Mortal Kombat tops the very short list of video games that have cemented themselves as permanent staples of pop culture. Whether it’s pro wrestlers, Wreck-It Ralph, Zayn Malik’s Met Gala outfit, or Lil Wayne and Skrillex tracks, its influence far exceeds the confines of a fighting game.
You’d think after nearly three decades, it’d get old. But the hype for Mortal Kombat 11 is still just as fatal.
“We’re all just honored the game’s still going,” said Chris Chapman, who’s been working on the franchise since 1994 and is now director of art at NetherRealm Studios. “I’m honored to see how we’re stitched into culture now.”
We caught up with Chapman at the livestreamed Mortal Kombat 11 reveal event in Los Angeles on Jan. 17, where some fans were getting their favorite characters literally tattooed onto their bodies. Ronda Rousey showed up too, announcing she’d be voicing the character of Sonya after having grown up idolizing her and dreaming of becoming as strong as her one day.
Those kind of stories aren’t the exception. It feels like everyone has their Mortal Kombat origin story.
“To hear those stories of how fans have grown up alongside these character, and then to see them today, decades later, more excited than ever — it’s just surreal,” said Chapman.
That meeting of past and present is the seed behind Mortal Kombat 11‘s story, too.
The new character of Kronika is a powerful manipulator of time, described by series co-creator Ed Boon as having been “running the show since the first Mortal Kombat.” After the timeline-shattering events of Mortal Kombat 10, she’s now forced to step in and right the balance of the universe. And to do so, she’ll make classic characters fight different versions of themselves from earlier games.
So, as Chapman put it, you can expect, “50-year-old, level-headed dad Johnny Cage to fight himself back when he was just this young, annoying jerk.”
“They grew up with these characters, and they’ve been part of their lives at all different stages.”
It’s both a meta choice and a pragmatic one to make the clashing of generations the backdrop for the newest installment of a franchise that is as old and narratively complicated as Mortal Kombat. For one thing, it felt like the most evocative theme for developers who’ve lived lifetimes throughout their time at NetherRealm.
“We’ve been doing this for 28 years, and we’ve gotten older too,” said Chapman. “Whether it subconsciously influenced us to do it or not or not, that just felt like an interesting concept to meet my 20-something goofy self as my older self now.”
That same meaning applies to the players, too. “I think fans will love it too because they grew up with these characters, and they’ve been part of their lives at all different stages,” he added.
In many ways, you can trace the Mortal Kombat‘s continued cultural and emotional resonance back to the emphasis on story that always made it stand out from the crowd.
Even in most modern fighting games, you can at best expect a story mode included as an afterthought. But Mortal Kombat, from the beginning, has wanted players to know there was a backstory and stakes behind every fight. Long before cinematics even existed, the first one used track mode screens to explain why this or that character was seeking revenge against their opponent.
The effect of Mortal Kombat‘s attention to story is like the difference between a good and bad fighting scene in a movie. Instead of just watching two people punch each other aimlessly, you’re watching two characters clash over a conflict so dire that only a brutal spine removal can resolve it.
Since the days of Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe, NetherRealm has invested more and more resources into the story. And Mortal Kombat 11 feels like the culmination of all that came before it.
“People expect that from NetherRealm now, and we love the challenge. It’s a huge effort. We’re essentially making a two-hour, full length movie,” said Chapman. “And it doesn’t matter whether you know the history or not. The story is also a great introduction to the world for new players.”
“I’m happy that we don’t just put everyone in trashy bikinis anymore.”
But as much as Mortal Kombat feels like it’s stayed true to its core tenets (i.e., organ-removing finishing moves and a wacky-ass, ever-expanding story to justify it), there’s been a lot of evolution along the way too.
Being a product of its time, Mortal Kombat was for many years one of the most egregious examples of games that exclusively dress female characters in skimpy outfits. Today, you’ll still find extreme body proportions and skin-tight costumes on men and women. But the obvious double standard of hyper-sexualization is mostly a thing of the past.
It’s also not lost on us that the two new characters introduced so far are a man of color (Geras), and a woman (Kronika, mentioned above) who’s seemingly the most powerful being of all, and likely the first female big bad for the series.
“We have gotten more sophisticated with our designs, and I’m happy that we don’t just put everyone in trashy bikinis anymore,” said Chapman. “And I like that our audience responded to the changing times, and called us out on it. I have zero problem hearing that feedback.”
The evolving culture has also changed the music genre associated with Mortal Kombat. Back in 1995, the cult classic Mortal Kombat movie embraced the edgy music of the day: metal and techno.
But for Mortal Kombat 11‘s announcement trailer, 21 Savage dropped a whole new LP for the game titled “Immortal.” It was the perfect climax to the games’ slow gravitation toward hip hop, which is the music genre where you can find the most references to the franchise.
At the risk of taking a silly fighting game too seriously, hip hop does come across as the most natural match for a series that’s all about surviving violence, rising above the odds, and fighting to make your own destiny.
“We never take that – what Mortal Kombat means to people – for granted.”
“There’s a real rawness that feels like a very similar vibe,” said Chapman.
We spent some time playing Mortal Kombat 11, and it’s clear it won’t drastically change the formula of what’s come before it. It is, in many ways, exactly what you expect from the same battle you’ve been fighting since the early ’90s.
But what keeps the franchise so entrenched in the cultural zeitgeist after all these years is precisely its unique ability to reinvent itself without ever really changing.
And, according to Chapman, that comes from a sense of deep respect at the studio for the players who’ve kept the game not only alive, but thriving.
“We never take that — what Mortal Kombat means to people — for granted,” said Chapman.