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Did Mortal Kombat Waste Its First Openly Gay Character?

With Kung Jin, Mortal Kombat X took a big step forward for representation in the series, but there are fears the gesture might have been short-lived.

Most don’t normally associate the over-the-top hyper-violence of the Mortal Kombat series with strides for inclusion and representation. Instead, the franchise’s gory fatalities and convoluted story mode are likely to be the first thing to spring to mind whenever somebody mentions NetherRealm Studios’ iconic fighting sim. Beneath the bloody facade, however, the Mortal Kombat games have always been rather strong on diversity, albeit in their own way. The very first game, released in 1992, featured a female fighter in the form of Sonya Blade, as well as an Asian “protagonist,” Liu Kang. Additionally, the sequel enlarged the roster to include Jax, a Mortal Kombat stalwart and the first black character in the already expanding roster.

Because of its clear reverence for Asian martial arts culture and cinema, Ed Boon’s mammoth franchise has always featured a vast array of Chinese and Asian fighters. It’s also featured a strong number of iconic female fighters, including Jade, Kitana, Sonya herself and the immensely popular Cassie Cage, daughter of series regular Johnny. An area where the games were admittedly lacking was in their LGBTQ+ representation, something that the developers sought to rectify, albeit rather fleetingly, in Mortal Kombat X.

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Released in 2015, Mortal Kombat X raised the bar for what a fighting game could be, setting the standard not only for the franchise but for its contemporary rivals. Tactile to play, great to look at and having sufficient depth to support a thriving eSports community, MKX still has players returning after seven years, even following the release of a highly successful follow-up. MKX also boasted the usual nonsensical storyline that has become a cherished feature of the franchise. Instead of the threat emanating from Shao Khan, MKX sees evil necromancer Shinnock return as the game’s primary Big Bad. Shinnock seeks to gain control of the realms by merging with the Jinsei at the Sky Temple — a fun, if completely ridiculous, narrative that manages to introduce a host of new faces into the series’ already bulging roster.

Among these additions are Takeda Takahashi, Scorpion’s son, Cassie Cage, Jacqui Briggs, the daughter of Jax, and Kung Jin, the nephew of Kung Lao and one of Raiden’s proteges. It is the latter of these heroes who arguably boasts the most compelling story. After Kung Lao’s death, Kung Jin and his family soon become destitute and are forced to move to America, putting the young man down a path of thievery and crime, leading him to resent Raiden for failing to protect his family.

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When Kung Jin later attempts to sneak into Raiden’s Sky Temple to retrieve one of his family heirlooms, his confrontation with Raiden leads to one of the game’s most unexpectedly touching and well-handled scenes. Saddened by the path Kung Jin has taken, Raiden counsels the errant thief by urging him to take his place at the Wu Shi Academy, the Shaolin martial arts school at which the likes of Kung Lao and Liu Kang had also been tutored. When Kung Jin implies that he won’t be accepted due to his sexual orientation, Raiden allays his fears by saying that “they care only about what is in your heart, not whom your heart desires.”

It’s a remarkably touching scene that handles its subject with lightness and subtlety, teasing Kung Jin’s path to redemption as one of the game’s more interesting subplots. Raiden’s line that “self-loathing has always been an unfortunate part of your makeup” is particularly heartbreaking, but it establishes Kung Jin as a man searching for his identity both as a Shaolin and with regard to his own sexuality.

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When Mortal Kombat 11 dropped, it was a shame to see that Kung Jin wouldn’t be involved in a story that focuses predominantly on the past and present versions of the series’ iconic heroes colliding thanks to a timequake caused by Raiden’s interference in Kronika’s grand plans for the realms. Instead of furthering the character progressions of the so-called Kombat Kids, NetherRealm opted for a story that would focus more heavily on established favorites such as Shao Khan, Liu Kang, Kung Lao and Scorpion, satisfying long-term fans of the franchise. It’s a brilliant, cinematic story and an excellent game, but many fans can’t help but feel that Kung Jin’s omission after the great work done by MKX in establishing his character seems like a wasted opportunity.

All is not lost, however, and fans now look to the upcoming Mortal Kombat 12 to see where the narrative will go next and which characters will be (re)introduced to the new entry’s roster. Of all the names fans want to see return, Kung Jin definitely deserves another chance, as his compelling story and unresolved character arc are more than enough justification for warranting a return. If Kung Lao’s nephew doesn’t get the invite back for MK12, the great work done by MKX will seem like nothing but a hollow, meaningless gesture rather than a step for true representation.

Harry Alexander is a writer from London specializing in gaming and TV. If he’s not currently out trying to pet strangers’ dogs, he can be found watching reruns of Fawlty Towers and playing Age of Empires II. This is his Twitter: https://twitter.com/HarryAl55.

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