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.
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.