Mortal Kombat’s fatalities have gone beyond just gore for gore’s sake…they’re now an artform.
What do the words “Finish Him” mean to you? For most of us, the call brings to mind the thrill of victory, that telling sound, and some unspeakable violence. Heads uppercut off of shoulders. Bodies split down the middle. For the 27 years we’ve been playing Mortal Kombat, fatalities have been at the heart of what’s drawn us to the series. The nature of that heart, however, has changed quite a bit. In 1992, Mortal Kombat’s explicit but rudimentary depictions of violence were considered shocking, even vulgar. In 2019, the most popular TV show in America is among the goriest on the air. We aren’t so easily shocked anymore. In Mortal Kombat 11, fatalities still find ways to excite us though; Not by grossing us out or pushing our buttons, as most people assume, but by being clever, funny, and, as always, giving us a way to gloat that’s far more satisfying than the sassiest emote. As Mortal Kombat’s bloody crown jewels, Fatalities cleverly surprise and delight, while giving us a uniquely satisfying chance to revel in victory.
Let’s get this out of the way: Yes, Mortal Kombat 11 is very gory. Every entry in the series attempts to outdo its predecessors with more elaborate deaths in more sadistic detail. That said, violence for violence sake isn’t nearly as affecting as it was when the series made its bones. The original Mortal Kombat was singled out for showing a significant amount of blood — It was considered so impactful that Nintendo made Midway, the original publisher of Mortal Kombat replace it with gray “sweat” for the SNES version. Now, there’s a lot more blood in games of all kinds, so tone matters much more: The many chainsaws of Resident Evil 7. That needle from Dead Space 2. Violence can still shock and horrify us, but Mortal Kombat trends towards horror-movie-style murder slapstick.
Think about the fatalities from the original Mortal Kombat, versus the ones in the new game. In the original, Sub-Zero ripped his enemies’ heads off. Raiden electrocuted them. Scorpion burned his opponents to the bone. Compare those with MK11’s — Even the simplest of them are far more elaborate than their predecessors. Take Sub-Zero’s “Ice-Cutioner” fatality, where he freezes his opponent in a block of ice, then decapitates them with an ice axe, executioner-style: It’s a relatively simple maneuver — he chops someone’s head off, we’ve seen this before — but there’s a fanfare to it. Most of the sequence is spent setting up the kill, and that’s what makes it special. It’s as much about the pomp and circumstance as it is about violence.
Mortal Kombat 11 has done a particularly great job of using camerawork and presentation to maximize the impact of its fatalities. Fatalities have always been in-game cutscenes of a sort, but Mortal Kombat 11 is the first game where their cinematic qualities are used to great effect. Consider Cassie Cage’s “I <3 U” fatality, and how it perfectly positions every shot so that you are in the exact right spot to see how Cassie lines herself up, then kicks out the opponent’s heart. Then, for the piece de résistance, the camera looks through the loser’s body so she can wink and blow a gum bubble. That’s a particularly deliberate one, but you can see the careful attention to how we see the winners kill and the losers die in even the smallest details, like the positions of dismembered body parts get strewn around the screen. Every moment is an eyeful of horror.
Or laughs. Mortal Kombat has always had a sense of humor, and fatalities remain one of the primary vessels for it. While Mortal Kombat 11’s funniest moments are in its story, the cinematic nature makes for punchy, dark jokes. Kano has a fatality where he dances with his opponent’s corpse. Johnny Cage turns his enemy into a ventriloquists’ dummy. Whether its humor or brutality, every fatality aims to satisfy in some way or another. If you didn’t walk away thinking, “oh that’s clever” or “lol I can’t believe they did that,” you wouldn’t bother to punch in the code again.
And, of course, it’s a way to gloat. With Fatalities, Mortal Kombat backed its way into a victory lap interaction that’s more meaningful than a simple emote, but isn’t upsetting and obnoxious like teabagging in a shooter or yelling obscenities on mic. (You know, stuff that assholes do). At first glance, there’s the obvious symbolism of it. As the winner, you have the satisfaction of controlling the killer, while the loser sheepishly sits there and lets their character die. There’s also the inconvenience of it: No one wants to sit around wallowing in a loss, but a fatality makes you do just that. Despite that, though, it’s still fun for both the winner and the loser because the fatality is fun or funny to watch, regardless. It’s a little goofy and heavy-handed, but is ultimately part of the game and all in good fun. Most competitive games, or even cooperative ones, fail to strike that balance.
I like lots of violent media, but violence for violence’ sake does not appeal to me. I still take the time to look up and punch in a fatality pretty much every time I win a match online or against a computer in any Mortal Kombat. That’s a testament to the fact there’s more to the mechanic than gross-out gore.
Mike Epstein is a freelance game and technology critic in New York. You may have read his work at PCMag, Lifehacker, Gizmodo, Variety, Digital Trends and, of course, here on IGN.