I could tell immediately: Why else would Aquaman be wiping the floor with Batman? Not to mention, I was playing Ed Boon in a video game, a fighting game, that Ed Boon, the king of the fighting-game genre, created. The game was “Injustice,” his new best-seller set inside the DC Comics universe.
I was playing as Aquaman and Boon was playing as Batman. We were in the 14-seat screening room of his NetherRealm Studios in the North Center neighborhood, haymakers and kicks and explosions blasting across a monitor before us. Boon sat up in his chair, his Xbox 360 controller held at chin level, seemingly concentrating, caught up in the fight, but secretly, I suspected, allowing Aquaman to jab, jab, jab Batman with his trident.
“Don't go easy,” I said.
“Oh, OK,” Boon said, then clicked two buttons together and, in one fluid motion, destroyed me: Batman tasered Aquaman in the neck, then, as Aquaman writhed from the electric jolts, Batman leaped backward out of the way, clearing a path for the Batmobile, which plowed into Aquaman and finished the bout.
“Gratuitous,” I said.
“But no blood,” he said.
Very true — Boon is not known for leaving the blood out of a good fight. He made his reputation on brutally over-the-top, unnervingly funny fighting-game moments far nastier than the TKO he'd just delivered.
He created “Mortal Kombat.”
He is known for going too far: If you've ever ripped the spine out of another player's character — torn off his arms, sliced him in half, cut off his head, then, as the head fell, sliced the head in half — you thank Boon. He answered the unasked question: What would it look like if Tom really wanted to murder Jerry?
He had help, of course. Twenty-one years ago, at Chicago-based Midway Games — the once-booming home of “Pac-Man” and “Joust” — Boon and a small team of designers (some of whom still work for him) developed the first “Mortal Kombat,” then spun it into an infamously gory and wildly successful fighting game franchise. But it's Boon who still steers the direction and endless new iterations of the series, who remains the face of “Mortal Kombat,” the guy who pioneered a wincing new vocabulary for video games. It's been his life's work.
Before Boon, a win in a game was a simple victory. After Boon, it was a “kill screen.” Before Boon, the winner of a fighting game knocked out the other player. After Boon, the winner delivered a “fatality,” rubbing it in, piling on. “While we were making the 2011 ‘Mortal Kombat,' Ed asked if we could do an X-ray mode,” said Steve Beran, who worked on the first “Mortal Kombat” (and is art director of NetherRealm), “where, before punches land, you see inside opponents — their cracked ribs, innards rustling around, the whole muscle cut-away of a body. Which we did, but at the time he asked, I was like, ‘You're off your rocker, Ed.'”
Ed Boon, quite literally, is a game-changer.
On the other hand, by pushing the limits of what you could show in a video game — before “Mortal Kombat” debuted in 1992, realistic video-game evisceration was a rarity — you also can thank Boon for helping ignite an argument about video game violence that has never quite cooled: In 1993, partly spurred by the success of “Mortal Kombat,” Sen. Joseph Lieberman (then D-Conn., now Independent) and former Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) opened congressional hearings on video games that resulted in the current video game rating system. Indeed, as late as 2011, the most recent edition of “Mortal Kombat” was banned in Australia and Germany.
“I can pretty safely say that we believe in the ratings system that was enacted,” Boon said. “And that the content in our games should not breach or get around the appropriate age that any of our games are designed for. I mean, we definitely don't have a goal of reaching a certain level of violence in every subsequent game — we never set a goal to cross some line. And we always ask: ‘Do we want to do this?'”
Indeed, “Injustice” is a different kind of Ed Boon game, conceived and designed for a T-rated audience (suitable for teenagers and older). “So we knew from the start it would always stay underneath a certain (hard) feeling,” Boon said.
“Injustice” is a slight stretch, not smashing taboos so much as walking a fine line, an attempt at translating the punch of “Mortal Kombat” to a broader milieu, expanding NetherRealm's scope without venturing far afield. “Basically, we can't rip Superman's head off then set it on fire,” Boon explained.
No kidding: NetherRealm is owned by Warner Bros., which owns DC Comics — which would never allow Superman's head ripped off. “Still, you have to give Ed leverage in creating those big finishing moves, which are his signature,” said Geoff Johns, DC's Chief Creative Officer. “We would have these long discussions about balance. Like, well, for instance: You can't have Batman grabbing a shotgun and firing on another character. At the same time, depending on a character's personality, you can go pretty far. Remember, I played ‘Mortal Kombat' on my (Super) Nintendo all the time — I don't want to limit Ed's vision either.”
Warners Bros. didn't limit much: The game was released in April with a marketing campaign fit for a movie, complete with toys, tie-in comics, billboards in Times Square and along the Kennedy Expressway. But then, Boon had more to prove this time: He wanted to show diversification, a bit more grit. He didn't want another “Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe,” a 2008 game that, though popular, felt soft to fans, he said. There were whispers that the series had grown stagnant — as he said this, he looked as if he had eaten a lemon.