When Mortal Kombat 11 arrives this spring, it will be thanks to the work of a massive team of artists, programmers, and writers who have been toiling away at NetherRealm Studios in Chicago for years. But the creative process began with a single fatality drawn on a whiteboard by series co-creator Ed Boon. In fact, it was the very first one that the studio showed to the public back in December.
Steve Beran, the team’s art director, remembers the meeting well.
“Ed always sets the bar with the first fatality,” Beran told Polygon during a studio tour last week. “So many of the ideas he has, he’ll draw these little stick figures and he’ll set the bar early in the game.”
For MK11, the first Mortal Kombat title since 2015’s Mortal Kombat X, a lot has changed at NetherRealm. The team has a new collection of digital effects in its toolbox, as well as completely new animation systems. Boon keeps tabs on it all in his role as creative director; when the team sat down to begin brainstorming, he was the first one to step to the board and start drawing.
“He knows what new tech we have for every new game,” Beran said, “and always sums it up in the first fatality […] and then we’re like, ‘Oh, that’s what we’re going — that’s where we’re going with this.’”
That first fatality came courtesy of Scorpion, a classic character that Boon has voiced since the beginning of the franchise. You can see that fatality in the clip below, around the 93-second mark.
In it, Scorpion transforms into a flaming demon before leaping forward to burn a hole through his adversary, Raiden, stunning him. Once in place, he swiftly decapitates him, only to pluck his gaping head out of thin air with his signature bladed grapple. Every detail has been executed precisely, Beran says, from the flick of the thumb that unsheathes the sword to the look on the victim’s face. He remembers Boon going over the final renders.
“‘No, his eyes need to be wider, more open,’” Beran said, playfully mimicking Boon’s enthusiasm. “‘His head has to go BAH!’”
Fatalities are the ultimate taunt, a way of performing dominance over an opponent at the end of a round of Kombat. But they’re also a release for the tension of a match, and something that the fans look forward to with every iteration. So it makes sense that work on the game would begin there.
“There’s just a lot of us imitating what an effect should sound like and discussing what they should look like,” Beran said. “But that was definitely the first one that Ed came up with. And that’s a rhythm we’ve had for the last … I can’t even say how many games. Ed always sets the benchmark for where we’re going.”
While the developers have only ramped up the gore in the fatalities over the years, Beran clearly takes pride in the sense of levity that they bring to the series.
“Designing fatalities is always a tricky thing,” Beran said. “They’re so over the top and exaggerated that, even though the graphic quality is very realistic […] it tends to be more on the ludicrous side and a laughable side.
“I think it’s in our designers. It’s in the people that make this game,” Beran continued. “MK has always had a sense of humor to it, whether we liked it or not. It’s just part of Ed and the designers and the art team. Everybody contributes to the fatalities and, you know, even though they are gruesome, I think there’s always a funny side to it.”
There’s a bit more seriousness this time around. From my time playing the game’s opening moments, it’s clear that some well-loved characters will be getting killed off early. But with a plot that focuses on time travel, anything can happen. Regardless, Beran says his team has taken a more measured approach with the art direction in MK11. That’s especially true of the the game’s female fighters.
“Our character lead, Brendan George, has been a breath of fresh air of just introducing new ideas,” Beran said. “Our design is just getting more mature and respectful. You’re not going to wear a bikini to a fight. You’re not going to be showing so much skin. I think it’s just what the game is about: You’re going in to fight for your life, and you’re not going to be wearing such scantily clad items.
“I’m sure that will disappoint some fans. We don’t have bathing suit fighters, and I think that’s fine. If people are disappointed, I don’t regret making that change by any means.”
Mortal Kombat 11 will be released on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One on April 23.