Finishing Move

I stumbled upon this earlier today. A student in one of my classes used Mortal Kombat as one of several examples of how shock sells, the others being 50 Shades of Grey and Miley Cyrus. The discussion began with a video clip of John Waters talking about his artistic principles, which he claims he arrived at after showing his friends a Miro print as an eight year old. “Good art,” he says, “provokes and inspires.”

“So where do you draw the line?” I asked the class. “Is it a matter of intelligence and intent that separates Waters from E.L. James and Mortal Kombat?”

By the time class ended, the consensus seemed to be yes. 50 Shades, folks seemed to think, was poorly written, and Mortal Kombat stopped being controversial twenty years ago. For the simple reason that Waters explained his intent and seemed to have a vision about what he was trying to accomplish, he could safely be considered an artist. Expression and purpose, it was decided, are what characterize art.

When I was thirteen years old, I bought MKII on “Mortal Tuesday.” Rather, my dad bought it for me because it had to be purchased by someone 17 and older. I had played the game in arcades and was roundly defeated each time by older kids, but at home I defeated final boss Shao Khan with every playable character.

When I watched the trailer for Mortal Kombat X I laughed. It is absurdly violent. 0:41 through 1:03 contains more blood and crunching than a meat grinder, and I immediately pictured a fanboy, my thirteen year old self, soaking it up. At some point only a couple of years later, that kid would realize that characters were more than just costumes and special moves, but I can still hear what he would shout from the streets: “AWESOME!”

‘Stupid,’ I thought. But here I am writing about it. The game is fundamentally the same one I played twenty years ago, yet there is no spectacle surrounding it, no blanket marketing campaign, at least not on the sites or channels I visit. The game still relies on simple strategy and memorization, and you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who would call it ‘art,’ but somewhere in the dim basement of my consciousness it lingers, like traces of mold, the spores floating up between the cracks of upstairs floorboards, pieces of my past self.

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