One of the big new stories to hit the world of gaming this week is the revelation that one of the newest characters to join the Mortal Kombat franchise is gay. While this is awesome, in some ways I can’t help but feel that the way it is being treated by the press makes it seem like a bold new move. I cannot fault the series for bringing in a gay character but I don’t think that this is something that deserves all the great press it is getting.
I wrote my review for Mortal Kombat X earlier this week relating my positive impressions of the game. One of the aspects I praised was the story which helped tie together the old cast and the new members of the roster to great effect. One character which caught my eye was Kung Jin, the aforementioned gay Mortal Kombat character, who played a big part in the story. Indeed his origin was unique to the series and made me pay attention to him based on that. It was a couple of lines of dialogue which caught my attention however as the God of Thunder, Raiden tried to convince Kung Jin to join the Shaolin Monks:
‘I can’t… They won’t accept,’
‘They care only of what is in your heart, not whom your heart desires.’
This was all that was said and I remember playing that part and figured out what they were hinting at very quickly. But here is the thing: this was a very implicit reference that may well have gone over the heads of many, and indeed the character didn’t come out per se or out himself, it was just a vague turn of phrase which only people in the know might have caught.
At the time of writing my review I chose not to make a big deal out of this revelation for a number of reasons, the main one being that the game itself didn’t make a big deal of this and I don’t like to post spoilers of games I review. That said the cinematic director for Mortal Kombat X, one Dominic Ciancialo recently took to Twitter to seemingly confirm Kung Jin’s homosexuality. What followed were a number of articles in gay and gaming news media to say how good this is and how this is a great step in the right directions.
I read these, however, and my first thought wasn’t how positive this is. Indeed, while I appreciate the fact we have a gay character in a franchise like Mortal Kombat, I would not go far as to say that this is a step in the right direction. Indeed this is a step that has been made in the games industry many times before. So really it isn’t a shock to me that for all these positive steps we have not really reached our destination.
The reason for my lack of thrill about how this is being handled is that it is very much a mainstream look at how the masses observe and interact with established franchises. Not that many years ago the idea of having a gay character in a soap, for example, was such a taboo subject that it had to be handled very delicately so as not to cause offence. As time went on, however, gay characters who were open about their sexuality became common and have appeared in a multitude of media all over the world. Why is it then that every time a new LGBT character pops up somewhere that we are supposed to clap our hands and congratulate the bravery of media outlets for taking a chance?
There is also the fact that I don’t think the treatment the subject has was really worth the response that the game is getting. Kung Jin is a badass character and I love his addition to the franchise, however, to look back on his direct quote and Raiden’s response it felt very much like things were kept too implicit. As I said earlier not many people would have picked up on the reference he was making and it wasn’t apparently confirmed until Ciancialo brought it up on Twitter. This kind of treatment reminded me of the way my parents would talk about gay people when I was a kid – usually in hushed tones and a variety of weird and confusing analogies, like ‘oh he tiptoes through the daffodils’ or something equally as absurd. Until my brother might step in and say plainly ‘he is a bummer’. This kind of implicitness and vague references to a person’s sexuality seems a bit dated to me and makes me wonder why Mortal Kombat X didn’t just state it plainly in the game to begin with, especially since Kung Jin is such an interesting character. I can only imagine they wanted to keep him on the down low just in case they got a back lash over this new direction.
The other side of having this stated so implicitly rather than explicitly also makes me wonder why people don’t feel comfortable having a hot shot gay character in such a loved and respected franchise. I mentioned earlier that this is a step that has been made in other games before and many others have exceeded and gone further than this. One of last years best games, Dragon Age: Inquisition, featured a multitude of characters from across the LGBT spectrum and each one felt real and organic and handled their sexual orientations in a relaxed way. While they didn’t ever really come out and wear the label themselves, they didn’t hide it either and they managed to be implicit and explicit depending on the story the player wanted to explore. This was refreshing for me as a gamer since it showed how what some might view as a delicate subject was handled respectfully but also in a forthright way. This is why it is a bit disappointing to see such a vague mention of his sexuality in Kung Jin’s backstory that never really was developed into anything more than a passing remark.
Before anyone accuses me of not being happy about this, don’t get me wrong, I am so happy to see a gay character in this setting. That said, I don’t think it deserves all this extra attention on the basis of one or two lines in the game’s story mode. Had Kung Jin appeared on the cover of GT’s naked month I might be a little more impressed, but it feels a little like the game’s developers didn’t feel comfortable enough to just come out an say he was gay right off the bat. An LGBT Mortal Kombat character does show a little progression but not so much progression that I think we need to all be jumping for joy and waving the flag for equality since it didn’t really take it to that next level.
If you don’t agree with me, you don’t have to. This is purely my opinion but I believe that we needed a little more from Kung Jin’s story to be celebrating him being a gay character in a traditionally action oriented series. I hope to see a little more from him in future though.