The secret we should never let the gamemasters know is that they don’t need any rules.
The above symbol for anyone who was around in the 90’s, even if they weren’t involved in video games, should be pretty familiar. There is a rather storied history with this franchise including a series of court cases which led to the creation of the ESRB – Entertainment Software Rating Board. In spite of the controversy surrounding it the series went on to spawn more than twenty games and various movies as well as a smaller live-action series released on YouTube. In addition to that it’s also had a fairly successful comic book run which was going as recent as 2015. Many people may rightfully question how something as shallow as a fighting game could warrant so many retellings in story based mediums. Outside of the brutal and sometimes hilarious ways you can dispatch your opponents in the game there actually exists an impressively robust story explaining the games many characters. For the sake of some form of brevity I will spare you the lengthy version of that lore and give you the basic rundown from the game so we can compare to the eventual movie.
What You Need To Know
The universe of Mortal Kombat is made up of different “Realms” which are actually distinct planets instead of separate planes of existence. In the actual lore the number of realms is actually closer to 15-20 but for the sake of simplicity these are all we’re going to see in the movie.
- Outworld – A purplish barren wasteland pockmarked by pools of acid, deserts and even the occasional lush forest it is the home of most of the series prominent antagonists. It is technically the amalgamation of a few different realms that Outworld’s Emperors have conquered, but thats for another time.
- Netherrealm – Hell.
- Earthrealm – Pretty much what you would think from the name. It’s the Earth realm, an Earth so close to our own that the distinction seems unnecessary. I guess they have more magic than we do, whatever.
The Mortal Kombat Tournament –
Mortal Kombat was set up by the Elder Gods of this universe after Outworld went on a conquering spree and became much too powerful for other realms to effectively stand up to them. The rules of the tournament however extend to any realm who wishes to invade another. Once a generation the two competing realms send their champions to a single elimination tournament to fight for supremacy. When there is only one left standing they are crowned champion until the next generation when the competition happens again. If one of the competing realms can attain ten straight victories then they may invade the losing realm.
Er, yeah. Try not to think about it too much, this is all based on a fighting game after all.
Who You Need To Know
So lets get to know our all-star cast who will be punching, kicking and, quipping their way to victory.
First up is the rather incredible introduction to our main villain, Shang Tsung.
On the left there we have the Outworld sorcerer and all-around soul sucker Shang Tsung portrayed by the incredible Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa. Shang Tsung in the name of Shao Kahn the Emperor of Outworld, who you’ll see only glimpses of, is on the brink of making Earthrealm yet another in a long line of conquered planets.
Our scowling villain and his champion Goro (Not the kid in red.) have managed to win nine consecutive tournaments against Earthrealm prior to the events of the movie and first game. Shang Tsung has set plans in motion to lure a couple unwitting participants to the tournament so he can secure a guaranteed tenth win. Earth stands on the brink of invasion and it’s up to our heroes to save the day.
First up is Liu Kang who was raised a Chinese Shaolin fighting monk specializing mainly in Jeet Kun Do and Kung Fu. Also he’s been having some restless nights recently.
If you’re getting a strong Bruce Lee vibe don’t worry, it’s not just you.
Liu Kang, played by Robin Shou, was raised as a member of the White Lotus Society who trained fighters specifically to compete in Mortal Kombat for the defense of Earthrealm. In the movie Liu Kang left the monastery and moved to America as he didn’t believe in the legends and wanted his own life. The catalyst for him returning was due to the boy in red with Shang Tsung, his brother Chan Kang. Desperate to bring down the man responsible the journey would eventually land Liu Kang front and center at the tournament.
Next up is the no-shit taking law enforcement officer, Lieutenant Sonya Blade. In the movie she works special forces for an undisclosed agency and is introduced along with a brief interaction with her partner, Jax, another character from the game.
Lt. Sonya Blade, portrayed by Bridgette Wilson, is pursuing a criminal by the name of Kano (Also from the game) who is responsible for the murder of her previous partner. In the film Kano has been recruited by Shang Tsung to lure Sonya to the tournament grounds under the guise of fleeing justice. Once there she will have to enter the tournament representing Earthrealm for her shot at vengeance.
Note: I just want to note how hilariously awful the flashlight mounts for those shotguns are. Really props department, really? I too can stick a mag-light down some spray-painted PVC pipe and call it a day.
Finally our cast of heroes is rounded out by Johnny Cage, a highly trained and exceptionally skilled martial artist who is seeking for ways to prove his legitimacy on the world stage…
… Because in reality he’s an action movie star who is constantly accused of his skill on screen being all thanks to special effects and good editing. With his ego and reputation on the line Johnny Cage, portrayed by Linden Ashby, is eager for any chance to prove that he isn’t a pretender. Shang Tsung takes advantage of this by using his sorcerous powers to pose as Cage’s former mentor offering a chance to compete in a tournament that would remove all doubt of his true skill. Cage accepts and finally our three heroes are on a course to defend Earthrealm.
While more of a “hands off” participant in the tournament I do want to take a moment to introduce Raiden the Eternal God of Thunder who is the protector of Earthrealm.
If he’s the protector of the realm then why isn’t he fighting for it? Simple answer is that Raiden, portrayed by Christopher Lambert, is more of the guy who enforces the rules but doesn’t really get into the nitty-gritty of it. Instead he helps recruit the fighters who will do the actual defending. His movie role centers on convincing the three heroes that there is more going on than they understand or may believe. Once they’re on board Raiden is there to protect them from Shang Tsung’s scheming and help guide them through the tournament while they fight for Earthrealm’s survival.
Note: I wasn’t originally intending to include a gif of Raiden but honestly it’s one of the funniest reveals ever. Seeing the face of Christopher Lambert appear under that conical hat never ceases to make me laugh. Sorry, Highlander.
That’s the down and dirty set-up for Mortal Kombat the movie, now lets talk about how they did putting it all together.
First a quick rundown of the numbers –
If you’re like me those numbers were quite a shock because even as a fan of the franchise and having seen the movie when it released I remember it being cheesy and terrible. Admittedly a fun time but by no means a good movie. Those box office numbers are bordering on smash hit for the time, certainly a tidy profit. Even looking at it’s rankings on various records like New Line Cinema’s biggest opening weekends it sits at 27. For context this is the same company who produced the Lord of the Rings movies.
So how did this happen?
You’re kind of asking for trouble when you decide to take a fighting game and put it up in theaters as a feature length film. Not because a lack of lore fluff to work with but rather because the general mentality will lean towards action heavy and story light meaning no substance. Or someone will decide that they’ll be the ones to really show the mythology behind the game and make an unnecessarily narrative heavy feature that ends up being boring or worse, incomprehensible. Or both.
What strikes me as truly strange about Mortal Kombat is that Paul W.S. Anderson actually did neither of those things. The story is actually faithful within reason to the lore of the first game and any changes that were made were really only a result of having to flesh it out into actual dialogue and action. Some obvious limitations because of the PG-13 rating but a rated R movie based on a video game was going to exclude most of your potential audience so again reasonable changes to be made.
Seeing that again makes me want to go watch it and believe me I say that having already watched it several times putting together this review. In fact it’s playing on my other monitor as I write this. I’m actually amazed at how good that trailer is at doing everything it needed to for such a hard to market movie. It explains a story that has no right to make sense in such a short amount of time for people who don’t know what it is. It hits on every note, including cleverly used game audio, to energize gamers so they’ll be excited to go see it. It’s also got just enough Enter the Dragon vibes to garner attention from Kung Fu Genre fans who might see it on a lark.
In my initial post about video game inspired movies I made the argument that one of the major flaws is directors and writers feeling the need to put their own stamp on an already existing IP. This inability to put their ego aside undermines the appeal to the core audience who will pay to see this film based on nothing more than the title . If you piss them off then you’ve got little else to hang your hat on. Mortal Kombat cleared that hurdle with room to spare and took off running to the finish line.
Everything seems gravy so where did it fail?
For me the true stumbling blocks for this movie laid pretty solidly in the dialogue, acting, CGI and, some aesthetic choices.
In movies like these you expect a certain amount of cheese and camp when it comes to the actors or their dialogue and as such I don’t find a lot of fault with the actors themselves. At various points in the movie you can clearly see that they can act like normal human beings when they aren’t being forced to deliver stiff and unimaginative dialogue. Actors are often put in the uncomfortable position of knowing that what they’ve been given isn’t all that good while needing to simultaneously buy into the directors vision. At a certain level actors can wield more power on set to help shape the movie and hopefully help improve the quality by working as a team with the director and writers. I’m also sure that just by virtue of the kind of movie being made that the quality of things like the dialogue and overall acting weren’t super high on the priority list.
Even more unsurprising when you consider that Mortal Kombat was the fourth movie based on a video game being preceded by –
- Super Mario Bros – 1993
- Double Dragon – 1994
- Street Fighter – 1994
I can’t really blame them for not having a lot of faith in the genre.
As far as the CGI goes I’m going to use what by now is probably a tired old metric but looking at the quality of special effects in this movie and then remembering Jurassic Park came out two years prior is painful. I certainly understand that they weren’t working with with the same budgets, in fact Jurassic Park had triple what Mortal Kombat did, but then when do what they did with Reptile?
They clearly had access to very talented set and costume designers so it makes the decision to include this–
When they probably could have designed an incredible costume with a few lizard like prosthesis for the actor that would have been much cheaper and looked much better. Additionally the insane animatronics to bring Goro to life make me question further how their version of Reptile ended up in the same movie. Obviously they wanted something that looked nothing like Sub-Zero or Scorpion and it’s hard to say that was the wrong impulse to follow in the moment without the benefit of hindsight. But given everything else they accomplished it seemed like such an avoidable misstep. Especially given that they just morph him into the much more familiar looking Reptile two-thirds of the way through.
Combined with CGI and aesthetic choices that brings me to Scorpion’s kunai-harpoon which for some bizarre reason they decided to make into an apparent symbiotic creature that lives inside his arm? This feels to me like the encroaching ego of the people in charge who can’t stop tweaking and improving on whats in front of them. I can almost hear the discussion –
“He has a harpoon, right?”
“Yeah, but thats boring. Anything we can do to punch it up?”
“Well, he’s called Scorpion so maybe he should have like a stinger?”
“Like a tail?”
“Nah like his harpoon is his scorpion stinger.”
“I like that, but it should be alive, like a creature. Be able to move on its own. And lives in his arm but comes out through his hand.”
I get the impulse and often have to fight allowing myself to do the same thing but hopefully continuing to talk about the concept helps others avoid the same pitfall.
Lastly on aesthetics I wanted to touch on sound design with the use of game audio and music sprinkled throughout the movie. Like I mentioned in my last post part of the appeal going to movies like this is the thrill of seeing and hearing your game come to life on the big screen. Part of that is transferring iconic action, dialogue and visuals accurately into the script in ways that don’t ask for the kudos when doing so. They should feel organic in their new setting and not stick out as the references that they are. In Mortal Kombat the first time we hear the games main theme outside of the opening credits is for a fight between our three heroes and a bunch of faceless goons. How much more impact would it have had underscoring the final conflict of the movie or one of the other major fights between named characters? They also use the phrase “Flawless Victory” a few times in painfully awkward ways and whats worse is they use it incorrectly, even outside of the context of the game.
I know we still get articles wondering if the latest movie based on a video game will “finally break the curse and be good” like the ones that popped up about Rampage. Overall though after going back and watching this movie, several times, I honestly have to say that I would probably recommend this movie to people who question whether or not a good one has ever been made. It is certainly a product of it’s time and I don’t think it rises above the style of Kung Fu movie its loosely based on but I can’t say that it is an objectively bad film either. It does what it set out to do in fine fashion, stayed true to the source material and gave fans a true silver screen adaptation of a video game they loved.
So a very, very belated congratulations to everyone involved. You did what is still largely considered to still be un-achieved even now by making a fantastic video game movie!
If you stuck around this far, thank you for reading! Took a lot longer than I thought it would to put this together but I like the result. Learned a lot about video capturing, editing, FX and a bunch of other things. Let me know what you did and didn’t like as it’ll help me decide how to improve and how much work I should put into these in the future!
Also feel free to let me know if there is a specific movie you’d like me to do next!
I’ll be back soon.
“… That will be thirty-five gold.”
“I place the gold in her hand, thank her and take my items back outside to the party.”
“Got all the stuff, is everyone read— where is Brycel?”
“We thought he was with you?”
“What did you do?!”
A halfling with an arm full of goods comes rushing out of the store behind you –
“Time to go!”
“I yell an apology into the shop and then run after everyone, do we see guards anywhere?”
“There do seem to be a few sets of halberds advancing up the street.”
“God dammit Brycel!”
Dungeon Master or player I think we’ve all been here before. Rogue is an extremely popular archetype for role-playing games for reasons that are readily apparent. Regardless of whether you like the idea of playing a fantasy version of Hitman, fancy yourself the next Daniel Ocean or have always dreamed of being this guy the Rogue class can give you that chance. They’re one of the most flexible classes in all of Dungeons & Dragons even including a path called Arcane Trickster if life just isn’t interesting enough without a little spell-casting on the side.
Clearly based on the example at the top I’m here to talk about one particular class of Rogue, the Thief. Our friendly neighborhood pickpocket, confidence man and, all around angle seeker in any given situation. Negotiating for the release of hostages? They might see if they can finagle a few extras for themselves in the process. Investigating a mysterious death in the Royal Palace? What silverware? Going shopping for supplies? No, I don’t believe I have seen any Potions of Giant Strength.
The thief is often a class chosen by those who want to role-play the “fun” side of sinister, the kind of evil that pricks but doesn’t kill, the kind that still allows you to sleep at night, the lovable miscreant. I imagine many rogue players envision themselves to be something akin to Aladdin if he was deep into a goth phase. It’s all fun and games while you escape the guards in a jaunty run across town that ends with a good laugh in some dingy alley with your party while they give you shit for being an incorrigible sticky-fingered thief.
Unfortunately in my experience the reality can be a bit more complicated. I stumbled upon this thread while browsing around before bed and it touched on something that I’ve thought about off and on over the years. We often talk about how important it is for the DM of a table to have a conversation with their players about the type of game they’re expecting. Everyone should more or less be on the same page about the direction of the campaign, the style of play and the general attitude and goals of the party. A chaotic evil character running around amidst a group of lawful good is just asking for trouble outside of a very experienced group who enjoys an odd roleplaying challenge. It’s not that situations like this can’t ever work but there are conversations that need to be had prior to going live to ensure the health and longevity of the group.
To tie in another conversation I had today with another DM and some players we briefly spoke about red flags that we look for when talking to prospective players. I mentioned one of mine which was players whose backgrounds start with or include references to their characters being former gods, disgraced gods, temporarily “de-powered” or overthrown in any fashion. I like grandeur and imagination in backstories as much as anyone but every player and DM develops a sense for people that they will not mesh with for a variety of reasons. Another one of the red-flags that I keep an eye out for in character backgrounds is the word “Kleptomaniac”.
This word in a backstory reads to me as an excuse for the player to steal as much as they want whenever they want with little regard for any justification beyond, “I have to because I’m a klepto.” I will offer the clarification that I have in the past had a player who while using that word to describe their character they also provided me with a specific list of items that would trigger their kleptomania and that it was limited to those. This is the kind of care and detail that in my opinion must be included with a character who suffers from any kind of manic disorder. In the example I posted above from the Reddit thread you might be able to see why this kind of thing aggravates me so much. The player who describes themselves as a kleptomaniac is not stealing because of their mania but because, as they pointed out, their need for some extra gold. This is the reasoning that your everyday pickpocket or confidence man uses to justify lifting a wallet or breaking in to steal an expensive pipe. This is simple greed or opportunistic theft, not theft driven by an irresistible compulsion to do it regardless of danger or circumstance.
Kleptomania and other quirks like it are character flaws and shouldn’t be treated as pseudo-feats that you can take as a player to excuse extreme and sometimes downright stupid behavior.
This leads me to the wider problem that is also evident in the post. Players who use traits like kleptomania have a tendency to warp the play at the table to disproportionately revolve around their actions. This isn’t always intentional but it can easily come about naturally from just embracing their characters core flaw. In a game that strongly promotes the idea of co-operative storytelling these types of characters can disrupt that fundamental pillar. The argument can certainly be made that in a game like D&D where freedom of choice and the accompanying consequences are “part of the fun”, which I certainly agree with. The caveat which must be stressed however is that at the end of the day it is still at its core, a game, where the ultimate goal is a good time for everyone involved. If we accept the presence of a kleptomaniac then lets expand our view for a moment to potential other manias or neuroses we could see crop up.
A pyromaniac wizard? How rapidly frustrating would a game become with a player who is obsessed with fire and has such easy access to it that they are constantly in danger of burning anywhere they go to the ground?
Severe obsessive compulsive disorder? How long would a party wait around while their Cleric counts each and every stone tile as they traverse a dungeon?
Ablutomania, where the druid in the party obsessively washes themselves, constantly using up any available water supply even their drinking water. As a result the party must resupply frequently and stop at any water supply along the way so they can wash.
If you find any of the above examples ridiculous or believe that they would be disruptive to a game remember that kleptomania falls into this list as well. We tolerate it because when used appropriately it can be an almost endearing quality in a party member or even a form of comic relief. As the thread I posted will show however it can very quickly morph into a problem when the DM feels the player is out of line or the player feels they are being punished for playing their character. This also doesn’t mean that the above examples can’t or shouldn’t ever be used but that these types of characteristics are hard to role-play in an appropriate manner.
I do want to take just a moment to address the fact that in spite of what I have written here I also do think that the DM was not wholly in the right with enforcing an alignment change on the lawful neutral character. The debate over alignments and how they should affect the game is still hotly debated in the community but I do have to side with the players on this. It seemed a bit punitive and an attempt to discourage other people at the table from engaging in the thief’s shenanigans. Unfortunately without knowing the entire history of the group its tough to make a definitive judgement because alignment changes often should happen when a pattern of behavior is established, not on a singular incident. Furthermore I would state that I do have a small issue with the fact that a lawful neutral cleric was the abetting character as to me that seems to be two layers of plausible reasoning for them to not take part. Either way, a discussion for another time.
So not to bore you for much longer let just conclude with a point that the player made at the bottom of the post –
…But once the DM knew that we were trying to steal the pipe, he then said that magically(without good reason, no spell was casted) a glass case and bodyguard appeared in the store, the glass case over the pipe and the bodyguard which is in the store (so because we wanted to steal something, the DM tries to make it harder for us than it should have been just so he can fuck us over)…
I want to clarify something here that as a DM I do not describe rooms and environments with 100% of the available detail. I try to judge what the myriad characters at my table may or may not notice when they are just going about their day. To describe everything in excruciating detail means that getting anywhere with any speed would be nearly impossible. Its another reason why DMs don’t, or shouldn’t, allow constant Perception checks by players because it slows the game until its nearly unplayable. Players must communicate their intentions and make intelligent decisions from moment to moment based on their suspicions or goals. If you think there might be a trap then by all means check for it but I will not allow you to stand there and roll checks until you get one that makes you confident it is safe to proceed. I can explain any number of reasonable mechanical reasons as to why this is but let me just simply the issue: It isn’t fun. Not for me as the DM and not for anyone else at the table.
Again, it’s hard to make concrete judgments as I don’t know the history of the table, it’s players or the DM but it’s fairly clear that the relationship between the klepto and the DM has shifted to be somewhat adversarial. There are good reasons why players shouldn’t withhold information from their DMs because it can lead to situations like this. If a thief at my table walks into a building I don’t describe things like security or potential theft targets unless they specifically ask. If the thief tells me that they want to enter a shop because they want to case it then I know what information that character is looking to glean from their visit. If all they tell me is that they’re going into the shop with no further context then I won’t bother to expand on a description I already gave. Once they’ve revealed their plans to steal an item, like the pipe, then it’s time to discuss relevant details for that particular goal.
Very rarely do DMs do anything specifically to screw over their players as most of the time what you do is a total surprise to us. We may inadvertently gloss over details you wanted to know but we also can’t always know what specific information you want unless you ask. There are few if any reasons players should feel a need to keep information from their DM and just about all of them are bad news for the table as a whole. If you as a player find yourself in that position or know of another player who does then its time to have a discussion before it leads to bigger problems. It’s hard to stress enough just how important communication is.
Like most topics when it comes to D&D nothing is universal and your mileage will vary with any given advice but it is important to be cognizant of the people you are playing with. I am by no means saying that you must create characters devoid of quirks or challenging flaws but reasonably those things can be something to work up to while you gain experience as a player.
Now, grab your dice and go have some fun! I’ll be back soon.
Happy gaming, folks!