]. Mortal Kombat 4 showed an attempt to communicate something beyond the shock and gore that was characteristic of the series, and it paved the way for a group of PS2 games that took themselves just a little more seriously.


Most of the accepted conventions and tropes of fighting games come from their long and deep historical relationship with the arcade environment. Console based fighting games don't necessarily need timers, or continue screens or ladder style progression structures, but they're elements that have become characteristic of the genre, and fighting game enthusiasts are mostly used to them.  Remember that the "death of arcades" is more prevalent in the US and Canada than it is in places like Japan, parts of Europe and South-East Asian countries. So Mortal Kombat, Injustice and other games developed at the Netherealm studios in Chicago, have always had an easier time disconnecting from the arcade convention than games like Street Fighter, King of Fighters and Tekken.

The most prevalent arcade convention is the communication of the spectacle. Most fighting games are focalized through the frame of the event spectator. Many stages are settings where crowds watch and cheer, sometimes in large stadiums and settings that imply the fight as an organized spectated event, a prizefight or a tournament match. Most settings are also either outdoors, during the daytime, or set regions of the world that are known to have dense populations.

One of the most significant things about Mortal Kombat 4 is how it de-prioritizes the spectacle event, as it doesn't communicate spectacle but solitude. No one is watching you in Mortal Kombat 4. There are no signs of other people. Most of its settings are strictly indoors and badly-lit, empty and low on objects that move or make noise. The small exceptions would be "Ice Pit," which is featured outside in the daytime but closed off by large walls that block its horizon point, and "Snake", which seems to feature people, but they're presented as shadows of tortured figures who are burning alive in a green fire while chained to walls, so I don't know if that counts. The point is that these stages imply themselves as places that people just don't go to, and figures of dead bodies and active torture communicate these places as actively hostile to people and to life in general. And this is completely antithetical to how fighting games normally use setting! They do this because they want to inject a life into the setting and an overall energy to the tone of the game. Even Darkstalkers 3 has a life to its stages, but Mortal Kombat 4 is isolation to a point I haven't seen passed in fighting games.

Stages like Well and Lair are interesting. The first 'image' you see in Well is the 'front' side: a giant decorative burning furnace, and behind the camera lies a large pitch black hallway that doesn't show where it leads. Lair takes place in an underground tomb layered with stone walls. There are four wide openings, and the space is partially lighted with two torches at opposite ends. The openings reveal four deeper openings with corner torches, which is identical to the structure of the room you fight in, implying the larger space as labyrinthian, endless and isolated. Elder is similar to Lair in structure but carries a different sense of material. The room appears to be made out of stone but is also decorative, and the stone appears finely cut. But instead of openings, its four rectangular walls show huge blue faces with glowing white eyes and that make the same two silent expressions: large eyes with a gaping open mouth, and a scrunched face of anger--they cycle between these. So we see how Mortal Kombat 4 communicates a solitude but also a surreality, a cold material aesthetic, a dry sense of isolation and a moody, dead spaciality in its setting. And it's constructions are varied and clever in their subtlety.


Mortal Kombat 4 still carries a furious energy. Its responses feel immediate in that inputs will always trigger a low-frame animation; a quick jab or a run motion that doesn't appear moved *into*, but keyed in right after a standing frame (Now this isn't true, but it's fast enough to make you think it is). Movement feels quick, and attacks appear as a jumpy staccato--they cut into each other so quickly, much more than similar frame systems like Street Fighter/Guilty Gear.

Fighting games have a particular aesthetic of frames[3], as in, the frames of moves are structured to be predictable and measurable, which means that the moves themselves will also be predictable and measurable when presented on the screen. So in a way, I can "see" the frames in a fighting game; I get an intuitive sense of the temporality of the moves I use. Their consistency is what makes them competitive.  When I play Street Fighter, I can get a estimable sense of how long every move will last, which allows me to make decisions. I'm weighting my semantic knowledge of frames, damage sets, and combos with my intuitive sense of frames and my situation within the space.

Mortal Kombat disregards the aesthetic of frames common in fighting games for something more informal and free-form, thereby losing its competitive nature. Through a formalist lens that prizes "good design" above other forms of expression, Mortal Kombat 4 would be seen as simplistic and unsatisfying in its disregard for balance, but it gains a key expressive element. Everything in Mortal Kombat 4 is so fast, and there's so little variation in its frames across movesets and characters. I find this incapacity for nuance in its play to be intriguing, because it communicates a blind aggressiveness and a drone-like approach to hyperviolence.

This is supported by MK4's score, which separates itself from the other games in the series through its heavy use of drums and percussion, and its haunting voice chords. Mortal Kombat 4 is unique in that it cuts out the focus on the cheesy 90s electric guitar riffs and focuses on a more effective and better designed sense of mood and atmosphere.

In Cruel Optimism, Lauren Berlant, an affect theorist describes her interpretation of word impasse: "a time of dithering from which someone or some situation cannot move forward," or, in more detail, "a stretch of time in which one moves around with a sense that the world is at once intensely present and enigmatic, such that the activity of living demands both a wandering absorptive awareness and a hypervigilance". Mortal Kombat 4 is a construction similar to the impasse. The game presents these stages that are solitary, closed in spaces that block any meaningful view of the outer setting. In this way, the stages erase all context of the setting, and instead hyperfocus into themselves, concentrating every aesthetic element into the space, giving it an intensity. These are impasse-like in the way that they block off the outer world to place pure focus on a specific situational scene. The second characteristic is in the stages themselves, where the processes of hyperaggressivity (the fighting) are so constant and simplistic that they imply a sort of blind rage, similar to Berlant's "hypervigilance". To top it all off, structurally the games are fighting games, which mean technically they do situations where you can't move forward. A lot of games do that, but Mortal Kombat 4 seems to purposely structure itself towards the point.

In Conclusion!...

Mortal Kombat 4 is one of the most interesting fighting games I've ever played. It's the most interesting Mortal Komabt game I've ever played, it's the most tonally consistent, powerful and affecting game in the series.

When I discuss Mortal Kombat 4, people tend to bring up the dumb cutscene with Jax and Jerek. MK4 does have its missteps, most of which involve its tie-ins to the larger franchise. It still has some of its vague sexism in terms of the clothing of Tanya and its racist depictions of Kai, the "African warrior," with his white face paint, albeit these things aren't emphasized to cringe-worthy heights. The endings, which represent game's attempts to make an explicit story are also pretty awful. The exception is the starting cutscene where Raiden introduces the narrative context, which I found to be an effective introduction *because* of its lack of plot detail that the endings fail to replicate.

To be honest, I feel like the weirdest thing about Mortal Kombat 4 is that it's a Mortal Kombat game at all. I played MK4 when I was much under 10 years old, and liked the characters, especially Sub-Zero because he represented a strong masculine figure but also implied a smart and morally righteous nature that I aspired to. But playing them now, they feel so out of place. These settings and contexts are so aesthetically complex, but these characters feel so cartoonish and simplistic. The way that Jax lifts his arms like he's in a stadium instead of a torture room, or the bizzare Johnny Cage ending where he makes an appearance to a crowd of his fans who start to boo and throw objects at him without reason. There's a disconnect between the people in MK4 and the things that happen around them. They seem tragically unaware.

These are the little contrasts that make Mortal Kombat 4 so interesting and important. The contrast between its aggressivity and its subtle creepiness, between the representation of its characters and the reality of their context. It's a good game, and deserves more recognition within fighting games. I highly recommend it.



1: There's a significant split between the historical view of Mortal Kombat of enthusiasts and average gamers. Among mainstream critics, Deadly Alliance was seen as a triumphant revival, while the previous Mortal Kombat 4 was the trump. No doubt that console "generations" and the prioritizing of competitive elements had something to do with that.

2: I sort of generalize the SNES era Mortal Kombat games. UKM3 and MK3 are flat goofiness, but you do see some interesting moody elements in Mortal Komat II.

3: When I say "aesthetic of frames," I just mean that there is an aesthetic to how games present frames, or movement along frames. If we had a sheet that told us the frame count of every animation in a game, and compared them to each other, what conclusions can we make about the overall structure of its frames? More importantly, what does it feel like to maneuver a space with this kind of frame structure. What kind of experience does it create and what does that experience communicate? We can understand this by dissecting the aesthetics of "movement" and "motion," within games.

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