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.

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