[cw suicide, gore, bodily integrity]
This is not a kompetition, this is Mortal Kombat. The past does not matter, who you are, who you were, what may have happened to you — all these things are moot, equally valid, equally important. This is because they brought you here, and here is where your destiny is chosen, by you and you alone, for no-one else can choose it. Kombat exists to decide, the mortality of it is a façade, a veneer that presents the truth. What is decided is what is, but it is not what has to be. The paradox of life is that in living we destroy the possibilities that life once held, but in so doing we also provide ourselves with a path that is truly our own. To choose is to create and destroy at once.
Fighting games make no sense, and Mortal Kombat makes an art out of making no sense. They have stories, but the stories by necessity contradict themselves, because anyone on the roster can prevail. And yet, they only prevail for the few moments of victory before the reset. Every character is a constant Schrodinger’s cat, running a Mobius strip as they remain alive and dead, victorious and defeated. As a hundred thousand players play a hundred thousand games the waveform collapses constantly, a narrative flickering into and out of existence in a frantic strobing. Sonya Blade and Johnny Cage meet, marry, divorce, rekindle the flame and tear each others bodies apart in hot splashes of gore all at once, overlaid into a miasma of meaninglessness. There is no eternal sunshine because this is not the collapse of memory but a frantic proliferation of futures — too fast to pick and hold on to the one we wanted.
The death urge is what drives the hero, that they do not die is what makes them heroic. There are no heroes in Mortal Kombat, as in life, because everyone dies sooner or later, spine ripped from their body whilst they continue, improbably, to scream. The hero strives towards death — towards a meaningful end of a body that is designed for endings. I have spent my own life running from death, towards a cowardly body made politic by the use of itself within the slow grind of progress rather than the annihilation of ideology. It is ironic that I have been suicidal for much of my life, the ideation a background of bloody hallucinations and the push of a family history of self-sought deaths. But suicide is not the hero’s aim, his death urge is forward looking, whilst mine is reflexive. I do not wish to die, but my body desires to end. When that desire emerges to the surface of my being that is no-one else’s fault.
The sacred space within the kombat is one in which the body is inviolable. A messy, hallucinatory, bloody phantasm. It is the truest representation I have of my own mind, my own self-image, which is a constant overlay of my own body with deadly wounds on wrist and neck and the blood that pours forth from them. In Mortal Kombat characters suffer wounds that would kill, spray more blood than could possibly belong inside them, and remain intact. Through X-Ray shots we see their bones snap and shatter, we see blades slice clean through jugulars and stomachs, and bullets tear impossible holes. And then we snap back from the slow motion, from the special move animation, and the character stands up once again, bloodied but whole. I blink and the hallucination clears. My wrists are not severed and the blood does not drench my arms.
Returning in Mortal Kombat 11, Skarlet is the epitome of the game, its apotheosis — far more so than the tired lovers/rivals Scorpion and Sub Zero. The eternally warring ninjas are the base of the game, they represent its starting point as short and bloody bouts of macho violence, but Skarlet is the logical conclusion of the baroque blood opera of the later games. She extracts the blood from her opponents’ bodies, fashions it into weaponry with which to impale and lacerate them and yet leaves them fully intact at the end of it.
Skarlet defies the body as an object owned by the inhabitant of that body, whilst simultaneously having no lasting control of that body, leaving no trace. Blood has long been politicised, a repository of power, nationality and belonging. Blood is the medium of information flow through our bodies, it tells the rest of our body who we are. When we share blood we become brothers, but when we steal the blood of others we turn them into monsters. Skarlet defiles her opponents, but leaves no trace upon them of that defilement.
In the new digitised world of surveillance capitalism, it is the information about us, splashing free invisibly from everything that we do in the connected spaces that we inhabit, that becomes a currency by which we are sold. We are bought and sold a thousand times over daily but we never feel the loss, because the blood of information that flows from our digital selves is never subtracted from the core of our beings. We remain intact as we are drained. Skarlet is the information capitalist expressed in mystical terms, invading the magical space of the game with her ugly political symbolism. Like the vampire has always done, she takes the safety of a story and infects it with the bloody reckoning of territorial integrity. The body as synecdoche for the idealised state; an expression for the yearning that where we live can be as contained as the flesh that we live in.
And yet, our flesh cannot contain us. It will inevitably fail, but only after the formality of defeat. The final words must be spoken; ‘Finish Him’. Only then does the transgression of skin and muscle become real. Only then does the decision take root and effect a change. The binary between life and death, in and out, win and lose, is reimposed as the game comes to an end and there is no more space for experimentation with who we are and what we want and what we mean. We choose the final blow to take and in doing so create a future for ourselves — an act of creation within the confines of a simulacrum of death. A celebration of possibility.
And then the reset.