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Mortal Kombat X and the beauty of gore

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In a demo video for the next installment of Mortal Kombat, series staple Scorpion is moments from being decimated by the fatality of D'Vorah – an insect-like woman joining the roster. In her final move, she summons a swarm of flesh eating bugs.

They eat two holes into Scorpion before setting on his head. The flesh disappears quickly – his skin eaten away first, inner flesh and then the muscle closest to the bone. In the end, all that remains is his skull and his jawbone hangs off to the left, like a door on a rusty hinge. Adding insult to fatal injury, Scorpion's skull rolls away and D'Vorah crushes it with the heel of her boot.

Creative. Disgusting. And yet, strangely beautiful. Mortal Kombat X continues the franchise's grand tradition of a love affair with gore.

Gallery: Mortal Kombat X (E3 2014) | 10 Photos

Mortal Kombat X, canon-wise, is a direct sequel to the reboot that began with Mortal Kombat in 2009. The storyline starts directly after the first tournament, and then moves forward a number of decades. In fact, one of the of the playable characters will be Cassie Cage – the daughter of Mortal Kombat alums Sonya Blade and Johnny Cage – who combines her mother's combat finesse with her father's wiseass attitude.

For over 20 years, Mortal Kombat has made its name by riding the line of bad taste and it's a tradition the franchise has proudly continued. In an interview with Kotaku, NetherRealm's director of art Steve Beran said of the franchise's violence: "It's almost like a really weird artform seeing the musculature of the characters. It's kind of this gruesome beauty to it, like, 'Oh my god, that was really nasty but it was really cool seeing the guy's skin peel away and seeing the muscles in his face and a spike going through his head."

Externally, the human body has always been a model for beauty and proportions. One only has to flip open an art book or go to a gallery to see the ways in which the human form has been artistically portrayed, both idealized and non-idealized, since man began to write on walls.

But what about the innards of the human body – was there something aesthetically pleasing about what lay beneath the surface? During the Renaissance that anatomy became a crucial element of study for aspiring artists – there was a demand for more realistic depictions of the human body, both in proportion and pose. Antonio del Pollaiuolo and Andrea del Verrocchio, for example, both advocated that the scientific study of the human form was necessary to portraying it well.

It was Andrea del Verrocchio's pupil, Leonardo da Vinci, however, who took philosophy to its next, logical step. As a well-known artist in Italy, da Vinci dissected scores of bodies, and made over 240 detailed drawings of cadavers' skeletons, muscles, and genitals – he even drew one of the first depictions of a child in utero. This study of the human body eventually became common practice, and art schools all over Europe incorporated dissections and anatomy dissections into their curricula.

But all of this regards the study of innards, as a means to better portray what is outwards. What about the artistic value of the innards themselves? There's a weird intersection between what is for science and what is for art.

Take for example, an écorché – a depiction of a human being without his or her outer skin. Ostensibly, this is a practice with scientific benefit – medical institutions in earlier centuries would use écorchés as teaching tools, especially when cadavers were readily not available for dissection. Still, however, there's a beauty to these depictions; one admires the way that many muscles work in unison to accomplish a single goal.

A similar, uncomfortable intersection occurred with the traveling "Bodies... The Exhibition" exhibit, which took da Vinci's studies to their logical conclusion.

Human remains were preserved through a process known as "polymer preservation," and the resulting, real écorchés were put on display. All of the labeling placards were scientific in a nature, but the bodies were placed into poses – an exhibition on the brain, for example, had a cadaver propped up in Rodin's "The Thinker" pose. Another cadaver was propped into a conductor's pose, so that one could see the way that arm bones and arm muscles worked in conjunction with one another. And yet another cadaver had the polymer injected into its circulatory system. Once it had hardened, the surrounding flesh was melted away, leaving a human shaped circulatory system in tact. The exhibit was suspended in fluid, and was lit to give off a red and blue glow.

There was clearly an artistic element to this – an attempt to make it amusing and pleasing to the eye – that drew crowds of people each and every day. For as many people who loved the exhibit, there was an equal number of people who detested it – who found it to be both disrespectful and grotesque.

I think of this as I watch the Mortal Kombat X demo, and wince at one of several 'X-Ray Moves' – powerful attacks that show the bones breaking and the muscles ripping during combat. I look at the striations on the muscle, and the fatty deposits in the jaw line, and it occurs to me: this is the most realistic depiction of flesh that I have ever seen in any Mortal Kombat game. During the Renaissance, Leon Battista Alberti posited that to depict a human being accurately, one must first draw the underlying musculature, before drawing over it with skin and external features. The developers appear to have handled the internal detail with his level of care, and this renders the X-Ray Moves that much more cringe-worthy.

The Catholics refer to this desecration of the body as mortification of the flesh. The Saints would be depicted, in sculptures and paintings, in the throes of their martyrdom – their suffering and the destruction of their bodies was art. Saint Bartholomew, in particular, who was skinned alive, would often be depicted as a écorché, holding his flayed skin by his side.

Prior Mortal Kombat games were more absurd in their gore – fighters exploded after being kissed by Kitana, or after being inflated by Kabal with an air hose. And when they exploded, their remains consisted of 5 leg bones, or three intestinal systems. When someone got decapitated, it created a huge fountain of blood, and often times, the body would remain standing. Every move ended with either an explosion or a geyser, and although it was graphic, it was also difficult to take seriously.

Chalk it up to better technology or darker intent, but these Mortal Kombat X's Fatalities seem much less fanciful. There seems to be a deliberate artistry – that having created something beautiful, realistic, and pleasing, the creators then deliberately engage in its destruction.' The Mortal Kombat X characters are not simple, surface-deep avatars – they have digital lungs they breathe with, and digital hearts that pump their digital blood.

My sister is a doctor, and she used to gush to me about her gross anatomy class. She marveled about how everything fit together, and was packed into the body cavities so neatly. To see this organic detail in-game is similarly impressive, and it makes its destruction – its mortification – that much more resonant and disturbing.

Mortal Kombat X is set to arrive on April 14, 2015, for the Xbox 360, PS3, Xbox One, PS4 and PC.

[Images: NetherRealm, Royal Collection Trust, Premier Exhibitions,]

Kevin James Wong is a freelance writer based out of Queens, NY., with work featured both online and in print at VIBE, Complex, Salon, Racialicious, and PopMatters. Follow him on Twitter.

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