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.

2 comments:

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Peter "The Malcontent" Rauch said...

Really I pleased you enjoyed it, Ejaz.

I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords.