MK cocreator and NetherRealm creative director Ed Boon Credit: Andrea Bauer

In the new installment of the Mortal Kombat video game franchise, produced by Chicago’s NetherRealm Studios, the signature “fatality” of a hooded green-eyed ninja named Ermac is an act of medieval torture as imagined by Tolkien. With a few waves of his hand, he levitates a doomed opponent, telekinetically twisting his victim’s limp body until his spine audibly snaps. As the game zooms in for a closer look, Ermac eviscerates his rival—stomach, intestines, and all are ripped out of the helpless character’s mouth. The organs spiral through the air, and Ermac finishes the sadistic spectacle by making a fist, a motion that sends the ball of guts plummeting to the ground, where it lands with a sickening thud.

A 20-second preview of this grotesquerie, posted on YouTube in the middle of last month, has already racked up more than 850,000 views and hundreds of glowing reviews from gamers eagerly anticipating the April 14 release of Mortal Kombat X, the tenth and arguably the most brutal entry in a series whose graphic violence has been its calling card since Midway Games’ Chicago studio debuted Mortal Kombat in 1992.

“Well done Netherrealm,” says one of the video’s top comments. “I don’t get queasy often, but that turned my stomach a little.”

The mix of revulsion and amusement pleases Jonathan Edwards, Mortal Kombat X’s lead designer and the man who conceived the disemboweling scene. “I remember sitting in the pitch meeting for it. People were like, ‘That’s hilarious and disgusting.’ So yeah—it sailed right through,” the 39-year-old says with a laugh. “Now a lot of people on the Internet have latched on to that one as the grossest thing they’ve ever seen. I’m pretty proud of it.”

Edwards and his colleagues at NetherRealm, which formed in 2009 in the wake of Midway Games’ bankruptcy, have reason to be in high spirits these days: It’s been 23 years and a number of sequels and spin-offs since the first Mortal Kombat became a quarter-consuming hit in arcades, and gamers still haven’t tired of virtually pummeling each other into a bloody pulp with longtime characters like Raiden and Liu Kang. And early hype suggests Mortal Kombat X, developed for high-powered home consoles from Microsoft and Sony, could surpass the five million copies that the 2011 reboot sold.

“When we made the first game, we never thought we’d be making the second, let alone ten of them,” says MK cocreator and NetherRealm creative director Ed Boon, seated in a gaming lounge inside the company’s Avondale headquarters during a mid-March media showcase for Mortal Kombat X.

The public face of Mortal Kombat, Boon has dark hair, thick eyebrows, and an impish smile. At 51, he still manages to exude a boyish enthusiasm for video games. “Every game managed to strike a chord with a certain percentage of players,” Boon says of the series that has been his bread and butter for more than two decades. But “who would guess that 20 years later we’d still be here?”

For others, NetherRealm has hit a nerve with Mortal Kombat X game-play clips posted in the run-up to the title’s release. The game’s depictions of extreme violence have greatly increased in both severity and clarity since the 90s, and some video game critics say its brand of high-def carnage has finally gone too far.

“I’ve looked up some of the videos on YouTube and have been pretty grossed out,” says Jamie Madigan, a contributor to Psychology Today who blogs about video games. “It seems like they are in a constant game of one-upsmanship with themselves to be more violent.”

Gawker Media’s tech blog Gizmodo published a post headlined “Watching All The Gory Fatalities In Mortal Kombat X Destroyed My Eyes.” The piece took the form of a warning: “Don’t watch this video if you get queasy by pixel created blood and hyperrealistic video game gore. Because good lord the Fatalities in Mortal Kombat X are downright disgusting to see,” Gizmodo’s Casey Chan wrote. “I legitimately got grossed out at some of these and turned numb after a while.”

“Problem is,” one commenter responded, “you just know that some idiot parent is going to buy this for their 10 year old Timmy and then complain its too violent.”

This reaction, a sort of public wincing, is all too familiar to the makers of Mortal Kombat.

Back in 1991, when two twentysomethings—programmer Boon, a University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign graduate, and graphic artist John Tobias—cobbled together the first Mortal Kombat for Midway in eight short months, no one had a hunch the game was about to change the industry and stir a decency debate at the highest levels of government. But the first time masked ninja Scorpion threw a spear into an opponent’s chest and bellowed “Get over here!,” MK dragged video games kicking and screaming into a bloodier, more adult era. Its grindhouse vision of stylized kung fu, complete with explicit executions rendered with digitized photographs to enhance their realism, instantly attracted adolescent gamers, especially angsty teenagers drawn by its reputation as taboo.

A teen himself when the original MK hit arcades, Edwards recalls that he and his high school friends were immediately obsessed. “I was breaking [the game] down to an obscene level,” he says. “I started getting into the mechanics of it, like a game of chess, and started writing strategy guides. That became my passion.”

A string of sequels, two full-length feature movies, a TV series, comic books, even a live stage show tour followed, but Mortal Kombat’s commercial success also made it a cultural lightning rod. Concerned parents’ groups spoke out against the game’s gore and potential effects on children, and politicians on both the right and the left piled on. Led by Connecticut senator Joe Lieberman, the U.S. Senate in late 1993 conducted hearings on game violence; by July ’94 a group of major video game developers and publishers launched the Entertainment Software Rating Board, a self-regulatory body. One of the nascent board’s first acts was to assign Mortal Kombat a “Mature” rating, allowing retailers to restrict sale or rental to anyone under the age of 17.

Boon and the rest of Mortal Kombat’s makers have done their best over the years to insulate themselves and their studio from blowback. Having fielded questions for decades about the gory nature of his games—”Are the young video-game programmers at Midway Manufacturing responsible for the decay of American civilization?” the Reader asked back in 1994—Boon responds like a seasoned diplomat, saying he’s always supported the rating system. “One day games were just pixels and it was just Mario running around and it wasn’t an issue,” he says. “With the industry maturing and video games becoming more and more sophisticated, [the games] evolved into something [where] that was needed. Just like a Martin Scorsese film is an R-rated film, with M-rated games, the intention is to design it for someone who has matured, so to speak, not a young, impressionable person.”

The Mortal Kombat moral panic died down as the popularity of one-on-one fighting games and arcades declined in the late 90s and early aughts. Midway, which had leaned on the series as its cash cow, filed for bankruptcy in early 2009 and began to dismantle. It looked like Mortal Kombat might itself be a fatality of the industry-wide downturn when a life raft was thrown its way in the form of a deal with Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, which bought the intellectual property from Midway and preserved Boon’s development team. In 2010, WB moved the team blocks away to a new office near California and Addison. Boon and company assumed the name NetherRealm Studios—a reference to arcane MK lore; in the series, the Netherrealm is the shadowy place where the souls of those who have committed major crimes undergo perpetual torture. Thus for Mortal Kombat’s creators, the new moniker serves as an inside joke: work is hell.

Ermac finishes off Raiden in Mortal Kombat X. The brutal "fatalities" in the new title have some gamers and critics wondering if Chicago-based NetherRealm Studios has finally gone too far.
Ermac finishes off Raiden in Mortal Kombat X. The brutal “fatalities” in the new title have some gamers and critics wondering if Chicago-based NetherRealm Studios has finally gone too far.Credit: Courtesy Netherrealm

The 40,000-square-foot building where some 120 NetherRealm employees go to work was once a bank. The former vault is now a soundproof sound studio where Mortal Kombat’s audio engineers record vegetables being snapped in two (to simulate the sound of skulls being crushed) and Nickelodeonesque green slime being sloshed with a plunger (to approximate the noise of a disembowelment). Just down the hall is a motion-capture studio where actors and martial artists are filmed performing stunts that will be digitally inserted into the game. All the blood, of course, is added later.

Boon once had a hand in nearly every step in the game production process, from creating new characters (he came up with the lizard-skinned Reptile while eating lunch one day at a KFC near the office) to voice acting. “In the first game,” he says, “I was the voice of Liu Kang and Scorpion and others just because there was no one else around in front of the microphone acting like a fool.”

These days Boon serves more as MK’s maestro. “This used to be much more of a garage-band type of production,” he says, “whereas now we have union actors and a cast, composers and musicians, so it’s much more of a sophisticated presentation.”

Boon’s old partner Tobias and a few other key members of the early Mortal Kombat teams left Midway in the early aughts, but a core group of a half-dozen longtime employees, including Boon’s brother Mike, still contributes to the series. Lead combat designer Paulo Garcia, a member of the MK team since 1997, is a relative newbie, having worked his way up from the quality assurance department, where he started at age 17.

“Midway used to consist of five or six different teams working on different games, one island among a few,” says a former Midway staffer who did not want to be identified by name in connection with a previous employer. “Now it’s just one big island over there.”

Despite being positioned to compete in the current market of big-budget video games, NetherRealm’s HQ has a frozen-in-amber quality. Much of the facility resembles most other modern game-development studios—bearded men in dark hoodies each staring into multiple monitors as they toil away on photo-realistic graphics—but there are also distinct top notes of nostalgia for Mortal Kombat’s 90s heyday. Shelves affixed to the walls of the main hall are lined with memorabilia—MK action figures, comic books, costumes. One of the most prized items in the collection is the fleshy animatronic head of Goro, a villain from the 1995 feature, which sits under protective glass. Attached to the company lunchroom is Goro’s Lair, a detailed re-creation of a 90s arcade right down to the garish red patterned carpet that recalls the type once used to line the floors of many a musty video game emporium.

Like NetherRealm’s offices, Mortal Kombat X straddles a line between modern-day relevance and wistfulness for the glory days. The franchise’s early titles lacked options—you simply picked one of a handful of martial artists or monsters and mashed buttons to battle an opponent to the death. MKX features a companion mobile app for play on iPhones and iPads, the capacity to compete against friends and strangers online, and a lengthy story complete with two hours of dialogue-heavy cinematic sequences to watch between fights. (That’s more footage than there was in the entire ’95 Mortal Kombat film, which has a running time of 102 minutes).

MKX is set 25 years after the events of the series’ 2011 reboot—and some of the recurring characters, including cocky action star Johnny Cage, have noticeably aged, not unlike MK’s creators. There are also so-called Kombat Kids, descendants of the series’ well-known characters. Cassie Cage, dressed in a skintight military uniform, is the daughter of Johnny and female soldier Sonya Blade. Cassie has apparently inherited her parents’ penchant for theatrical violence: in her fatality, she shoots her downed opponent in the forehead, then trots over to stick a chewed piece of bubble gum in the wound. The victim’s gushing blood causes a bubble to inflate and pop—adding a dash of juvenile gross-out humor that, through the years, has been another MK trademark.

The campy pixelated gore of early Mortal Kombat games now looks rather quaint compared to the 2015 version. Video game technology has more or less followed Moore’s law, Intel Corporation cofounder Gordon E. Moore’s observation that computer processing power doubles every two years. The Xbox One and PlayStation 4 gaming consoles are capable of producing moving images of remarkable detail. This means that no matter how outlandish the premise of a fatality is in Mortal Kombat X, the brutality is incredibly lifelike. The character Sub-Zero, for example, freezes his opponent and then reaches into his rival’s torso to shatter the person’s icy liver. Sometimes the game switches to an x-ray view of the action (a feature introduced in the game’s previous installment) so players can see the damage inflicted on a rival’s skeleton and internal organs. Literally nothing is left to the imagination.

Edwards says NetherRealm is conscious of the shocking effect that the new levels of realism could have on viewers, so the studio has tried to mix in even more humorous elements with the violence to make the game seem more like a cartoon—Looney Tunes starring ninjas.

“We just try to make things more tongue-in-cheek to balance it out,” he says. “With the fatalities, you want people to cringe and go, ‘Oh my god, that’s crazy!” But you also want them to laugh.”

When NetherRealm developers showed off Mortal Kombat X at the Electronic Entertainment Expo, a large annual convention held in LA last June, Tina Amini of Gawker Media’s video game blog Kotaku noted the audience’s delight and disgust. “They were oohing and aahing at decapitations and exposed organs and lost limbs,” she wrote. “But this year’s cheers were coupled with another kind of reaction. If you paid attention to Twitter and a few seats in the audience, there was certainly some cringing and flinching.”

While Mortal Kombat’s makers are no strangers to media criticism, what’s unfamiliar is the flak from the emerging online “social justice warrior” movement on the left, members of whom have begun to denounce gaming violence as well as critique virtual depictions of women and people of color.

Gaming critic and former GameSpot editor Carolyn Petit wrote an essay, published in February by NPR’s San Francisco affiliate KQED, about how she went from enjoying brutal games like MK to opposing them. “I no longer think it’s possible for a game that sets out to be fun and entertaining, in which violence is the primary way or the only way available to you of solving problems and interacting with the world, to do anything but glorify and celebrate that violence,” Petit says in the piece.

As was the case two decades ago, video games are again crawling through another painfully awkward stage in their development. The industry has diversified since Mortal Kombat’s 90s salad days and expanded its reach beyond the tastes of teen and twentysomething males. The average age of a gamer today is 31, according to a 2014 Entertainment Software Association report, and 48 percent of the gaming population is female. Action-heavy shooters like Call of Duty and sports games such as Madden Football now compete with the likes of social games like Trivia Crack and Words With Friends played on mobile devices and independent “art” games like Chicago-made Kentucky Route Zero that didn’t exist a decade ago. The tension between the established and developing factions of gaming culture set off the “Gamergate” controversy last summer, when hard-core gamers responded to a string of online editorials declaring the “death of the gamer identity” with a Twitter hashtag that led to an online war of words. One bloc of Gamergaters focused misogynistic attacks at feminist video-game critics who’ve decried the traditional white-male-dominant gaming culture as sexist and noninclusive.

One of Gamergate’s main targets was Anita Sarkeesian of the Feminist Frequency vlog, which hosts the “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” series. A producer and cowriter on the show, Jonathan McIntosh tweeted in February: “If your reaction to the celebration of savage human cruelty in Mortal Kombat X is anything but revulsion, something has gone very wrong.”

The comment doesn’t quite get at a more intriguing built-in conflict: Despite the advanced technology driving it, Mortal Kombat X plays like a relic of gaming’s past. Boon and the rest of the creators behind America’s most beloved and controversial fighting game seem all too happy to be releasing a title that serves as a thumb in the eye of political correctness. Anticipating some noisy backlash upon the game’s release, Boon and company will likely do what they’ve always done: hunker down in their Mortal Kombat-themed fortress of solitude and get to work pumping out the next one.

“There’s people who really love Mortal Kombat,” Boon says, “so I guess as long as we keep delivering the experience that satisfies that love for the game, then I guess we’ll keep coming back.”  v