The once and future king of stylized hyper-violent video games is back. The mobile version of Mortal Kombat X, published by Warner Brothers Interactive and developed by NetherRealm, is now ready to download in the Google Play Store after a lengthy geo-limited soft launch. It features high-end graphics and a 2D fighting system based mostly on taps, swipes, charges, and other gestures, very much like NetherRealm's previous mobile fighters Injustice: Gods Among Us and WWE Immortals.
The basic structure uses collectible upgradeable "cards" as stand-ins for the iconic fighters, encouraging players to find and upgrade personalized versions of the over-the-top characters (as opposed to a more conventional static roster). The mobile version of MKX also includes tag-team modes with up to four fighters on a side, online multiplayer, and unlocked functionality for the full console and PC version of the game. It goes without saying that this game is amazingly violent and absolutely not intended for children. For that matter, it's not intended for adults who would be upset by seeing someone slice a man's face off and then stomp on his brain after it slides out of his skull.
The game will let you find new fighters and variants of the ones you already have (like "Farmer Jax" or "Ninja Mime Johnny Cage"), then upgrade their skills and add augmented equipment. As with all of these kinds of games, you upgrade and buy new characters with a currency (or rather kurrency) system. You can pay for multiple types of in-game currency, some of which is also applied to the "power" timer, or you can straight-up pay for cards/characters. The in-app purchases in this game are at least as excessive as the violence - PocketGamer estimated that it would take almost $300 of real-world money to buy all the characters available in the iOS version, and that's without equipment or skill upgrades.
Let's switch over to editorial for a moment. Earlier this month Google refused to publish Postal, the 1997 shoot-em-up that caused controversy for its glorified violence. (Amazon blocked the game as well, despite selling a modern digital edition of the PC version, before reversing the decision for the Amazon Appstore.) The Google Play Store does have a policy forbidding games with "gratuitous real violence," but rates games with "graphic violence" as High Maturity. The distinction between Postal and Mortal Kombat X, not to mention previously-published games like the Grand Theft Auto series, seems artificial at best.
To be fair, the violence in Mortal Kombat is graphic, but not realistic. The camera zooms in and through bodies to show bones breaking and organs ripping, so while it's certainly graphic (even disturbingly so in my opinion), it could be compared with the kind of fantasy violence you see in B-grade horror movies. But by that standard, you could say that the violence in games like Modern Combat is "realistic" - the weapons are based on real guns, and you're shooting representations of real people in the head. What makes that OK while Postal, which "stars" a psychopathic civilian rather than a soldier, gets kicked out?
This is apparently more objectionable that slicing someone's face off.
The answer is perspective. The images and sounds in Postal are evocative of a mass shooting, the stuff of breathless cable news reports and parental nightmares. In short, it's disturbing in its implication, not just in its imagery. The pixelated, low-resolution graphics of Postal aren't scary in the slightest when compared with Mortal Kombat, to say nothing of the hundreds of blood-soaked zombie games on the Play Store. But that creates a dilemma: Google is presumably censoring its game content based on its own judgment of the intent of the creators and the interpretation of the player, which can't be quantified, rather than the actual violence on the screen, which can.
If we cast our net even wider, we see huge discrepancies between what's OK to show in an app or game and what's OK on the Play Store in general. You can buy movies and TV shows on Google Play that feature "R" levels of violence and beyond. Explicit books and music lyrics are A-OK. Non-app content can even feature nudity and sex, something that will get any app (in any context) thrown off of the Store. For a direct comparison to the "graphic realistic violence" in Postal, look no further than the 2012 movie God Bless America. It's about a middle-aged man and a teenage girl who cross the country shooting unarmed people who annoy them. The opening scene features the main character shooting a baby with a shotgun. You can buy it on the Google Play Store for $12.99.
Google owns the Play Store. It is free to block whatever content it wants - this is not an issue of free speech. But Google is deciding which content you can and can't access on its platform, which carries with it a responsibility to be even-handed. Allowing a game like Mortal Kombat X on the Play Store while shunning Postal is hypocritical, it's inconsistent, and it's a mistake.