The original Mortal Kombat turned out to be so violent that a special agency had to be created to issue an age rating for video games. And if in fact, shouldn’t blame only Mortal Kombat? In this text, I will talk about censorship in games and touch on age rating systems. For your convenience, the text is divided into two large sections, and I will start with Mortal Kombat, because the series recently turned 30 years old!
The birth of an idea
Believe it or not, it all started with Street Fighter 2, which was released in 1991 and made a real splash not only in the fighting game genre, but in the industry in general. Absolutely all publishers wanted their Street Fighter, and Midway is one of them. 30 years have passed, and the industry is copying the most popular on the same rails.
Young developer John Tobias (John Tobias) together with his actor friends came to Ed Boon (Ed Boon) with a proposal to create a game about ninjas, they were politely refused, because at that time the topic was common and Midway wanted a game with Van Damme.
The project was conceived as an analogue of “Blood Sports” with the same Van Damme, and in contrast to the bright Street Fighter 2, the game was supposed to be more down-to-earth, visually realistic and brutal. Whether it was a reluctance to deal with games or being busy filming Universal Soldier, Van Damme pulled out of the game.
Van Damme became the prototype of the self-satisfied and narcissistic Johnny Cage. But if the game’s fight designer is to be believed, Johnny was written off from Marvel’s Iron Fist. By the way, Jax was drawn from Luke Cage, another Marvel superhero. Later, the developers even joked that they made a crossover with Marvel heroes even before Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe.
After Jean Claude’s refusal, the idea of a fighting game began to be rethought, the ninja was still brought back, but rethought. It was based on Chinese mythology and the mysticism surrounding Shaolin monks, but the main inspiration was kung fu movies in the “All” genre, as explained by the game’s artist and screenwriter John Tobayas.
All this is a genre of action, in which the specialists of eastern martial arts are shown in a very hyperbolic way. Such kung fu fantasy. MK1 has a total of 7 characters and all of them were inspired by movies in one way or another: Big Trouble in Little China, Zu Warriors from Magic Mountain, The Swordsman.
John Tobayas thought out the entire plot and the history of the characters several parts in advance. In the beginning, it was supposed to be a story of two brothers trying to kill each other, but the idea was too fresh for the team, so Tobayas released a new version. And what if one of the brothers, in order to lead the clan, kills his father, who was also their teacher. Everyone was delighted. In the culture of Eastern martial arts, teacher, it is almost a second parent, and sometimes the first, but here it is a whole combo.
John started working on the logo back when the game was called Dragon Attack, Ed Boon loved this Queen song. The dragon itself was depicted from a statuette that stood in the office of the general manager of Midway. The dragon also made it into the game, and the figurine itself is still alive.
Creation of realistic characters
The characters are depicted from real people, although it is more correct to say: they are real people. All animations were cut from recordings of live actors and transferred to the game. Even Goro was a stop-motion miniature.
The game’s budget was only enough for sandwiches, so everyone filmed in a small room, and Daniel Pesina, the stunt director, recruited the actors from among his friends and colleagues at the gym. And he himself played half of the characters.
Each character in the game was written separately, even Scorpion, Sub-Zero and Reptile, who differed only in color, were written separately.
Why is this important? In those days, one character was animated, then two or three different heads were substituted, or they were painted differently and already had two or three different characters for the price of one.
The process itself looked like this: first they shot a video, then they cut out about 8 necessary frames for animation, and Ed Boon made it so that pressing a key would start the animation.
Many tricks and tricks were invented on the fly, just during recording. The legendary call Get over here! was also invented during filming and his idea belongs to the actor Richard Divizio, who embodied Kano. By the way, in the video from behind the scenes, a fragment was cut in which Ricardo offers the idea of a legendary call.
An interesting fact – Kano’s mask is the mask of the Phantom of the Opera, which was bought in the shop of Halloween ghosts. In general, some actors of the game also starred in the sequel of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, those from the late eighties and early nineties. Of course, their roles were stunts, but still.
Interesting facts about the development
A few more interesting facts about the game. The legendary theme music was written for the film in 1995, but as a result became an integral part of the entire series.
The game originally had the working titles of Ultimate Kumite and Dragon Attack, which were later changed to Mortal Kombat, and the spelling of Kombat through “K (kei)” was suggested by then-pinball game designer Steve Ritchie, simply to avoid trademark issues. In addition, the letter “K” gave a harsher sound, which is more suitable for a brutal game, which is Mortal Kombat. Steve also voiced Shao Kahn in the second part.
Fatality arose from the idea of an additional reward for defeating the enemy. The player must get the maximum pleasure and an excessively bloody finish just begged. And it was the brutal Fatality that drew the public’s attention to the game.
But Babality and Friendship appeared in the second part, as well as the legendary Toasty! The history of this mockery is quite simple. During their lunch breaks, the developers liked to play Super High Impact. The game’s sound designer and composer Dan Forden, anticipating victory, liked to exclaim I predict toast!, that is, you are going to lose now.
Someone from the team suggested inserting this phrase into the game in falsetto. At first, Dan modestly refused, but then Ed Boon himself asked, and as a result, we have one of the legendary phrases of the industry.
Ed Boon also did not deprive himself, everyone knows that he voices the legendary Scorpion “Get over here!”, but not everyone knows that for this he entered the Guinness Book of Records as the actor who voices one role for the longest time. And it seems unlikely that anyone will be able to break this record in the near future.
Before MK, Ed Boon voiced the Pinball machines, which were actively produced by Midway at the time, so he had some experience, and in addition to Scorpion in the first MK, he also voiced Liu Kang, Kano, Johnny Cage and Shang Tsung, who was only a voice-over at that time, and in the second part of Jaksovo’s “GOTCHA!”.
Ed Boon also promised to write a book about the creation of Mortal Kombat, but with his busyness, he will take it up only in retirement.
A successful start
After eight months of development, Mortal Kombat was released on October 8, 1992 on arcade machines. In another year, it reached home consoles. The NES version didn’t have Blood and Fatality, the Japanese have been taking care of the console’s family status since then. On Sega Genesis (we have Sega Mega Drive) there was no brutality, but it is returned by a special code.
Brutality, realistic visual style, and generally good gameplay led to a real emotional explosion, which was inevitably followed by financial success. Players lined up in kilometer-long queues for slot machines, everyone wanted to play Mortal Kombat, they talked about it, they shouted about it.
Implications of Mortal Kombat’s success. Prerequisites for creating rating age systems
These cries were approving, but far from always. As a result, the developers clamored for the creation of rating systems. But how did it happen? It’s simple – look at how cartoonish the same Street Fighter II looked.
In fact, there were already games with realistic characters, Pit-Fighter and Guardians of the Hood, but their animations, to put it mildly, were not impressive. And in 1992, Mortal Kombat was released with very smooth, considered realistic animation, and Night Trap, literally an interactive horror film.
In 1993, the industry was still covered by Doom, and it became clear that visually games are beginning to approach reality, and brutality is moving into a completely different plane of perception.
Street Fighter II, Night Trap, Guardians of the ‘Hood, Pit-Fighter
It is necessary to understand that even before Mortal Kombat there was censorship and restrictions for games, they were simply handled by Nintendo and Sega themselves, who forced the developers to cut out unwanted fragments, or simply did not release the game on the console.
It was for the sake of such control that Nintendo introduced mandatory licensing of all games that were to be released on the NES console, and also developed an additional protection chip. And there was nothing to be afraid of, even at the dawn of the industry there were games of a rather ambiguous character.
The first game to be questioned was Death Race in 1976. How about Custer’s Revenge, in which a white warrior rapes a Native American woman tied to a stake? Considering the graphics of those years, the controversy mainly lay in the plane of description of what is happening on the screen. But the games of the early 90s, which I already mentioned, and primarily Mortal Kombat, brought this ambiguity to the visual level of perception.
Finally, the government, which had previously turned a blind eye to the relatively young type of entertainment, took a serious interest in the games, because everyone considered it a children’s game. In 1993, the US Senate issued an ultimatum to the industry — they must create an independent rating agency within a year, otherwise the state will take care of this issue. Sega immediately offered its rating system, which it used for games on its own consoles.
Nintendo, of course, refused the offer of a competitor. As a result, game publishers gathered the Association of Software Manufacturers, which in 1994 formed the independent ESRB — Entertainment Software Rating Board.
The ESRB rating system was given five age categories and, more importantly, clearly described what content the game contained (profanity, alcohol, drugs, etc.). In the same year, the German rating system USK — Unterhaltungssoftware Selbstkontrolle — was founded.
The process of obtaining a rating is quite simple. The developer fills out a questionnaire in which he indicates the content that is in the game, and also sends a gameplay video, the specialist thus examines the game and gives it an age rating. The publisher may make appropriate edits to lower the age limit and re-fill the form. No matter what the developers do, fines have been introduced that can reach 1 million dollars.
Sometimes the age rating can change even after the release of the game, as happened with GTA San Andreas, when modders unearthed the blocked minigame Hot Coffee (in which the character could have sex). Rockstar then had to recall the entire circulation and remove the mini-game completely.
As a rule, a completely finished project is sent for evaluation, thus the approximate release window of the game is often merged. The disadvantage of such a system may be a discrepancy in the rating of game content. The ESRB website states that they do not play a game before issuing a rating, although they may occasionally do a review after the game is released.
Interesting fact, the ESRB rating does not apply to the slot machines where Mortal Kombat was first released. The Association (American Amusement Machine Association), which operates arcade machines of almost all manufacturers, stated that Arcades are different from a home game, so they themselves will figure out who to assign which rating to and in general they have their own atmosphere.
As a result, they have only three age gradations and simply stick stickers of the corresponding color on the machines: Red, Yellow or Green.
Examples of censorship in games
There are an incredible number of examples of different levels of censorship in video games, and a few more common facts.
I’ve already mentioned that Nintendo cares about its reputation as a family console, so much so that the first 17+ game it released was Perfect Dark back in 2000. A remake of this game is currently being prepared by Microsoft.
Of the relatively new examples, The Sims 4: My Wedding Stories was not released in Russia due to the propaganda of same-sex marriage.
In Russia, games are often censored during localization, in Modern Warfare 2019, the “Russian soldier” in the localization somehow turned into just a soldier. And Ukrainian players also receive such censored games. I will mention this later.
Some games got their own “fan”, for the GTA series Jack Thompson became such, he tried to ban almost every game in the series. For a while, he even became a meme, but now few people remember him.
In the German version of Half-Life, human opponents have been replaced by robots, and NPCs have been drained of all their blood and given immortality. Germany is generally pretty strict about video games, especially when it comes to Nazi symbols, but that’s not news for a long time. Of the recent releases in Germany, Dying Light 2 was heavily censored. In The Punisher (2005), the interrogation scenes were covered with a black and white filter, and for Australia some episodes were cut altogether.
Genshin Impact, which recently won the China Culture and Tourism Promotion Award, bans the words “Taiwan”, “Tibet”, “Stalin”, “Putin”, “Hong” and “Kong” in chat. As you can imagine, more than 180,000 words have been blocked in various Chinese games.
China is probably the biggest bastion of censorship, but we’re talking about video games now. Since 2000, for 14 years, consoles were generally banned in the country. And the Chinese authorities really don’t like everything related to death and the developers have to replace zombies, corpses, skulls with people, effigies and something abstract, like in the same World of Warcraft
In neighboring Japan, a mission was cut from Fallout 3 in which you have to decide on detonating an atomic bomb. It is not necessary to explain why this was done.
The Japanese and Americans have an interesting cultural exchange in the field of video games. American games for the Japanese market are censored for violence, so The Callisto Protocol will not be released in Japan. But in Japanese games for Americans… let’s just say, certain angles change and the amount of clothing on the heroines increases somewhat as the game is promoted to a Western audience.
However, Minecraft is not banned anywhere, moreover, the organization “Reporters Without Borders” has created a whole “Library without censorship” in the game, which collects all kinds of censorship in the media.
And one of the record holders for the number of bans is the Postal series, banned in 13 countries. By the way, in New Zealand, for distribution or possession of the game, you can be imprisoned for up to 10 years, and a fine of up to 30 thousand US dollars is charged.
Rating of adult games
Before mentioning several cases of game censorship for Ukraine, a few words about rating systems in general. Censorship can be conditionally divided into two types: censorship for a country or region and censorship for a platform. There are still cases when developers let themselves go, which is why games are given an adult rating, or they refuse to give it at all, but there are actually only a few of them.
Just for statistics, with the Edult Only rating, that is, from 18 years old, there are only 27 games, most of which are, of course, porn games. The most recent non-porn games to receive an 18+ rating include Hatred, Manhunt 2 on PC, and the relatively recent Agony Unrated, which comes bundled with the regular version of the game on Steam. Interestingly, in 2019, the vanilla version of Agony was released on the Nintendo Switch.
But there is one “but”, these 27 adult games are only according to the version of the American rating agency, in Europe the number of games with a rating of 18+ exceeded two thousand. The fact is that the European rating system, PEGI, does not have an intermediate rating of 17+ like in the US, so it gives games like Hitman, God of War, Heavy Rain and so on, a rating of 18+.
It turns out that God of War and Agony are games of the same age category, but if you compare the same sexual scenes, then these are completely different levels of development of the topic, let’s say so.
And one more important point. In most countries, it is not legally required to obtain an age rating, but without it, no store will take the game for sale. Therefore, the de facto rating should be on the cover.
Censorship of games in Ukraine
Ukraine does not have its own rating system for video games, but the logical PEGI is optionally used. Although there were attempts to settle the games in 2020, the matter did not progress beyond Facebook posts.
In general, there are few examples of censorship in Ukraine and, as a rule, it is self-censorship of developers. For example, Activision considers Ukraine to be part of the CIS region, so we have a Russian distribution of CoD Modern Warfare Remake with the “No Russia” mission cut out.
And of course, Mortal Kombat 11, which Warner Bros. decided not to sell in digital stores of the Ukrainian region. It is worth clarifying that the game is NOT BANNED in Ukraine, as many people think. This is solely Warners decision not to sell the game and only digitally.
At the request of the PlayUA portal Warner Bros. Games replied that the reason for this decision was the legislation of Ukraine. They did not specify which law they are talking about, but it is clear that they mean the process of decommunization and the banning of everything related to the USSR. It’s just that Scarlett’s bonus costume has colors and designs very similar to KGB clothing, and the name Cold War Scarlet vaguely hints at it.
I want to emphasize this once again. Warner Bros. they did not specify which law it is about, but the only thing that can affect games in Ukraine is general legislation, in this case the law on decommunization.
There are loopholes that could be used to sell the game normally, for example, works of art do not fall under this law. And although games in Ukraine are not legally recognized as art, they can still be classified as other works.
But here another problem arises. It is easier and cheaper for big companies like Warner Bros. to block the sale of a game than to pay lawyers to understand the intricacies of the country’s laws. After all, it is not even the tenth sales market for them.
The same fate awaits all laws that may be adopted in the near future, it is easier not to implement them. In the context of market size, we are not China, for which publishers are ready to climb the wall.
And let’s return to Mortal Kombat, only to the tenth part. There was also a Cold War set, and the game is still sold in digital stores in the Ukrainian region. There are two reasons for that.
Subjectively, the costumes of the characters can only be considered communist with a stretch. The objective reason is that the game came out before our legislation came into force, and, as we know, laws do not have retroactive effect in time. That is, if the law prohibits something, it does not affect, in our case, the games that were released before this law came into force.
There is a logical solution to this problem. Why not just cut these costumes out of the game for the Ukrainian region? I see the answer is also obvious, developers do not want to bother for a small market.
But, apparently, Scarlett’s modified costume will return the game to Ukrainian players. At least if the developers remember that the game is not sold in Ukraine.
Mortal Kombat became an important game of its time, both culturally and in terms of influence on the industry as a whole. Games have long been a part of pop culture, and it was only a matter of time before the age rating system was created. This is an important component of any multimedia product and should not be neglected, especially if you are young parents and for some reason are not interested in what your children are playing.