My earliest memory of Mortal Kombat is of my parents warning me off playing it, speaking in the same hushed, protective tones that they spoke of drugs, cigarettes or staying up past your bedtime. Society had somehow stumbled into a real-life version of Reefer Madness, legislation was being crafted as a consequence of the game’s existence, and parents were told to keep their children from playing it lest they indulge in the violence and grow up as a nation of serial killers. Obviously, this meant I just snuck to a friend’s house to experience it.
And I didn’t like it. I actually hated it.
I would still pretend to like it, because I was not about to openly disagree on what appeared to be the one cultural touchstone every American child seemingly reached a consensus about, but my heart was simply not in memorizing every fatality and electrocuting someone until they exploded. I didn’t find the apparently realistic graphics enticing, the blood was more cartoonish than cool, and there were only so many times I could hear Scorpion tell another character to get over here before I just wanted to stop doing the move. I could not find the “fun” part of Mortal Kombat, as hard as I tried.
With every sequel for many years, every Mortal Monday, every rush to the arcade to try out the new fatalities from Gamepro’s inside-cover guides, I would try again and again and fail each time. As everyone around me had fun with this game and I simply couldn’t, my ambivalent distaste gestated into a grudge. When Mortal Kombat 9 arrived to effusive praise, I crossed my arms and stuck up my nose, reasoning that it couldn’t be any good—it was Mortal Kombat. The same clamor occurred once again for Mortal Kombat X until I broke down and purchased it in a fit of irrational boredom, or possibly a desire to reaffirm my stance.
And I liked it a lot.
This is a disturbing revelation, because I am not sure I have ever actually wanted to like Mortal Kombat. Even ignoring that the physical action of playing the game had never really clicked for me until whatever inexplicable change happened internally or externally this time around, the seemingly paranoid, hyperbolic claims echoing from the 90s that it fetishized gore were not totally wrong. While I enjoy Mortal Kombat X, my stomach turns when doing Takeda’s fatality, where he slices an opponent’s arms off and then pulls their intestines out through their mouth, leaving them gurgling blood (complete with fizzing animations) as they twitch on the ground. Optional as they are, fatalities are still incentivized with massive point bonuses in single-player modes, making them avoidable insomuch as I’m able to turn away from the screen. It still makes me feel like that seven year-old struggling to understand why this was entertaining.
But despite those moments of predictable disgust, of the grudge I once nursed bubbling up again in my throat, I also feel some degree of embarrassment. I was ready to hate Mortal Kombat X with every fiber of my being, a feeling I rarely exhibit but found building with every new trailer. To be wrong about the game, or at least wrong enough that I stumbled blindly into enjoying it despite the vestigial legacy it drags behind in ankle weights, blows the doors wide open on what I thought were concrete preferences. Suffering this epiphany did not leave me defensive, as I originally expected it would, but brought on a feeling of relief that I was not beholden to a decision I made over twenty years ago.
In the videogame industry, we are encouraged to make snap judgments. Every trade show invites us to get excited over trailers, every subsequent trailer then uncomfortably sidles up to the viewer, encouraging them to pre-order so as not to miss the content that could have easily been in the game but isn’t. There is not enough time or money to play every game we might possibly want, much less buy on “day one” faith, so we have to discern and judge. We have to rely on, in my case, decades-old feelings extrapolated out as justification for things that share relation in name only. At some point we’re just denying ourselves experiences we might enjoy out of excessive pragmatism and a fear of being wrong about our judgments.
The preferences I have cultivated over the years are ones I once thought were ironclad, but in retrospect, they are far more fluid than I would care to admit. I was the bratty teenager that lamented the mass appeal of the videogame because it was no longer just for me. I was the internet warrior that proudly declared that I would never play online because videogames were inherently local or isolated experiences. In other words, I was once really, really dumb. If I had stuck to these cantankerous principles, I would not have found “mass appeal” games that I ended up loving just as much as my niche Japanese discs rife with translation errors, nor would I have enjoyed the online games that I have poured thousands of hours into that could have otherwise gone to something productive.
It shouldn’t take the world telling you that you might be wrong for you to consider it.
The world will be wrong sometimes, too. Just because I liked Mortal Kombat X does not mean I can go back and like those old games. They still possess no virtues for me, and that’s okay. There is no way to go through life only experiencing things you will like and never missing out on things you might like, much as I wish that we were all born with the ability to discern that at a glance. When time and resources allow, take a risk, and move on if it does not work out. Even if you have been right for decades, all it takes is being wrong once before realizing your preferences are alive and constantly evolving.
And that’s a damn good thing to come to terms with.
Imran Khan is an Atlanta-based freelance writer who tweets @imranzomg and is currently trying to main Cassie Cage…poorly.