I won’t pretend to know how the ESRB works in the same way the MPAA’s secrecy makes it nigh impossible to discern their methods. I am also not one to judge what one person may find offensive, and another may laugh off. Those are decisions better left to individuals.
But, Injustice should be rated “M.”
Much of the game’s violence shocked me. No, not in the sense of a cartoonish venture into the realm of DC comics. Watching Doomsday smash his opponent through the Earth (and back) is goofy in the same vein as Wile E. Coyote blowing himself up with dynamite, revealing scorched fur and a blackened face. The same goes for much of the delirium generated by power moves, another that sees Superman exiting the stratosphere to bodyslam a rival.
This is more about the engine itself, and what it stands for. Injustice is produced by Chicago developer Netherealm, the studio who delivered 2011’s Mortal Kombat. The engine is tweaked, but in terms of physics and power, it remains the same. Mortal Kombat dealt with a subset of humans, say Sonya Blade or Johnny Cage. Many on the roster were undead or cyborgs, not that it makes the intrinsic violence any less vicious.
Much in the same way, Injustice calls its brawlers “Meta Humans.” They look and bleed like anyone else. When Batman strikes, he hits with the same force of a Mortal Kombat fighter. The kickback and segue into combos is done with unrelenting force, his own quest for right fueled by a roundhouse. It hits hard to sell impact, great for a fighting engine, not so much for someone handing the title over to their Batman-obsessed pre-teens.
That is not all though. Playing for review and taking over as the Joker, his throw animation stabs people in their sternum. He enjoys it. Against his own in Harley Quinn, the animation routine is rather gruesome, even sickening as the Joker smiles in delight and Quinn winces in agony. The pain is a gag to him. Again, great for the character and universe, acceptable for a title aimed at 13-year olds – according to the ESRB alone.
Blood is also surprising. One stage transition sees characters sent underground as an earth mover crushes them into the next arena, fluid pouring from their backs. In Mortal Kombat, this would have passed for a fatality. Sure, it would have been additionally gruesome (the body would have splattered upon impact), but is it any less intense because the injured fighter stands back up?
I am not a prude. I love Mortal Kombat’s absurd depiction of darkened humor. It fits in the framework they created back in 1993 to sell a Street Fighter knock-off. In some ways, the same thing has happened here in the comic book realm. Marvel’s fighting game, aligned with Capcom, is saturated and bright. It sells itself on energetic playfulness and fan service. No one bleeds, and they comically bounce around as they are obliterated with super moves.
For Injustice, it does come back to the violence. We’re reliving the same fighting game turf war on a different battleground. These characters never feel like they’re playing; they exist to hurt one another to a point just before death. The story sees characters spouting off lines about murder as a solution, while another steps in to say no, as if beating them within an inch of their life is thus okay. And it is within the narrative arc albeit with the proper rating to justify those methods.
Of course there is room for an overtly violent comic book video game. Many would probably welcome the approach. Given the nature of licensing and public impressions, part of me feels like we have that in front of us. Seeing Wonder Woman missing flesh on her arms, nearly down to the bone mid-fight, is incredibly graphic for any revered license. None of this takes into account some fleeting language and the “moderate amount of cleavage” the ESRB makes note of.
How that combination garners a “T” I’ll never know.