If you’ve heard even a sliver of information about the Mortal Kombat universe, it’s probably that Scorpion and Sub-Zero are enemies. They’re two visually similar ninjas from rival clans with a vengeance-packed backstory. The pair began life as a palette swap, both wearing black body suits with colorful quilted vests on top (Scorpion in yellow, Sub-Zero in blue). The costumes, the characters, and their rivalry has grown more complex since their inception, and fan fascination with the pair has grown accordingly.
Scorpion and Sub-Zero are two of the most-played characters in online matches of Mortal Kombat X; when the game first came out, Scorpion topped the charts, but this week Sub-Zero has been muscling his way up. MKX also invites players to join a “faction” at the game’s outset; this designation is meant to provide themed rewards according to which team they choose, and Sub-Zero’s faction still has the most members.
Some of this glee will likely wear off after the dust settles on MKX’s release; competitive players will discover which characters have the best tactical advantages, and that knowledge will trickle down to other fighting game fans. But this instant obsession with Scorpion and Sub-Zero is a neat encapsulation of the small ways that fighting games tell stories: by establishing simple, basic character traits, and repeating them over and over again.
The old “are videogames art, or are they sports?” argument is often applied to fighting games, but it seems to ignore the fact that sports are theatre. Fighting games are a form of participatory theatre, too—especially for the majority of us who don’t compete on a high level, and who choose our favorite characters based on coolness. Selecting a character in any game feels a lot like putting on a mask—or in the case of a fighting game, like learning a dance. The experience is as much about aesthetics as it is about technique. You’ll want to pick a fighter who you enjoy enough to keep inhabiting, over and over and over.
Much like a ballet or a puppet show, fighting games often rely on very simplistic signifiers to encapsulate their characters. In some fighting games, there is no “story mode,” or if there is, it’s little more than a series of matches with brief interstitial dialogue. This means that fighting games have to tell a story with a very limited set of tools: the character’s physical appearance, their fashion choices, the one-liners they spout before and after matches, their facial expressions, and—of course—their combat style. Even without a story mode or a manual packed with back-stories, fighting games manage to tell straightforward character-based stories on the same level as a morality play or a fairy tale. These are not complicated or nuanced stories, of course—but when done well, they can still be emotional, memorable and relatable.
Mortal Kombat does have a story mode to help bolster its characterizations, and its story is one of the more impressive ones out there. Recent campaigns in Soul Calibur, Marvel vs. Capcom and Street Fighter have limited dialogue, a rare cut-scene or two, and only the vaguest of attempts at explaining why this colorful collection of characters can’t seem to stop beating on one another. By contrast, Mortal Kombat 9 and MKX’s campaigns stand out—not because of their narrative quality, per se, but because of their decision to embrace the shallowness and corniness of their own world, and their willingness to create stakes based on that world.
MK’s developers clearly want to go beyond just a handful of set-pieces and thin excuses for battle—they want to elevate the stakes and get the player to care about each chapter. MKX goes even further by including cut-scenes so long that the developers felt the need to insert ham-fisted quicktime events in order to keep the player’s attention. There’s a lot of ground to cover plot-wise—but the best scene is still Sub-Zero and Scorpion sharing a peaceful cup of tea together. (Yes. That happens.)
I loved the MKX campaign—but part of why it works so well is because these characters have already been well-established by their design. Take Johnny Cage, for example: from his Duke Nukem shades to the tattoo of his own name on his chest, anybody could tell exactly what kind of ostentatious asshole he is. You don’t also need to know that he’s an action movie star, because you can already tell he’s a show-off from how he acts; it’s one of the best possible cases of show-don’t-tell that I can think of in a fighting game.
The rest of the character designs in MKX have stepped up in comparison as well. You don’t need to play the campaign to be able to tell which characters are part of Special Forces; you can look at what they’re wearing and figure that out. You can tell from Cassie Cage’s attitude that she inherited some of her dad’s dramatic side (that selfie Fatality), but she’s also got her mother’s combat stylings—and a haircut that neither of them would wear, showing her own taste. All of that characterization is portrayed in how Cassie acts as a fighter, not via lines of dialogue. Ideally, the cut-scenes should be icing on the cake when it comes to getting to know any fighting game character.
When fighting games make good use of the show-don’t-tell technique, we end up with fighters like Sub-Zero and Scorpion—characters who people love for reasons that they can’t fully explain. Some of that love is nostalgia built up by years of playing these games and seeing those characters, but some of it is just basic human interest in the narrative of a rivalry, of competition, of dying and getting back up again and again and again.
Mortal Kombat in particular capitalizes on this simplistic, repetitious story; characters die in gruesome battle, getting their backs broken and faces fractured and spleens torn apart, only to get back up again with a blood-free grin and a healed spine. Many of the characters in Mortal Kombat are canonically human; there are also gods, and reptiles, and fantastical beings, of course, but many of our heroes are meant to be as mortal as you or I. And yet their kombat is immortal. How?
That cycle of life and death is central to how Mortal Kombat tells its story. The characters die over and over again—some according to the narrative canon (like, uh, Sub-Zero and Scorpion, for example). Yet their deaths are meaningless in the grand scheme, since the story mode has established that almost anyone can come back from the dead—just as the win or loss of any one player in a single match can also be overcome. The defeated character will still remain in the selection screen, their death forgotten in an instant. It works in much the same way as the curtain call at the end of a brutal tragedy; the actors come out, smiling, reassuring you that it was all just a play.
Maddy Myers is Paste’s assistant games editor. She tweets @samusclone and co-hosts a weekly gaming podcast called Isometric at Relay FM.