From the outside, Chicago's NetherRealm Studios could be anything; a doctor's office, a call center or maybe a warehouse. Before it was home to the team behind the Mortal Kombat franchise, producer Shawn Himmerick says their section of the low-slung white office complex used to be a bank.
The building is especially prized by NetherRealm's audio team because, as it turns out, the back is where the bank's vault used to be. And not just any vault, but one big enough to drive a tractor trailer truck into.
The virtually soundproof wing is especially useful for the very specific work NetherRealm's audio team is tasked with — creating the sounds for the most over-the-top, flamboyantly disgusting death scenes in gaming.
For more than 20 years the Mortal Kombat franchise has been known for its fatalities, its brutalities and the buckets of blood it spills across every match. But over the decades the shock value has worn off. It's up to every member of the team, including the sound engineers, to make their next effort — Mortal Kombat X — the most gruesome version of the game yet.
To some, Mortal Kombat's gore has become a kind of quaint anachronism, a throwback to a simpler time when the industry was young and fearless. Largely clear of the moral panic of the past, NetherRealm's challenge today is to cater to two audiences. One, a relatively small, hardcore community of tournament players who have grown up with the game. The other, relapsed fans with fond memories of slapping down quarters in the early 1990s arcades.
By serving those two audiences the very best Mortal Kombat game possible, NetherRealm wants to breathe life into their franchise, and make it more relevant than ever for a new generation of players.
To do it right, they had to start from scratch.
Deep inside NetherRealm's audio wing, far from the noise of the QA team's pit and the musky grunts of the giant motion capture room, is a tiny foley booth.
If no one told you what it was for, you'd think it was a storage closet. On the day of Polygon's visit it contains, among other things, a plunger, a plastic mixing bowl, two pairs of rubber boots, a stack of carpet remnants, three chunks of asphalt and a brass fireplace poker set.
The only thing missing, Himmerick said, was some fresh vegetables for that crisp, wet snapping sound.
"We used to have the punching bag in there," he said. "Now they hit other things."
Seems the only way to mix up the right combination of bone-crunching, flesh-rending effects needed for a Mortal Kombat game is to do it the old fashioned way. Good foley work is as old as Hollywood itself, and Mortal Kombat seems to spend more time on it than most other modern games studios. But sound design isn't the only thing NetherRealms, part of Warner Bros., went back to the drawing board for this time around.
MKX will be the first Mortal Kombat title on the newest generation of consoles. This game, they say, will look and feel better than ever.
"There’s just a lot of things graphically that we can do, and tech things that we can do with the gore system that we weren’t able to do in the past," lead game designer John Edwards told Polygon. "We can punch holes in pretty much any part of the body that we want to. The tech has allowed us to do a bunch of crazy stuff that we’ve never been able to do before."
That crazy stuff includes crushing a man's testicles in slow motion, having lasers blast a hole through someone's head, and using various sharp objects to decapitate, eviscerate and in one instance cleave an entire human figure from stem to stern.
But it's all done, Edwards says, with Mortal Kombat's characteristically playful style.
"We like to keep everything a little on the tongue in cheek side," he said. "We don’t try to get the gore to be too realistic. We always want people to do a fatality and at first you’re just like wow, that’s gross.
"But then you laugh about it after, because it’s so ridiculous. I mean, pulling the guy’s organs out? That’s not something that’s realistic violence, right? It looks realistic, just graphically because of the power of the new consoles, but it’s still very tongue in cheek and kind of fantastical."
Variations on a theme
New for Mortal Kombat X is the variations system, ways of tweaking the capabilities of characters in unique ways. It's a concept that 2004's Mortal Kombat: Deception toyed with in the past, but nowhere near as elegantly. Every one of the 14 characters we were shown during the studio visit had three unique variations. While the majority of the moveset between variations of the same character was the same, each variation had unique capabilities that colored the way they fought.
Take the classic character Scorpion for example. In MKX the demonic fighter has a "Ninjutsu" variation, which gives him the mid-range ability to wield dual swords, while his "Hellfire" variation adds a long-range fire ball to his arsenal. Finally, the "Inferno" variant allows him to summon a "demonic minion" to fight alongside him.
"The variation system adds a lot of cool competitive stuff to the game," Edwards said. Say that you allow your opponent to pick their character first. After they've made their selection, "you can counter-pick different variations."
Every character we were shown will have three unique variations.
Fighting games aren't easy of course, and different players have different styles of fighting they are more comfortable with than others. Sometimes, Edwards said, that gated off certain sections of the game. Players might never get the hang of Sub Zero because they can't use the character to its fullest potential.
But Sub Zero is fun to play, Edwards said. Variations help make him more accessible.
"I think one of its big benefits is that if you like Sub Zero just because you like Sub Zero for whatever reason, but you don’t like playing defensively, then he has a variation that might make him more offensive, or more of a grappler. ... I think that is one of the things that opens this game up in comparison to past games; it’s a big, core feature that changes the way the game plays from any previous Mortal Kombat game we’ve done."
Lifting the veil
The fighting game community, such as it is, will inevitably make a home for Mortal Kombat X within its tournament structure. Perhaps more important for the health of the franchise as a whole is the breadth of its audience.
To be successful, the game has to be played by as many people as possible. To that end, NetherRealm is designing the game for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, but also for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.
But that's not all. MKX also has a free-to-play mobile component as well as a persistent online meta-game called Faction Wars. It's hitting all the industry buzzwords right now, casting its net as wide as possible and trying to be "sticky" with players. Combined with the game's historical use of unlockable characters and skins, NetherRealm is hoping to provide a dense and compelling player experience for every skill level.
In order to help with that, the team is also lifting the veil on how fighting games work under the hood.
Press the pause button, access the move list and, there on the right side of the screen is a dataset that looks straight out of an MMO. For the first time in a Mortal Kombat game the raw data, like frame counts and relative attack strength, of each and every move in the game is there for players to peruse.
Edwards says that the team hopes this level of detail will spark an interest in more casual players to learn more.
"We started it in Injustice: Gods Among Us, our previous title," Edwards said. "It was one of those things where you always had to buy a strategy guide or something like that to get that information, and then of course as we change the game and update it that information becomes old and stale and now it’s not accurate anymore.
"Fighting games are traditionally a hard genre to kind of wrap your head around because the only way to really get good is to just to play against people that are better than you, and it’s very easy to get frustrated if you’re just constantly getting beat without any sort of avenue to figure out why that is. And so the frame data charts inside the move list is one of those things where we’re trying to help bridge that gap in between teaching people to become better."
It belongs in a museum
There in the center of NetherRealm, along the main drag between the front door and the presentation room, is a collection of Mortal Kombat artifacts.
Goro's animatronic head from the 1995 movie sits opposite the original Raiden costume from the very first Mortal Kombat game. Maquettes used to animate the game's more exotic creatures, like Sheeva, are kept under glass, each posed one last time before joining the permanent collection here in Chicago.
Two banks of shelves hold a collection of boxed Mortal Kombat games, including a dog-eared copy for the Sega Genesis that looks like it's been kicked around a retail store since its release in 1993. There's elaborate fighting sticks, pre-order pack-ins, sculptures and action figures of every type.
On the day Polygon visited one of the guests, another journalist, reached out to pick up one of the pieces. Producer Himmerick visibly flinched, began to reach out to stop them, then stopped short. But he was just being polite.
One thing that everyone at NetherRealm has is respect, almost reverence for the franchise. That extends to this display.
Now that the actors and martial artists who originally performed the characters are too old to reprise their roles, their work lives on here in NetherRealm's in-house museum. There's so many artifacts in the collection, Himmerick says, they have to keep much of it in storage.
But the history at NetherRealm goes beyond physical objects, Edwards says.
There is priceless institutional knowledge about the game's universe sitting in the next cubicle every single day.
"Every once in a while we’ll get an email blast," he said, "that says, 'Congratulations to so-and-so for 25 years.' That’s actually crazy. There’s probably not many game franchises where there’s people that have worked solely on this one title for their whole careers.
"Being able to always draw on that experience is super helpful. But then we also bring in new blood, like myself and some of the other guys that haven’t worked on Mortal Kombat since the very beginning. So we have a very good mix."
This team, with remnants of the old crew from Midway who worked on the original title, is where Mortal Kombat came from. And that's where it still lives.
Soon a new title will be placed on the shelf here in their museum, and it will be up to the fans, old and new alike, to decide if it is a worthy successor.
Watch the first 30 minutes of Mortal Kombat X below.
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