While Mortal Kombat is largely known for its bloody combat and gory fatalities, the story behind the carnage is one of the most intricate and interesting tales told in fighting games. Spanning several generations and now decades of games, the upcoming Mortal Kombat 11 looks to smash together new and old in a fight for the literal ages.
But if you haven’t kept up with all of this, you might be a little confused as to why Raiden is so mad, or why Liu Kang is an undead king, or who this “Cassie Cage” is. No fear! This is your Cliff’s Notes guide to Mortal Kombat lore past, present, and future, to assist with all timeline weaves and changing allegiances. Trust me, there are a lot…
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First… The Kombatants
The basis of Mortal Kombat is its titular tournament: a high-stakes martial arts deathmatch that acts as a check to folks like the war-hungry ruler of Outworld, Shao Kahn. In the Kombat-iverse, there are multiple realms (though we really only deal with a few) and Shao Kahn wants to conquer them all. But the higher beings called elder gods imposed a rule: to invade a realm, he has to defeat it in an annual Mortal Kombat tournament — 10 times in a row.
The original Mortal Kombat opens with the 10th Mortal Kombat between Earthrealm (our planet) and Outworld, with Kahn’s Outworld on the cusp of a 10th victory. Raiden, thunder god and divine protector of Earthrealm, has to assemble an A-team of fighters to defeat Kahn’s chosen warriors — including the soul-stealing sorcerer Shang Tsung and multi-armed warlord Goro.
Liu Kang is Raiden’s chosen champion. This is the young, Bruce Lee-like Shaolin fighter who becomes the series’ de facto protagonist. Joining Liu Kang are Johnny Cage, a Hollywood star looking to test his might, and Sonya Blade, a special forces operative on the hunt for her partner’s killer. Kano (who also entered the tournament) is that killer. Also taking part in the festivities are two ninja: Scorpion and Sub-Zero. They’re embers of the rival Shirai Ryu and Lin Kuei clans; the former is hunting the latter for his part in massacring his family and clan. (Scorpion is eventually victorious and gains his vengeance.)
The Early Victories
Earthrealm ultimately wins the tournament, as Liu Kang bests both Goro and Shang Tsung, securing the realm’s safety from Shao Kahn for at least another decade. Shao is ready to execute Shang Tsung for his failure to seal the deal, until the sorcerer makes a proposition: host a winner-take-all tournament on Kahn’s home turf, Outworld. If Earthrealm wins, they’re safe forever. If they lose, we skip right to one dimension absorbing the other. Shao Kahn likes this idea and goes a step further. He ensures Liu Kang attends by sending a horde of Tarkatan warriors (the folks with spiky arms like Baraka) to slay a bunch of his Shaolin friends.
Liu Kang travels to Outworld with Raiden and the crew to take part in Mortal Kombat II. He climbs the ranks and ultimately beats Kahn on his own playing field, becoming a two-time champion of Earthrealm. While this is all happening, several other plot threads unfurl: Sub-Zero is back and apparently alive and seeking the head of Shang Tsung. While he turns out to be the brother of the original, evil Sub-Zero, his presence attracts a rightly agitated Scorpion. Mortal Kombat II also introduces Kitana, the princess of Outworld who seems to aid the Earthrealm fighters, and will become a major player in coming games.
Shao Kahn is now understandably pissed at being thwarted twice, and hatches a scheme to set the stage for Mortal Kombat III. Rather than another tournament, he takes the more conventional approach: uh… resurrecting his deceased wife.
The short version is that 10,000 years prior to the events of Mortal Kombat III, Kahn invaded a peaceful realm called Edenia. He slayed the king and took Queen Sindel as his own wife, adopting then-infant Kitana as his daughter in the process. Sindel, in her grief, took her own life.
The Kahn theorizes that if Shang Tsung revives Sindel in Earthrealm, this would give him casus belli to invade Earthrealm; the sorcerer complies, reviving Sindel and brainwashing her to be a loyal queen to the Kahn. Then Outworld begins to encroach upon Earth. As billions lose their souls in the merging of realms, Kahn deploys extermination squads to take out Earth’s defenders and ensure his victory. Raiden’s powers are limited to the Earthrealm, and due to the fusion with Outworld, he can only muster enough power to save the souls of a select few champions — enlisting their aid to fend off the coming onslaught.
This is where Mortal Kombat escalates from a basic martial arts tournament format to a grander story, so various plot lines begin to thread out and expand in their newfound storytelling space. Liu Kang is still Earthrealm’s champion, but doesn’t just seek to defeat Shao Kahn to save his own world. He also wants to rescue Kitana, his growing love interest. Jax, Sonya’s special forces pal introduced in MK2, saves her from Outworld but frees Kano in the process. The Lin Kuei decide to embrace modern technology by turning their members into cyborg ninjas; Sub-Zero and Smoke go rogue to avoid this. Although the latter is captured and cyborgified.
Liu Kang once again defeats Kahn, and Kitana succeeds in undoing Tsung’s brainwashing of her mother Sindel, a combination of events that frees Edenia from Outworld rule. Shao Kahn is thwarted, Liu Kang wins, and life goes on for everyone but Johnny Cage. He gets murdered by a centaur… Yup.
At this point we jump very, very far ahead. I’ll explain why in a moment, but just know that there are a lot of games between where we are now (MK3) and where we’re headed (Mortal Kombat , colloquially known as Mortal Kombat 9). There are a few major story beats to know — mostly in the introduction of the Netherrealm and its denizens. These include the disgraced elder god Shinnok and his sorcerer Quan Chi. The latter’s necromancy opens the door for previously deceased fighters to be reanimated as undead, brainwashed Revenants. This notably includes Noob Saibot: the reincarnated original Sub-Zero from the first Mortal Kombat.
A Crack in the Timeline
Events rapidly escalate, fighters die and reanimate, and antagonists trade off being the Big Bad until Mortal Kombat Armageddon. That’s when Shao Kahn finally (successfully) invades Earthrealm. With only Raiden and Shao Kahn remaining, the thunder god realizes his imminent demise and sends a message through time with the last ounce of his power via his amulet, informing his former self that “He must win.”
This is the start of Mortal Kombat 9. Here we jump back to the start of the original tournament from the first game, where Raiden receives his message from the future. Events mostly pan out the same, with Scorpion killing Sub-Zero, Johnny Cage beginning a relationship with Sonya Blade, and Liu Kang winning the tournament. But at tournament’s end, Raiden’s amulet indicates that doom has not been averted just yet.
Once the new timeline enters the Mortal Kombat II era, however, Raiden begins to toy with the timeline. Smoke is saved from cyberization, leaving Kuai Liang, younger brother of the murdered former Sub-Zero, Bi-Han, to be taken away for cyborg conversion by Sektor and Cyrax. Kitana learns Shao Kahn made a mutant clone of her, named Mileena, and joins forces with Earthrealm alongside her Edenian friend Jade.
Believing he needs to alter fate once more, Raiden substitutes Kung Lao (Liu Kang’s bestie) in the final fight against Shao Kahn. However, Lao is killed in the ensuing battle, leading Liu Kang to mortally wound Shao in a fit of rage. Raiden’s amulet deteriorates, indicating the future still hasn’t changed…
A New Tragedy
Shao Kahn gets mended by Quan Chi, who ends up allying with the Kahn and reviving Sindel in this new version of the events of Mortal Kombat 3. As the invasion begins, Raiden saves Johnny Cage from Motaro (that centaur we mentioned earlier). Shao Kahn decides to sacrifice Shang Tsung and transfer his souls and power into Sindel, who in turn slaughters a large portion of the MK cast. She kills Kabal, Stryker, cyborg Sub-Zero, Jax, Smoke, and Jade in seconds. She even challenges and almost kills her daughter Kitana, but a shaman called Nightwolf sacrifices himself to kill Sindel first. Later, Kitana still succumbs to her injuries in Liu Kang’s arms.
Raiden, desperate to avoid repeating disaster, proposes an alliance with Quan Chi, which Liu Kang does not take well. After fighting a group of former Earthrealm fighter Revenants, Raiden realizes the truth behind “Te must win” — it refers to Shao Kahn. While an invasion itself is not forbidden, if Kahn merges Outworld and Earthrealm without 10 consecutive Mortal Kombat victories, he will invite punishment from the elder gods for violating their rules.
When Raiden tries to convince Liu Kang of this, the latter won’t listen and decides to attack Raiden. In the heat of battle, Raiden accidentally kills Liu Kang. As Kahn approaches, Raiden surrenders, and as Kahn is about to kill him, the elder gods infuse Raiden with their power, allowing him to defeat the emperor. Kahn is annihilated by the elder gods as punishment for breaking the rules of Mortal Kombat. Finally, the cracks in Raiden’s amulet disappear.
The Kombat Kids
With most of Earthrealm’s fighters dead and Outworld weakened, Quan Chi and his master, fallen elder god Shinnok, prepare to invade with their newfound army of Revenant fighters. This leads directly into Mortal Kombat X, which opens with Earthrealm under siege from Shinnok, who is trying to poison the Jinsei. This is the physical manifestation of Earth’s life force, hidden away in Raiden’s sky temple.
The surviving Earthrealm fighters and Raiden try to hold off the forces of zombies, demons, and revived former allies. As Shinnok attempts to kill Sonya with magic, Johnny Cage dives in front of the blast, and discovers he is radiating energy that nullifies Shinnok’s magic. He defeats the elder god and Raiden traps Shinnok inside his amulet. It is later revealed in a flashback that Raiden is able to un-corrupt Revenants, leading to the revival of many formerly deceased fighters including Scorpion, Sub-Zero, and Jax.
The story jumps forward 25 years and we’re introduced to an older Johnny Cage, telling the story of Shinnok’s defeat to a new squad of Earthrealm fighters: his daughter with Sonya, Cassie Cage; Jacqui Briggs, daughter of Jax; Takeda Takahashi, son of blind warrior Kenshi; and Kung Jin, cousin of Kung Lao.
New Battles Boil Over
The new team is being deployed on its next mission. The new emperor of Outworld, Kotal Kahn, is facing a potential civil war, and the grandmaster of the Lin-Kuei, Sub-Zero, has gone quiet. In the time since MK9, Sub-Zero and Scorpion (now going by his true name, Hanzo Hasashi) have made peace after discovering it was Quan Chi who organized the massacre of the Shirai Ryu. The next generation “Kombat Kids” head off to the Lin Kuei Palace.
Meanwhile, Kitana’s clone Mileena is leading a rebellion against Kotal Kahn with help from Shinnok’s amulet. Sub-Zero ambushes Cassie’s team, revealing his part of the mission to be a training exercise meant to build the squad’s teamwork. But the mission is interrupted by a message from the now estranged wife, mother, and Earthrealm general, Sonya Blade. She informs the Earthrealm warriors and Raiden of the war brewing between Kotal Kahn and Mileena, along with rumors of Shinnok’s amulet.
The squad eventually allies with Kotal Kahn, agreeing to find Mileena and the amulet. Sonya and Johnny locate Kano, getting the amulet’s location and sending it to Cassie, who takes off to find it with Kotal Kahn’s ally: the insect queen D’Vorah. The kids locate Mileena; Kotal orders her executed; then he arrests Cassie and her squad, saying he will take Shinnok’s amulet for himself and hold the team for negotiations with Raiden. Quietly, D’Vorah contacts Quan Chi — she has secretly been working as his agent — and makes off with the amulet.
Cassie’s team escapes captivity and chases after D’Vorah, while Kotal thinks the two events are linked and D’Vorah is working for Raiden. He prepares to attack Earthrealm. Meanwhile, in the Netherrealm, Jax and Kenshi are enlisted by Sonya to help track down Quan Chi. The duo teams up with a woman named Sareena to kidnap the necromancer away from his Revenants and take him back to Earthrealm.
End of a New Era
As Sonya holds Quan Chi captive and calls Cassie’s team back in, Hanzo and his Shirai Ryu strike, demanding Quan Chi’s head, but Sonya refuses. Raiden needs Quan Chi alive to rescue the other Revenants. A fight ensues and Hanzo emerges victorious. Before he can kill Quan Chi, however, D’Vorah appears and tosses Shinnok’s amulet to the sorcerer, who completes the spell to release the elder god just as he is decapitated. Shinnok returns, subdues the Earthrealm fighters, and makes for the Jinsei — allowing D’Vorah take away an unconscious Johnny Cage so he can’t interfere again.
Raiden is taken by surprise at the sky temple. He’s quickly held prisoner as Shinnok begins to corrupt the Jinsei, and Earth’s life force along with it. As Cassie’s squad makes their way to the sky temple, they’re interrupted by the invading Outworld horde. Except Sub-Zero and the Lin Kuei to arrive to keep them busy while the Kombat Kids (not their actual name) head inside.
Jacqui and Takeda hold off the remaining Revenants while Cassie and Kung Jin rush to the Jinsei chamber, finding Johnny being slowly eaten by D’Vorah’s insects. Cassie defeats the bug lady and Shinnok emerges from the Jinsei, attempting to destroy Johnny. Cassie utilizes the same green energy her father did years prior to save him and finally defeats Shinnok.
Cassie and Kung Jin free Raiden and, to heal the Jinsei, place him in the stream, stealing energy away from Shinnok. The remaining Revenants run away after the skies clear, while Shinnok and D’Vorah are taken into custody. In the epilogue, it’s revealed that the Jinsei purification corrupted Raiden, as he arrives in the Netherrealm to greet its new rulers: the undead Liu Kang and Kitana. He leaves them with a statement that Earthrealm will no longer react, but instead actively seek and destroy threats without mercy. He leaves the duo a parting gift: the severed, still-living head of Shinnok.
So where is Mortal Kombat 11 headed? The new main antagonist, Kronika, is the cosmic keeper of time. And she is mighty unhappy with Raiden changing the history. The story of MK11 revolves around her efforts to rewrite the timeline again — without Raiden in it — forever.
To do this, she recruits the help of all those who have a bone to pick with the thunder god. If you’ve been paying attention, you know plenty of folks who will line up for a punch to Raiden’s prophetic jaw. Kronika essentially brings forward the fighters from the first few Mortal Kombats (specifically Shao Kahn and the cybernetic Lin Kuei) to fight alongside the modern iterations of Liu Kang, Kitana, and their army of Revenants. The temporal divide turns friends on each other, and even fighters against future and former versions of themselves.
Between the main story and other modes like the Krypt, there are myriad references to the rich tapestry of MK lore. And now that you’re caught up, you’ll be able to play MK11 with that special someone and, when Noob Saibot arrives on the scene, lean over and whisper “That’s Bi-Han.”