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Moral Kombat

Are the young video-game programmers at Midway Manufacturing responsible for the decay of American civilization?

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Roger Sharpe has two children, an executive office, and a 40 percent accuracy rate with an Uzi. Today he's even shouldering the artillery to prove it, his long mustache bristling with excitement as he walks into his company's game room. Five minutes later the video screen he's been firing at flashes "game over," and a scantily clad screen seductress blows Sharpe a kiss. The licensing manager for Midway Manufacturing looks at his 41,000 bonus score and smiles. Another day, another successful game of Revolution X.

At Midway headquarters, located at California and Roscoe, some of the most popular and most violent video games in the world are being constructed to be distributed to the hungry Nintendo generation. Two Midway titles, NBA Jam and Mortal Kombat II, are the most popular arcade games in the United States, according to Play Meter magazine. Video Games and Computer Entertainment magazine reports that Mortal Kombat II has brought in an estimated $100 million for the company since its introduction in October 1993. And home versions of the original Mortal Kombat licensed to Nintendo and Sega Genesis have sold more than five million copies combined.

All of this pleases and astounds the creators of the games, reclusive twentysomethings who grew up on the arcade originals: Pong, Pac-Man, and Defender. Yet success has also brought scrutiny. In December 1993, Wisconsin senator Herb Kohl began a discussion of the Senate Subcommittee on Video Game Violence with the statement: "Mortal Kombat . . . is not the kind of gift that responsible parents give. It ought to be taken off the market entirely."

Mortal Kombat, a kung fu fighting game with realistic digitized-video characters and graphic displays of bloodshed, has not only pushed the envelope of video-game technology and boosted the name recognition of Midway; it's also forced the company into a villainous position that most employees take with more than a little chagrin. Midway programmers don't want to be protectors of the world's youth, nor do they want to turn their games into PC, squeaky-clean machines. Mortal Kombat is just a fantasy you enter for 50 cents and 15 minutes. While parents and senators argue about the influence of video games and fear for their kids' future, Midway officials sit back and wonder, What's the big deal? It is, after all, just a game.

At 25, avid video-game fan John Tobias is a graphic artist for Midway. He and his partner, programmer Ed Boon, 29, put together the original Mortal Kombat, now Midway's number-three seller of all time, in a record eight months in 1991. The company had never come out with a video game involving one-on-one combat before, and, possibly looking for the chance to compete with rival Capcom, which had just put out the game Street Fighter, Tobias and Boon went searching for "what hadn't been done."

Tobias, the gawky artist, immediately thought kung fu. Karate Champ, a 1984 game by Data East, "had really crude graphics," he says of an early favorite. "But it was the first one that incorporated the whole martial arts theme." Boon, the data writer, with black eyebrows as thick as caterpillars, began planning characters based on everything from Japanese mythology to Jean-Claude Van Damme. What really set Mortal Kombat apart from other games was its detailed story line, with each character's history outlined at the beginning of the game.

But the histories were not the programmers' only innovation. Tobias had several martial arts friends who agreed to dress up in costumes and act out choreographed fights on videotape. The images were then digitally transferred from video to computer so they could be manipulated, and character voices were recorded, also digitally. Tobias says he and Boon and three or four assistants would get together in the sound studio and grunt, trying to get just the right pitch for character reactions. The original game was ready for test play in five months.

Mortal Kombat monopolized trade magazines and Internet discussion groups, spawning a 1993 sequel with twice as many characters and subtleties. It also took a field that had previously concentrated on cartoon characters like Mario and Pac-Man and made ultrarealism the norm.

The game takes place at a martial arts tournament staged by Shang Tsung, minion of the evil outerworld. Players choose to play one of nine characters who fight each other to rise through the tournament and eventually face Shang Tsung in a final battle. Players can also fight each other, on two consoles containing a joystick and five buttons each.

Pick up a copy of GamePro or any other video-game magazine and you'll find the back pages full of instructions like "Tap T, T, T, LK," which tells you to flip the joystick up three times and hit the kick button while your character is facing left. Various maneuvers like this one give your character a secret move or a special ability. Raiden, a character based on a Japanese god of thunder, throws lightning bolts and teleports. Sub-zero freezes his opponents for a few seconds. One of the two female characters, Kitana, throws a spinning razor fan.

The abundance of secret maneuvers keeps the quarters coming (both Kombat games cost 50 cents) and the discussion lively. On the Internet discussion group rec.games.video.arcade, players from all around the country boast, plead, and trade secrets and rumors. One student at the University of California at Berkeley (log-on name: Urmom) uploaded two huge files of secret moves for fans to print out and try. This is the stuff that repeat arcade visits are made of.

"In the home environment what you need to do is get the person to make the single-purchase decision," says Sharpe. "In the world of coin-operated amusement, what we're looking at is repeated purchases. Each and every time you reach into your pockets and put coins into the game what you're saying is, 'I like this.' That's the positive reinforcement we take back to say we've done something well."

At Times Square, a video arcade on Broadway that's one of Midway's many testing grounds for new games, 17-year-old Gary is giving the company plenty of positive reinforcement. "I can rip people's intestines out and all that," he says, detailing his prowess on the Mortal Kombat II machine. Behind him, a crowd of teenagers watch. Specifically, they're watching Gary's hands.

Like rural folks dropped in the middle of a big city, awed by the towering skyscrapers, novices are distracted by the sounds and graphics, the artistry of the game. Masters of videos, like the Who's Tommy, are deaf to the bells and whistles. They know it's all in the wrists. "You look for secrets," Gary says between matches. "Because everybody knows more than I do."

But Gary is unconvincing as the video naif. He moves the joystick and buttons in a choreography that keeps him playing the game for close to an hour and a half on just two quarters. The distance half a dollar gets him today almost makes up for the $50 a week he invested in the game last fall, when he was new to it. "I wish I hadn't spent so much," he admits. "But I wouldn't be as good as I am now if I hadn't."

The only way to become master of the machine is to memorize the moves; the only way to know the moves is to practice them; and the only way to practice them is with a lot of change. Though arcade operators do not like to report earnings, one employee at a local Aladdin's Castle said a single MKII machine--which costs the arcade about $4,000 from the dealer--brings in about $150 to $200 a day. In 1992 video games brought in $5.3 billion in the United States, according to industry figures. Gary says you can chalk about $500 of that up to him.

"It's so fun," he says nonchalantly, "that you get addicted to it."

The best part, say many players, are the fatalities. Each character's power level--in other words, the amount of life he has left in him--is represented by a red bar at the top of the screen. As characters sustain punches, kicks, lightning bolts, and fire, you can see the level drop. Drive your opponent to zero and the game yells, in a gravelly voice, "Finish him!" With the right sequence of joystick taps and button hits, you can kill your opponent in a number of gruesome ways. Raiden vaporizes his opponents. Jax, a burly marine, pulls their arms off. Reptile rips off his mask, whips out a long tongue, and eats their heads. "Reptile wins!" MKII might scream. Then: "Fatality." Slowly, the red print of the word "fatality" turns into drops of blood that ooze slowly to the bottom of the screen.

"What's so good?" Gary asks incredulously when queried about his favorite part of the game. "The blood!"

Figuring out new and interesting ways to annihilate opponents may be OK with the fans, but not with the federal government. When Kohl and his colleague, Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, created the Subcommittee on Video Game Violence last December, they mentioned only two games by name: Night Trap (manufactured by Sega), which involves graphic depictions of women being assaulted and kidnapped, and Mortal Kombat. "There should be no dispute that the pervasive images of murder, mutilation, and mayhem encourage our kids to view violent activity as a normal part of life," Kohl said. "Our nation's children should not be told that to be a winner, you need to be a killer."

For Midway, the criticism was a little unnerving but not surprising. Controversy over media and television violence has been going on for years, and it was only a matter of time before policing agencies started to notice the realism trend in video games.

Eugene Provenzo, a media professor from the University of Miami who testified at the subcommittee's first hearing, compared video games to the Feelies, the futuristic media in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. "Video games are evolving into a new type of interactive media--participatory television."

Added Dr. Parker Page of the Children's Television Resource and Education Center in San Francisco, "Mortal Kombat is simply the first in a new generation of video games that allow software designers to combine high levels of violence with fully digitized human beings."

Kohl and Lieberman called only television experts to this first session largely because they couldn't find any video-game experts. Page himself decried the fact that no conclusive studies have measured the effects of video games.

"In the last ten years there have been only a handful of reports," he said. "And 1980s studies are archaic by today's standards."

It was back in 1980 that a company called Williams, a manufacturer of pinball games, took a gamble on video and won. Defender, the company's first video game, was the first to feature a screen that scrolled right and left, and it won the award for video game of the year for 1981 from Play Meter magazine.

"Before that," Sharpe said, "you were screen-constrained. Williams at the time had the vision to say, no, there's a world beyond the screen . . . to immerse players into a dynamic world."

The company would find that success difficult to follow up, however, as video-game popularity sagged in the mid-1980s. Games like Dragon's Lair, a 1983 creation by Cinematronics, epitomized the problem: although its animation was high-quality (it was the first game to use laser-disc technology), its plot was nonexistent.

"The industry by and large was going through a metamorphosis," Sharpe says. "I won't say the industry hit bottom, but they touched pretty close to it. But a couple of companies hunkered down and said whatever's out there for technology's sake, the basic still applies, which is you still need a good game.

"The avenue of the mid-80s was a retrenching and a reevaluation. It wasn't a linear path--it wasn't, 'Go here!' Companies realized they had to become more dynamic and innovative."

For Williams innovation came in 1988, after it purchased Bally Midway. The new corporation, WMS Industries (of which Midway Manufacturing is a subsidiary), released Narc, a machine-gun game that was highly successful, and a series of popular pinball games. Then, in 1991, Mortal Kombat put WMS Industries on the hot list of home-game giants Nintendo and Sega Genesis. The success of WMS's home games led to its recent purchase of Trade West, which releases arcade games in home-game format. Each company will retain its own rights and do its own marketing while the two coordinate efforts on certain games.

"For a company that did not have a significant video-game presence six years ago, to have obtained what we have been able to obtain and sustain it is really a tribute to the type of talent we have," Sharpe says. "You're only as good as your writers." He doesn't believe Mortal Kombat II's bloodshed is the reason for its popularity. "The strength of the game is in its game play," he says. "The other stuff is just window dressing."

A former managing editor at GQ, Sharpe says he turned game playing from "sort of an avocation to a vocation."

"I decided I wanted to do a story on pinball machines, and that grew into a book, and that grew into me testifying in New York to legalize pinball. And I went into some [pinball] game design work and suddenly got a phone call and here I am. This was not a life path--like, 'Hot damn, I want to go into the entertainment business.'"

Sharpe doesn't expect the controversy in Congress to lead to any permanent restrictions on games, and he doesn't think the regulators are out to get his company.

"Everybody is sane enough to understand what needs to be done--what's in everybody's best interest. I don't think we're standing on the precipice of not having video games anymore. It's too entrenched as an entertainment media."

On March 4, 1994, senators Lieberman and Kohl called on representatives of Nintendo, Sega, and Electronic Arts to present their views on video-game violence. The subcommittee's conclusion after this second hearing was that the industry had a year to come up with its own set of standards and warnings. If it didn't, the government would intervene. Recently the industry announced that a ratings system will be in place on home games by the holidays.

Howard Lincoln, chairman of Nintendo of America, says his company has already established limits. "To meet our game guidelines, we insisted that [Acclaim, which bought the licensing rights from Midway] remove the blood-and-death sequences present in the arcade version of Mortal Kombat before we would approve this game [for home-version sales]," he says. "We did this knowing our competitor would leave those scenes in, knowing that we would make more money by leaving those scenes in. And unfortunately we have been criticized by literally thousands of young game players [for] insisting the death sequences be removed. Leave the violence in, they say; you're censoring."

On the Internet, Urmom concurs with Nintendo's mailbag: "Once wimps, always wimps."

While home cartridges can be regulated at the store, much like home movies, regulating games in a public establishment is a more difficult challenge. Who decides which games are too violent and which games are just fun?

"We have some basic responsibility in this country to protect children," North Dakota senator Byron Dorgan told the Senate Subcommittee on Video Game Violence. "Those of us who have children understand that they need protection. And when we see the new generation of video games . . . they've gone too far."

Sharpe, the father of two boys, ages 12 and 14, says it isn't Midway's place to decide what children need to be protected from.

"Much of it goes back to . . . the parental involvement and responsibility to set up a specific value system and some standards and regulations. It's not really games, it's not books," he says. "I think [those complaints are] really the tip of the iceberg. People are just looking for the solutions to cure what's ailing society. The reality of it is that there are a lot of very depressed people and areas--where do you start? Do you give them new homes, do you give them new jobs? Do you find them better living conditions? Better educational opportunities? It's a whole different psychological and philosophical discussion: where do we go as a society?"

For now, Midway is adding "gore switches," as they're referred to on the Internet: programming adjustments that let individual arcade operators make changes in the game. Other types of switches have long been available to arcade operators: "If they know they have a particular clientele, they can go in and make the game easier, they can make the game harder, they can change the pricing--there are a lot of things that can be done to customize the machine," Sharpe says. "What's going to wind up happening is there are going to be other adjustments available to the operator to allow more tweaking." For arcade owners in conservative regions, that means the chance to turn off the gore. For fans on the Internet, it means a new challenge: finding out which places keep the gore on and which turn it off.

At the age of just nine months, Mortal Kombat II has garnered a huge following, become embroiled in a huge controversy, and motivated one lawsuit. Ho Sung Pak, a martial artist who plays a character called Liu Kang, filed suit in late July in Cook County Circuit Court against WMS Industries, Acclaim, Nintendo, and Sega. He claims that the contract he signed with Midway was for use of his likeness in the arcade version of Mortal Kombat only, and that his requests for "appropriate compensation for all unauthorized uses of his name and likeness" have been ignored.

The young game has also developed a sense of humor. Tobias and Boon have already updated it three times; the latest version, 3.1, is now installed in most machines. And while Tobias says he understands Nintendo's predicament and why they de-gored the game, programming speaks louder than words. Manipulate the joystick and buttons in the correct sequence and Baraka, an alien creature with knives for hands who normally impales his opponents, will give them presents instead. Kitana will throw a kiss instead of a spinning razor fan. The game will announce "Babality!" instead of "Fatality!"

"It's tough," Sharpe says of his programmers. "You live and die with a project for anywhere from nine months to a year and a half--I tend to equate that with giving birth. And when it comes to the home game, it's like, 'Here, take my child.' There's a sense of pride of authorship attached to it."

"The game is so grim," Tobias says. "We thought, what a change of pace to see Baraka pull out a present."

Tobias and Boon have programmed their game to mock not only the controversy over game violence, but game playing in general: any player who plays 250 matches of Mortal Kombat II sees the screen suddenly revert to the field for Pong, that crude first game of 20 years ago. Reminding the player that it is, after all, just a game.

Revolution X, Midway's new shooting game, contains another stab at the establishment. In one scene players must blast away the shackles of teenagers who are being forced to destroy televisions and video games with sledgehammers. "Insolent youth!" the machine yells at players.

"It's a new-order nation, and there are things which have been put in place to shut down the freedoms of the world's youth," Sharpe says. "And you're out there to right the wrongs, so to speak."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Cynthia Howe.

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