Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Mortal Kombat Problem 3

At around this time, the inevitable Mortal Kombat film adaptation was rolling around, and despite exquisitely high standards set by Van Damme's Street Fighter and Hopper's magical realist Super Mario Bros., it turned out...pretty ok, as popcorn flicks go. It's largely irrelevant to the topic, but two points are worth mentioning:
  1. Shang Tsung's shapeshifting, a visual effect inspired by Midway's previous work in the Terminator 2 arcade game, functioned rather sensibly, as the storyline would have suggested. Which is to say, it functioned pretty much like the guy in Terminator 2.
  2. Raiden, lord of thunder, war, and exposition, explains that tournament was designed to protect the aptly named Earthrealm from Outworld invasion. The rules dictate that if Team Outworld can win ten consecutive tournaments, they get a coupon that can be redeemed for one free invasion of Earthrealm. Goro, prince of the Shokan, ruler of Kuatan, and all-around jerkoff, has won the last nine.
There's no particular reason to think of a movie tie-in as a likely place to introduce canonical changes--or rather, if there is such a reason, the Freemasons are keeping a tight lid on it--which is why I find it bizarre that the "ten wins in a row" rule seems to have been leapt upon by fans eager to put the expanding story into some kind of cohesive order, and it comes up (without citation) on the "story" sections of most fansites. I don't know for certain that the rule emanates entirely from the movie, but I can't find anything in the games themselves or in contemporary paratexts that mentions it prior to 95. It's a particularly important rule, because it changes the apocalyptic loss condition from "give Tsung/Kahn too many powerful souls" to "lose too many times." This adds a specific, down-to-the-wire gravitas to the early entries in the series, mitigated somewhat by the fact that it makes no fucking sense at all.

First off, Goro has been champion for 500 years, having won nine consecutive tournaments. Assuming the tournaments are held at regular intervals--the tournament in Enter the Dragon was every three, and the MK movie says "every generation"--this would put the canonical tournaments on an interval of slightly over fifty-five years. Olympic hopefuls have difficulty being in prime shape for contests held every four years, mind you. Had be been born a decade or two earlier or later, Liu Kang might have had to compete when he was 11 years old, with options to try again at 66 and 121. On the bright side, Liu Kang's victory in MK1 guarantees the safety of Earthrealm for another 500 years, which is helpful because he'll be pushing 80 when next called upon to defend his title.

More to the point, this would seem to make MK2 an even more irrelevant display of puffery. Were it an "official" tournament--it's not, according to later canon rules--our heroes would be forfeiting a couple of human generations' worth of freedom for what is essentially an interdimensional gang war. There seems to be no actual victory to be had in the Outworld tournament: best case scenario, according to the "ten wins" rule, they've protected Earth for another three-hundred-sixty-five days or so. One supposes that killing Kahn would end the threat entirely, and since Kahn's defeat results in his body turning to stone and exploding, we'll have to assume that Earthrealm's warriors are hoping to kill the possibly immortal sorcerer-warlord in straight-up arena combat, in a tournament that has thus far failed to kill anyone of any importance at all. Statistically speaking, the Mortal Kombat tournament seems to be significantly safer than pro wrestling.

MK had never been a favorite of the gaming press, and the critical popularity of the Street Fighter provided no shortage of comparisons. By the time MK3 was approaching its arcade release, Capcom had released Super Street Fighter II Turbo, the fourth consecutive non-sequel upgrade to a brilliant game released four years earlier. While Street Fighter's narrative remained oddly frozen in time, and most of the new cast were widely despised, the gameplay had been finely tuned with an extraordinary eye to subtlety. Critics and players alike applauded the narrative trappings and secret content MK had successfully imported from adventure games, but the general stiffness of the gameplay was getting more and more apparent in light of the competition. It was in this context that the world, represented here by a thirteen-year-old boy living in Florida, got its first look at MK3, and discovered...

Well, it looked pretty much the same as the last one. In terms of gameplay, MK3 would respond to critics who harped on the lack of gameplay differentiation between characters, overreliance on palette-swaps, and an engine that disproportionately favored defensive tactics by implementing a series of changes that would halfheartedly address one of these problems, while actually making the other two worse. (Ultimate MK3 would go the extra mile by fucking up the palette-swap reduction as well.) To be fair, it was a much tighter engine in general, removing the sense that we were operating our avatars by remote controls with dying batteries, and Gathering-of-Developers bless their little hearts, the designers had been pretty ambitious in terms of character design. Five characters were dropped outright, and some of the new faces replacing them brought some legitimately new gameplay concepts with them. Additionally, these concepts were well mapped to narrative conceits. But that brings us to the story, which is actually what these interminable goddamn posts are about, in case you've forgotten.

Shao Kahn has invaded Earth. How? Well, it's unclear. The early press for the game said that he had won the Outworld tournament, which would suggest a double-or-nothing principle that makes the heroes' decision to participate even more insane, and which would seem to fly in the face of the soon-to-be-canonical "ten wins" trope. No, the story behind Kahn's invasion of our beloved realm is much more interesting than that:

For centuries Earth has used Mortal Kombat to defend itself against the Outworld's Emeperor Shao Kahn. But, Kahn becomes frustrated by failed attempts at taking Earth through tournament battle. He enacts a plan which began 10,000 years ago. During this time Kahn had a Queen. Her name was Sindel and her young death was unexpected. Kahn's Shadow priests, lead by Shang Tsung, make it so Sindel's spirit would someday be reborn: Not on the Outworld but on the Earth Realm itself. This unholy act gives Shao Kahn [sic] to step through the dimensional gates and reclaim his Queen. Thus enabling him to finally seize the Earth Realm.

Upon breaching the portal into Earth, Shao Kahn slowly transforms the planet into a part of the Outworld itself. Kahn strips the Earth of all human life: Claiming every soul as his own. But there are souls which Kahn cannot take. These souls belong to the warriors chosen to represent Earth in a new Mortal Kombat. The remaining humans are scattered through out the planet. Shao Kahn sends an army of fierce Outworld warriors to find and eliminate them.

So, the completion of Kahn's ancient lust for the domination of Earthrealm was attained by: an unrelated event having nothing whatsoever to do with the tournament for which the series is named. He could have cancelled the damn tournament before this Goro fellow even showed up and achieved precisely the same result. So, not that it matters now, but how did the Outworld tournament turn out?

We have no idea. The game doesn't actually mention it. If there weren't the odd mention of having "escaped" from Outworld, the game would have made no acknowledgment of MK2 having happened at all. So MK has now effectively (albeit temporarily) retconned out its most popular entry, in the process of rendering its origin and namesake largely irrelevant. Fans were, of course, free to imagine how the previous entry might have played out, safe in the knowledge that, according to the canonical story, no outcome of the Outworld tournament would have had any appreciable impact on anything at all.

By 1995, MK was ably bringing in money from a variety of revenue streams across multiple media, but the bulk of it was always adaptation to home consoles. Over in that neck of the market, the inauguration of what wikipedia helpfully denotes as the fifth generation was about to begin, and the wheeling and dealing over platform exclusivity would exert its own suck on the MK franchise. Some of it can be blamed on the Street Fighter trap, the tendency to advance a series' ludic elements while leaving narrative elements to stagnate, but mostly the black hole into which the series would soon sink can be blamed on a fateful decision to start taking design cues from the most unreliable, unimaginative, and thoroughly idiotic source imaginable: the series' fans.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Mortal Kombat Problem II

Previously on Mortal Kombat:

500 years ago, Shang Tsung was banished to the Earth Realm. With the aid of Goro he was to unbalance the furies and doom the planet to a chaotic existence. By seizing control of the shaolin tournament he tried to tip the scales of order towards chaos. Only seven warriors survived the battles and Shang Tsung's scheme would come to a violent end at the hands of Liu Kang. Facing execution for his failure and the apparent death of Goro, Tsung convinces Shao Kahn to grant him a second chance... Shang Tsung's new plan is to lure his enemies to compete in the Outworld where they will meet certain death by Shao Kahn himself. Now, the Kombat kontinues...

So says the attract mode for Mortal Kombat II, an achievement of the human species so impressive that it ranks alongside indoor plumbing, individual rights and the discovery of the female orgasm in our collective accomplishments.

Any sequel not explicitly accounted for in its progenitor will necessarily entail un-finishing a seemingly finished story. Usually this is accomplished by building backwards as well as forwards, expanding the diachronic past to accommodate the synchronic present. This is world-building 101, and not technically a retcon, since there is yet no con to ret. Sometimes it can be clunky, but MK2 manages quite well overall. We find out that Tsung has a boss, a warlord from another dimension known as Outworld, and that there is a vague long-term plan to "unbalance the furies" (to borrow a phrase from a couple of MK1's endings), but otherwise it's basically a soul-sucking necromancer running a once-noble martial arts tournament, and a variety of people who want to kick his ass. Classicists among us will note that this is also the plot of Sense and Sensibility.

The attract mode also helpfully alludes to previous, non-surviving combatants we never met, which is nice, because as is noted quite eloquently here, the player's experience of Mortal Kombat does not much resemble an actual tournament. If there are a bunch of extras getting eliminated each round, that does theoretically allow a sensible arrangement, although one wonders if there are weeks between each fight, or if there are multiple stages of brutal violence operating at once, forcing spectators to pore over their programs and choose their favorites, like at Lilith Fair. One also wonders if the non-surviving combatants were put off by the fact that the tournament decorating committee saw fit to commission statues of Goro and exactly six other fighters, as if they knew in advance who was going to merit permanent display in the Warrior Shrine.

However, the structure of the sequel demands a second look. As has been noted at great length by theorists far more ludological than I, a videogame is not a straight narrative, but a possibility space in which narratives can be enacted. For a sequel to take place, there must first be a coherent and reasonably specific decision as to which possible chain of events actually happened in the previous game. We don't need to have every moment of time or pint of blood accounted for, but we need to know a) who won, b) who's dead.

Officially, and established at the outset of MK2, the answers are a) Liu Kang, and b) Sub-Zero. Strangely, this has not prevented Sub-Zero from competing. Scorpion, who could have sworn he murdered Sub-Zero before--imagine losing your car keys, but instead of your car keys, it's revenge, and also you're on fire all the time--is back to try to kill him again. The attract mode leaves us with the mystery; the two fighters' ending texts reveal that the new Sub-Zero is the dead one's younger brother, and Scorpion has decided to protect the younger to atone for incinerating the elder. It is unclear when this discovery is made, for we don't get a sense of the social scene between bouts. I assume it's a lot like the Olympic Village. At any rate, in the now non-canonical comic, both of them have hugged it out and made this arrangement before the tournament begins, which will become a relevant distinction in...three or four years. I don't know why I even brought it up.

The only niggling plot problems at this point concern the Outworld tournament itself. Though it's never explicitly established, one can't help but wonder whether the hopeful combatants, by and large, are aware of Tsung's infernal doings. If the Mortal Kombat tournament, once a noble and fine thing to do in a heroic neo-fascist sort of way, is still attracting idealistic kids who just want to win medals to pad their college applications, they might not realize that they risk having their souls eaten and used to fuel an invasion of our reality by an interdimensional warlord with a striking baritone. If everyone knows about Tsung, the sensible thing would be to simply boycott the tournament, like the U.S. hockey team in the Olympics. If Tsung needs the souls of great warriors to open a gateway into our reality, for God's sake don't let strong warriors sign up. If one such warrior was willing to risk feeding the beast for a chance to kill Tsung and/or take the tournament back to its roots, entry would be a sensible way to do it in a kung-fu double feature sort of way.

These concerns about the logic of taking part in the tournament are exacerbated in the Outworld tournament, in that it's unclear what kind of reward might be gained from winning. With Liu Kang's victory, the tournament ought to be back in the rightful hands of the Shaolin/White Lotus Society, although Tsung had the presence of mind to send mercenary monster-guy Baraka to murder them all. One is left to wonder how this will affect ticket sales, or what the stockholders will think. So Liu Kang, the white-hat hero, is entering a tournament in which he risks his life, and possibly ours, for...revenge? The rest of the cast follows suit with their own motives: Johnny Cage wants another hit, and figures interdimensional martial arts combat is cheaper than hiring a talented screenwriter; Sub-Zero is going to take another swipe at assassinating Tsung; Scorpion is going to take another swipe at assassinating Sub-Zero (sort of); Col. Jackson Briggs ("Jax" if you're nasty) is trying to rescue the aforementioned Sonya Blade, who is being held hostage, along with Kano, for no discernable reason. (Neither Kano nor Sonya are playable in MK2, creating great demand for two characters who were ironically removed because they were unpopular with players.) In addition, Kung Lao, a descendant of the guy famous for being killed by Goro, is there, raising questions about where he was last year when his fellow White Lotus frat brother Liu Kang was risking life and limb in Goro's lair. The rest are various assassins or handymen on Shao Kahn's payroll, who fight for their own reasons, but mostly give the heroes meaningful rivalries and/or punching bags.

Other highlights and problems-in-the-making: MK1 had a hidden character named Reptile, a palette-swap of Scorpion and Sub-Zero, because hey, yellow and blue makes green, right? That Scorpion's appearance is nearly identical to Sub-Zero's is adequately explained in the plot, but Reptile seems to be pretty much a character of convenience. His existence spawned the rumor of a fourth ninja, the orange-clad Ermac, but fortunately this was not the case, and we all had a good laugh at the idea of anything so stupid. In MK2, Reptile makes an appearance as a playable character, and his previous hidden-ness is worked into both his storyline and character design: a bodyguard with chameleonic skills, he stayed in the background on Earth guarding Tsung, and is now trying out a solo act.

They pull the palette-swap trick again with Kitana and Mileena, in blue and purple, showing a great deal of leg (digitization technology had not yet advanced far enough for more advanced concepts like cleavage). They are introduced to us as twin daughters of Shao Kahn, whom he employs as assassins. Scott Brown, you might want to take notes. Shortly before the tournament, however, Kitana (good sister) has discovered that Kahn has worked a mind control spell on her, that she's actually the daughter of the king of Edenia, whom Kahn deposed/murdered. In perverting the realm's magical energies, Kahn turned Edenia into Outworld, severely confusing Old Testament scribes in the process. Mileena (bad sister) is in fact a clone, albeit one with terrible teeth, who (in her ending text) ends up dating the equally fangy Baraka. Nothing serious; she's been hurt before. Total palette-swap count: five males (Sub-Zero, Scorpion, Reptile, and hiddens Smoke and Noob Saibot) and three females (Kitana, Mileena, and hidden Jade). Actors Daniel Pesina and Kaitlin Zamiar are now carrying a substantial portion of the cast themselves, and it's looking a bit odd.

So we have some fairly neat characters, and they have increasingly interesting interactions with each other, friends becoming enemies, enemies becoming friends, etc. We can imagine some interesting and dramatic arguments, conspiracies and alliances as they plot their respective paths to power. We haveto imagine them, in fact, because there aren't any conversations in the game. Where would you put them?

It is generally expected in games, as in film, that plot follows genre/mechanics. You write about a martial arts tournament because you want people doing martial arts. You write a war story because you want big battles. You write about vampires and werewolves because you want gunfights. Ok, scratch that last one, that would be stupid. But now, MK's plot has gotten a bit big for its genre, and nobody seems to be thinking of ways to address that problem.

It's not just the characters. Outworld itself is a gorgeous invention. Every background glistens with delightful creepiness, from the growling trees in the living forest to the dessicated skeletons in the wasteland to the inexplicable (and unexplained) guy who seems to be on fire in the distant background of the bridge over The Pit II. (I think there was some kind of copyright problem with "The Pit.") The world begs to be explored, but interaction with the backgrounds during fights is very nearly nonexistent, and it's not like digitized sprites are exactly ideal for detailed exploration of space.

But those are fairly minor problems for a brilliant game. The series' success grows and grows. Console ports of MK1 are flying off the shelves and annoying Joe Lieberman, who initiates a plan to ruin my life. Merchandising takes off. More comic spinoffs follow. A movie is in the works, along with a TV show. What began as an attempt to cash in on the glowing celebrity of Jean-Claude Van Damme has become the hottest game franchise around, with legitimate multimedia appeal.

Clearly, it was time to fuck it up.

Friday, July 16, 2010

The Mortal Kombat Problem I

Once, during in an enjoyably boring shift, I was called upon to explicate the conflict between Arianism and Trinitarianism. It was long, and convoluted, and required several detours to establish a frame in which the ideas being fought over made any sense at all. Afterwards, it was noted that it had been a lot like one of our friends' attempts to explain the divergent universes of Bishop and Cable in X-Men.

Mortal Kombat has taken up enough time, energy and thought in my life to qualify it as a religion of sorts, so it should be no surprise that it has its own incomprehensible and internally inconsistent cosmology. Or perhaps it should, because it was drafted by literate people who were protected by copyright law and under no direct threat from Roman authorities, and because the whole damn thing goes back only two decades. Nay, to establish a narrative clusterfuck of such utterly Shokan proportions, the designers and writers would have to have made terrible decisions at nearly every level of the world-making process.

Since this seems to be precisely what happened, I refer to these mistakes, collectively, as the Mortal Kombat problem.

Starting, as is in the fashion, at the beginning, the Boonverse is established in MK1 as thus: there is a secret martial arts tournament in which the world's best warriors fight to the death. Currently, the tournament is run by the immortal Shang Tsung, who took control of the tournament when his champion, a four-armed monster named Goro, defeated the previous tournament champion Kung Lao 500 years earlier. (MK1 is assumed to take place in the present or nearish future, so let's go ahead and put Kung Lao's defeat at the tail end of the 15th century.) People make their way to the tournament for various reasons: Liu Kang (intended at the outset to be the lone "good guy" in a roster of egoists, criminals, and psychopaths) seeks to put the Shaolin monks back in control of the tournament. Irritating movie star Johnny Cage wants more fame and money, Sub-Zero wants to assassinate Shang Tsung, Scorpion wants to assassinate Sub-Zero, Kano is in it for the money and the power, and leggy green beret Lt. Sonya Blade, captured trying to apprehend Kano, is just in it.

Of course, Mortal Kombat is a game about people beating each other into unconsciousness and then, for the bragging rights of the players, murdering each other. While comic book characters have long been able to have deep, soul-searching discussions of their lives and motives during fistfights, our beloved cast of misfits is not so lucky. The story is delineated initially by the "attract mode," a programmed series of images and (for lack of a better term) gameplay trailers that display while the machine in question is waiting for players to plunk in their not-money tokens. The attract mode gives us most of the playable characters' (potential protagonists') backstories, while each character's ending text, displayed as a reward upon beating the single-player mode, fills in any intentional gaps in the attract mode bios--why does Scorpion have it in for the Lin Kuei? Is Raiden really a god? These answers and more, tonight on Mortal Kombat--as well as a bit of epiloguing, describing what happens to the winning combatant, and the world, after the tournament's end.

The use of story as a reward isn't much talked about by theorists or understood by non-gamers, but it's both fairly prevalent in the medium and fairly effective in generating fan interest. In addition, the publisher produced a comic book companion that covered much of the game's storyline in a more traditional narrative fashion, although the comics were quickly decided to be extra-canonical when they became inconvenient. But the seeds of the canon wars are planted in MK2, and we ainnot there yet.

In fact, MK1 is pretty clean, as far as the storyline goes. It ought to be, since it's just dumping some Street Fighter aesthetics into Enter the Dragon. (And yes, sports fans, we're going to skip over the extent to which Street Fighter II borrowed so much of its je ne sais quoi from Enter the Dragon. I much prefer A Fistfull of Yen anyway.) The most interesting bit, really, is Shang Tsung, an apparently elderly man who can transform himself into any of the other tournament fighters. The story enacted in the comic and repeated in gaming mags was that he was a sorcerer who absorbed the souls of his defeated opponents, prolonging his unnatural life. This makes a great deal of sense, especially given the illustration (in the comic) of Tsung pulling a glowing ethereal mass out of a pile of human-shaped goo. He pulls in the soul, and with its owner's features, giving him the ability to "become" the defeated. This also gives him a nice motive for maintaining the tournament, as well as a reason that he needs to be killed. The tournament must be returned to its boring, sporting event equilibrium, just as any action flick must end with the hero once again rendering the world boring.

In the game's final battle (against Tsung, natch), the sorcerer "morphs" into all of the game's opponents, making Tsung a forerunner of the "clip-show villain" trope later typified by The First in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It is assumed, at this point, that Tsung has eaten the souls of all the warriors the player has thus defeated, raising two easily fankwankable questions: a) When did he do this? Can he still get a soul out of a corpse in which the heart has been separated from the body? How about decapitated? Or burned to bone and ash? b) That said, how the hell does he morph into the still living person he is fighting at that particular time? The second question addresses what has been largely decided to be a purely extra-diegetic phenomenon of allowing two players to select the same character in fighting games; MK at least lampshaded it with the "mirror match" concept, but it didn't help with the finale. The first question addresses a much more fundamental problem with the series: franchises survive by world-making more than any specific character, but characters do have to be carried over, and actual questions of gameplay preference can exert their own weight on a story. The result is that, in the martial arts tournament for which the series is named, the tournament that is literally synonymous with fighting to the death, nobody ever fucking dies.

I take care establishing these things primarily to help elucidate exactly how fucked up it's all going to get over the sequels, and with the sequels shall I continue.