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April 20, 2015

Mortal Kombat X: A Very Special Post

Full disclosure: I’m pretty sure I’m on record -- maybe even here on this blog -- saying something along the lines of “I hate Mortal Kombat” or “I’ve never like Mortal Kombat”.  So yeah, I can’t exactly claim that I’m fair and unbiased here; that said, the latest Mortal Kombat installment is out, I played it, and…yeah, it’s all right.  Neither its story nor its gameplay are mind-blowing, but it’s still serviceable.  And I’d bet that it IS mind-blowing for the true fans.  I’ll try and get a post uploaded explaining my thoughts, but only after I’ve spent more time with it.

Until then, there’s other stuff worth talking about.    Stuff that I really don’t want to wait to get into, seeing as how it’s been fresh on my mind, and it’s a pretty important subject.  For those unaware: MKX’s story mode brings us newcomer Kung Jin, who was recently confirmed to be the canon’s first gay character.  In typical internet fashion, it caused quite a stir, with harsh words thrown from both sides.

So.  Assuming that I have the tact for it, what do you say we have a little discussion on it?


For context’s sake, it goes something like this: Kung Jin heads to a Shaolin temple to steal an artifact -- which is pretty normal for a thief on the ropes.  Raiden intercepts him, and after a brief fight the elder god tells Jin to join the Shaolin monks, like series mainstay Kung Lao.  Jin’s not very receptive of the idea and voices his concerns -- fears that he won’t be accepted.  Raiden’s response?  “They only care what your heart desires, not whom it desires.”

That’s pretty much the only line that tells us Jin’s orientation -- and to be honest, it went over my head.  (And others’ heads as well, which makes me feel like less of an idiot.)  I mean, the events of that chapter are less about “whom his heart desires” and more about Jin’s relationship with thievery.  When he talks to Raiden, it’s in the middle of a flashback; the events in the present have him stopping an execution to save a thief, even if it means jeopardizing the mission and risking a breakdown of interdimensional relations.  I think it makes more sense to read the line that way, but I can understand why the devs did it the way they did. 

So what’s the problem, then?


Kung Jin’s sexuality doesn’t have much of a bearing on the story or the canon at large.  It’s pretty much just a detail (though I acknowledge that there are subtleties worth appreciating).  My biggest takeaway from the character is that he’s a cocky asshole who puts his team in dire straits on more than one occasion, because…well, he’s a cocky asshole.  And a stupid one, arguably -- always a winning combination.  Beyond that, MKX has no time or concern for relationships besides the “this male character and this female character are in love with each other after one conversation” bit from every bad action movie ever.  It’s very much about the Special Forces coming together to fight demonic invaders, sorcerers, and evil gods.

All things considered, Jin’s sexuality is pretty much nothing but a minor detail.  But the question is: should it be a minor detail?

If nothing else, no one can accuse MKX’s story of being a slog; it moves pretty rapidly from one fight and one scene to another fighting scene and another scenic fight.  Is the story weaker for not taking time out to have Jin confess to his comrades that he’s got a certain set of tastes?  No.  If anything, you could argue that doing it would have the opposite effect.  “Yeah, there’s some evil god about to break out of his prison and wreak havoc on reality itself, but first?  Let’s talk about who’s got a crush on who.”



So on one hand, the guys at NetherRealm did the right thing by not making it a big part of the story or making it the sole defining trait of Kung Jin…buuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuut this whole situation leaves a bad taste in my mouth.  The story as-is leaves no room for relationships or deeper characterizations, but that begs the question of why the story had to play out that way in the first place.  The first two BlazBlue games are a good example; instead of cramming everyone into one story and hoping for the best, you could just play as the characters you wanted to play, and take them through individual, personal stories.  If you want to learn more about Hakumen, all you have to do is load up the right cutscene.  If you want to learn more about Kung Jin?  I dunno.  Buy the comic, maybe?  Scour the wiki?

Speaking pragmatically, it’s a missed opportunity.  If you have an aspect for a character, then make use of that aspect.  Get the most out of it, instead of doing nothing.  And sure, the revelation of Jin’s sexuality puts bits of his character and history in a different light, but seeing even a little bit more of that in the story proper might have done wonders.  The idea that homosexuality has to be either hidden or set to full blast with nothing in between is kind of a problem, I think.


But based on the reactions I’ve seen?  As usual, there’s no right answer.  Both sides have their strong points.  Speaking personally, I can see the appeal of both -- and of course, I’d like to think that we can live in a world where fictional characters (let alone those that bash the skulls of ice-spewing ninjas) are allowed to express every facet of themselves if/when they feel comfortable with it.  On top of that, a sufficiently-skilled creator should be able to put out whatever characters they want; as I’ve said before, it’s all about giving people something they never knew they wanted, not just giving them what they want ad nauseum.  Are some people going to have negative reactions to a homosexual character?  Yeah, unfortunately.  But here’s the thing: some people will lash out, but not all people.  Doing it for them is worth the risk -- not to mention doing it for people who would adore seeing it in a big production.

That said, there’s something related to this situation that’s been on my mind for a while.  Yes, we should be at a point in the world of fiction -- in every medium in every place -- where having a character representative of ANY classification is normal.  But right now?  I wonder if drawing attention to deviations is the right choice.  In the case of MKX, it was a reveal made in response to questioning on Twitter (the most enlightened platform and forum for discussion); not too long ago, it seemed as if Blizzard patted itself on the back for having a female character in Overwatch that defied the usual 36-24-36 proportions you see in video game ladies.  That storm has already passed, but for me?  I legitimately wondered if that was something worth celebrating.


Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying that it’s a bad thing; again, we should be at a point where reasonably-minded creators can put out anything without fear of backlash (and on top of that, they should be able to follow their creative vision without suited overlords shutting them down).  And diversity is an issue that can be tackled in any number of ways in any number of places.  My go-to example is the world of computer animated movies; Monsters vs. Aliens has the majority of its male cast as either unrepentant caricatures or puke-inducing creatures, while its key female character is (size aside) just thin with a slightly-larger head and eyes.  Imposing limits does a disservice to characters and products alike, and that’s where lines can get crossed pretty easily.

But the counter to that -- to Kung Jin’s sexuality and Zarya’s body diversity -- is twofold.  First off, if you’re going to have characters that are outside the comfort zone (yours or anyone else’s), then you’d damn well better make sure you do a good job of it.  When it comes to Kung Jin, it feels like I’m left wanting, and his orientation is only a covert layer instead of an overt one.  It’s treated like a detail, and has so little impact on the story that those who say “it doesn’t matter” have every right to argue as much.  (Plus, even if he’s MK’s first gay character, he’s FAR from the first in the genre.)  Meanwhile, Zarya may be “striking a blow” for female characters, but as others pointed out, Blizzard just subbed in one stereotype for another -- to say nothing of the fact that Overwatch still has no shortage of unreasonably-beautiful women

Well, baby steps, I suppose.  It could’ve been a hell of a lot worse.


But here’s the thing I keep coming back to: should you announce that your character is different from what’s expected?  Is it a good idea to reveal that this character is gay, or that character is heavyset?  Well, the latter’s easier to spot than the former, but the point stands.  Handled poorly -- especially in the context of the gaming medium, where there are strained relations between developers, journalists, and players -- it could just seem like a cheap attempt to be progressive…and on top of that, failing to do anything meaningful or respectful besides just throwing something out and waiting for success.  And beyond that?  How is diversity supposed to be treated as normal when trumpeting “THIS CHARACTER IS DIFFERENT!” is anything but?

To be fair, it’s not as if NetherRealm or Blizzard went that far.  (In the former’s case, I just figured that it got dragged out and the media went wild with it.)  But still, you can’t help but wonder what the proper decorum is for something like this -- and no, I’m not just talking about ousts or revelations or announcements or any of that stuff.  I honestly think that (correcting for bigotry and small-mindedness) if Kung Jin was a better character in MKX, there wouldn’t be as big a problem.  But as I said, he’s a cocky asshole in a franchise and medium and cultural climate that isn’t wanting for cocky assholes -- least of all one who nearly gets his team killed on multiple occasions.  Would incorporating his orientation to the story more overtly make him better?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  But the bigger question is just how you’re supposed to handle that double act.


I mean, just imagine the thought process that has to go on.  So you’ve made your character gay.  All right, so what next?  Well, obviously, you have to make that homosexuality relevant to the story.  Except you shouldn’t do that, because it’s dangerously close to being an insult to a category of people who just want to live freely.  But you should kinda do that, right?  If not for representation’s sake, then at least to get a little more out of your character?  NO, YOU IDIOT!  In fact, don’t even mention it!  Let people come to their own conclusions and do your own thing!  But don’t be afraid to announce it if prompted!  Except you won’t have to do that, because you never did it in the first place for fear of screwing up…only you did it anyway, because you believe in diversity for the sake of good stories and identifiable characters.

Brilliant!

If it seems like I’m projecting a little, it’s because I am (by which I mean I’m projecting a lot).  Part of the reason I made this post isn’t just because there’s no right answer; it’s because I don’t have a right answer, and it’s an issue I might have to deal with someday.  I can think of several of my imagined characters who are of a different persuasion right now.  It’s too early to say for sure, but if I had to guess?  Their preferences are going to play a part -- for some characters more than others, granted, but it’s an issue I’ve got to tackle at some point.  Preferably with a bit of class.


Oh God, no.  Not like that.

I doubt that the guys behind Kung Jin expected the controversy that’s popped up or the debates over a facet that should be accepted in a matter of seconds.  I know it’s easy to assume the worst of gamers -- the potential audience for MKX well among them -- but not all of us are a bunch of screeching ninnies.  Even so, it’s a real eye-opener to what even the best of intentions can bring about.  They handled Kung Jin as best they could, and for what it’s worth?  The fact that they even have something to show off besides lovingly-rendered guts is worth some serious praise.

But what lessons can be learned?  What can you take from this?  What can I take from this?  Well, if the gaming culture and the internet that feeds it is any indication, we’ll be having a conversation like this in the next three months (E3 is coming up, after all).  But my personal stance is this: if I’m you’re going to do something unexpected with a character, go all in.  Be able to own up to it by pushing a character that’s worth it on multiple levels -- not just because of detail X or quality Y.  Kung Jin isn’t defined solely by his orientation, which is good; unfortunately, he’s not defined by much else.  That’s a problem.  And it’s a solution that can be overcome with both skill and savvy.

And that’s about all I’m going to say on that.  Now to go back to shitting all over Final Fantasy.      


Oh, you’ll get yours.

7 comments:

  1. What's the difference between MK9 and MKX? They look the same.

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  2. Good question! I'll tell you as soon as I figure it out!


    Seriously, though? If there's one thing MKX has on 9, it's that they made the models REALLY shiny this time. When there's rain on them, they're practically glowing. Like they're so bright it's distracting. Guess that's the power of next-gen, eh?


    Gameplay-wise? I haven't played it enough to pick up on the differences -- but I suppose that ultimately, it feels like a better fighter. It's still WAY behind other fighting games (Under-Night in Birth is kinda-sorta amazing, IMO), but the gap's closing a little bit...assuming that you can handle a block button. And as of MKX, a run mechanic that eats up stamina.


    Because...I don't know. NetherRealm wanted to be special, I guess.

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  3. The main difference is the three 'modes' for each character, Sort of like 'Slash' and 'Bust' from Samurai Showdown. It's looks pointless at a distance, but it basically rolls the differences between Ryu / Ken / Akuma into one character. ...except this is coming from a franchise where it's roots are pallet swap ninja 1-20.

    This is actually a feature I hope Street Fighter steals mercilessly. Street fighter 3 and 4 sort of do it when they force you to pick a super, but MKX actually switches up the moves with new properties (like custom moves in Smash 4)

    Otherwise, yeah. It's just MK9 with prettier textures.

    As for the 'gay' character? This is just them trying too hard. I tend to groan at fighting gaes that take their story modes entirely too seriously. KOF, Guilty Gear, Blaz Blue... I'm looking at you.

    In the same game Johnny Cage can rip open his daughter's chest and make a Jack Nicholson joke. What ever happened to real fighting game depth, where fights had context. When two characters that knew / loved / each other, they showed it in their opening sequence and sometimes even had a special ending fight sequence.

    Would the fan boys would have been pissed that Good aligned characters can't fatality other good aligned characters? Maybe. But it would have also impressed perople who dismiss the lack of 'real' depth.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CwLDdrirAjo

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  4. So the different styles is the difference. Hmm. I'm still not sold, then again, I haven't been sold on MK in a really long time. I just think that after 4 months of everyone watching all the fatalities and X-Ray moves, they'll just move on and no one will really talk about it.


    I'm actually afraid this is what Street Fighter V is going to be like, because just by looking at the little that has been released, aside from the weird "modes" the characters can go into, it looks too similar to SF IV.


    I never really felt like story really mattered in a fighting game so JC killing his daughter doesn't really bug me.

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  5. Oh right, the MKX variants. Forgot about those. I haven't messed around with enough characters or enough variations to know the differences in and out (I'm an MK noob, so right now I'm mostly sticking with learning the basics via Jax/Raiden). But it looks promising. Honestly, I'm surprised more fighting games don't do that.

    Anyway. Kung Jin. I'm still kind of torn on the situation, but you have a point. NetherRealm may have had good intentions, but the way they played it (i.e. barely at all), I can understand why anybody would call them out for being too try-hard. Go big or go home -- and apparently, they opted to go home. Like run there at top speed or something.

    I'll play devil's advocate and say that MKX's story was better than I thought it would be, but that's not saying very much. I remember being surprised and entertained by Injustice's story, and expected something as good from MKX. I didn't get that -- well, except for an early bit with Johnny Cage freaking out at the sight of a severed head, but it's a real step down overall. Could it be the curse of the eighth generation? Who knows?

    Also, say what you will about Guilty Gear's story, but its games still had some sick intros. Accent Core has Ky cutting Sol's giant screw-you fireball in half, just 'cause -- which makes the ABSENCE of those intros in Xrd all the more grating, but whatever. I can't stay mad at a game with a Heavenly Potemkin Buster...IN THREEEEEEEEEEEEEEE-DEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3DxQYIAWxXE

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  6. Exactly. Fighting games don't need plot. They just need a vague backdrop to inspire a series of "What if" situations and a colorful enough cast to lure people to other media. Want the 'gripping' story of MK? Buy a comic book about it.

    No one respects MK's story, because Netherealm Studio doesn't. There's not even the basest form of consistency. Which is the one thing fighting games can get right. Everything that matters about a fighting game's story can be summed up in a relationship chart.

    Would the fan boys get pissed if Johnny Cage refused to fatality his daughter, ex-wife, or military bud? Probably. But it would be a step in the right direction in terms of 'story'. Specific win quotes / openings is the greatest depth a fighting game can have really, and NRS fails hard on that (Compared to SF / Marvel Vs Games / and King of Fighters)

    http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Funny/MarvelVsCapcom3

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  7. I don't think they don't respect it, otherwise, they wouldn't have put the time into what they have. MK story actually has work put into it. But the main thing about fighting games is the gameplay. Fighting games don't need a story, it needs to play well.

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