‘Mortal Kombat 11’ Isn’t About Anything – And That’s Just Fine

The games that are “for our time” can fuck right off. What we really need is more games like this one – games content to be dumb as a bag of rocks.

Mortal Kombat 11 isn't about anything at all -- and that's great

The very first Mortal Kombat game turns 27 this year. But you’d never be able to tell.

Despite its advanced years, the series is still as puerile as it ever was – trapped in a perpetual state of arrested development that leaves it mucking about in a pool of expanding blood and brain cheese while the world around it moves on. As other developers struggle to capture the essence of human experience, the folks over at Mortal Kombat are working out how to render exposed bone and mutilated tissue.

In that way, it’s not just that the series has always appealed to adolescents. It’s that it’s always been distinctly adolescent in its own right. Unhurried by any kind of politics, least of all the controversies that the franchise itself has created, Mortal Kombat has stayed with its back firmly turned to the zeitgeist.

While parents and teachers bickered over the effect that the mega-violent arcade hit was having on the poor, innocent children of the ’90s – poor, innocent children who must have covered their eyes and plugged up their ears at any mention of the real world horrors of the Gulf WarMortal Kombat stayed distinct from the discourse, preferring instead to indulge in a thousand different kinds of murder.

That head in the sand response to broader societal trends hasn’t changed in the almost three decades Mortal Kombat has been around, either. Rather than countering their critics, developers have simply kept on doing what they’ve always been doing, slowly and satisfyingly ramping up the violence even as the world around them has struggled with conversations concerning onscreen descriptions of trauma, and the moral responsibility artists have to tackle the political landscape in which they live.

It’s not clear what a Mortal Kombat game that manages to address the “current political climate” would even look like, whatever a nebulous term like that means, and thankfully we’ve never had to watch the developers attempt to mount an exploration of anything more complicated than what happens to the human body when a spine is torn out.

AAA franchises have gotten darker; more serious; more topical.

I say thankfully because, particularly in our current, hot take saturated age, a game completely outside of the discourse seems like a genuine miracle. Of all the horrors enacted by the Trump administration, neutering the ability of the critical establishment to talk about anything but Donald J. is a relatively minor quibble, but that doesn’t mean that it sucks any less.

After all, ever since Trump won the election, games – and art in general, in fact – have conformed to the need to be ‘about’ something. AAA franchises have gotten darker; more serious; more topical. Far Cry 5 has you blowing the heads off ultra-conservative quasi-Trumpites. Tom Clancy’s Division 2 sets you loose in a world ravaged by mankind’s hubris. Days Gone wants you to imagine the horrible things you’d do to protect someone you love.

And then there’s Mortal Kombat. The newest game, the series’ 11th instalment is stridently – even proudly – positioned to deflate interpretation. Asking “What is the new Mortal Kombat game about,” is just a way of making a category error, like asking how blue smells, or how long a lamp takes. It’s not just that the question is wrong, it’s that it doesn’t make any kind of sense.

Everything about Mortal Kombat 11 is thrillingly functional, and every one of its functions is the same – to wreak havoc. It is the walnut hammer of triple AAA gaming: dependable, simple, and utterly lacking in pomp and circumstance. It does one thing, and it does it very well.

That one thing, is, of course, violence. Mortal Kombat 11 is to violence as Moby Dick is to whales. It’s a game that delights in discovering the different horrible things that can happen to our fleshy vessels; that spills guts and splits torsos at whim. Its story mode facilitates long scenes of disembowellings and torture. Its multiplayer mode does exactly the same.

But that, indeed, is how the series has gotten away with its unique brand of sadism for quite so long. It doesn’t feel wrong to kill people in the game, because killing people is the only way to play it. The violence isn’t external to the plot; it is the plot. There is no point to a PG-rated Mortal Kombat, just as there’s no point to an easy Dark Souls.

As a result, the violence is curiously puerile. It is violence sapped of its horror – of its repercussions. More than anything, what drives the spine tearing and the heart punching and the scissor-kicking is uncomplicated, inelegant curiosity; a crude desire to know what happens when you stretch the human body in a direction that it can’t be stretched.

The series has its villains, of course. But killing them doesn’t achieve anything – antagonists die only to be resuscitated in the next round. Everybody’s always being torn apart, but nobody’s ever gone, and there’s a beautiful sense of futility to the carnage. Splitting Shao Kanh over your knee is no more valid than fracturing Mileena’s eye socket. Mortal Kombat isn’t just apolitical, it’s amoral too – a deeply satisfying, cathartic simulation of a possible world where murder means as much as turning out a light switch.

In that way, Mortal Kombat 11 itches something deep and primal. It is a crude kind of therapy; as satisfying as punching a hole in the wall. The games that are “for our time” can fuck right off. What we really need is more games like this one – games content to be dumb as a bag of rocks; to play bloodily in their corner of the sandbox, mashing fleshy bags of viscera with all the glee of a kid clacking together action figures.

Joseph Earp is a writer and critic. He tweets @Joe_O_Earp.