Checking the Score: Wilbert Roget Talks Past and Present of Mortal Kombat Music

Checking the Score is a feature about video game music, composers, musicians and tools of the trade.

Many of us probably still remember the days of using up all our quarters for the game at the arcade or playing on our Sega Genesis against friends at home. However you remember it, Mortal Kombat is a franchise that has spanned generations of players. From games to movies and more, it’s a title that has influenced pop culture in the past and continues to do so. This past year brought fans of the series a brand new installment to the long-running arcade-fighter franchise; complete with a time-bending story linking past with present. It’s a symbolic take on how far the franchise has come from its arcade roots to being a global phenomenon. In addition to subject matter and gameplay being memorable experiences, who could forget that game’s music? The game’s original music felt ahead of its time for the early 1990s with complex composition and experimentation with different synth beats. Beyond that, we all remember that 1995 movie theme song screaming out,”MORTAL KOMBAT!” So it’s no surprise to see how far the franchise has come when everything down to its music has permeated pop culture.

With the newest installment Mortal Kombat 11 out, Hardcore Gamer takes a look at the game’s musical history in an interview with the game’s composer, Wilbert Roget. In a detailed interview, Roget explains his use of Mortal Kombat’s past to influence its present. His composition is thoughtful of the game’s subject matter and long-running history through the use of organic sounds and synthesizers to bring a fresh sound to the game while staying true to its roots.

[Hardcore Gamer] You have a history of making epic scores for games like Call of Duty and Destiny, how did you bring that experience into the sound for Mortal Kombat?

[Wilbert Roget] Every major game franchise has its own unique challenges and expectations, and although I’ve been fortunate enough to contribute to several blockbuster titles, the experience has been different each time. With Mortal Kombat 11, we were continuing a three-game story arc with characters that date back to the original 1992 title. So in this case, it wasn’t so much about rebooting or reinventing a classic, but rather, taking influence from the originals and crafting a sound that fit the current game’s epic storytelling and relatable, interconnected characters.

That said, I am particularly lucky to have written additional music for the Destiny 2: Forsaken expansion before working on Mortal Kombat 11 — that score was my first opportunity to work extensively with hardware synthesizers, which I expanded upon greatly for this title. Additionally, in scoring Call of Duty: WWII, I developed a more precise, minimalist musical language than before, which was useful in the creation of concise character leitmotifs.

Were gameplay and character fighting styles important in the composition of the score? 

As the principal composer, I wrote the main themes and about 2.5 hours of music for our story mode, but the stages were scored by a team of five other composers — Rich Carle, Dan Forden, Nathan Grigg, Armin Haas and Matthias Wolf. Stage music is tied to locations rather than characters, with the sole exception of Kronika’s Hourglass, where Nathan Grigg used my Kronika theme to portray this final boss character.

In my story mode score, music is entirely character-based, with every character and faction having unique leitmotifs used throughout. These weren’t based on fighting style, but rather on the characters’ personalities and interrelationships. For example, Raiden’s theme has a motivic connection to Cetrion’s to represent his admiration for her as an elder goddess of virtue; Additionally, Fire God Liu Kang’s theme is always used in counterpoint with Raiden’s theme throughout the final chapter, and with Kitana’s theme in the ending credits song, “Rise.” And Kronika’s theme is used throughout the game alongside various other character themes to underscore her manipulations.

How did you approach creating the music for a fighting game?

Because MK11’s story features characters that are more dynamic, interconnected and relatable than ever before, it was clear that my musical direction needed to be entirely character-based. I chose to use leitmotifs, or very short identifiable musical calling cards, for every character and faction in the game. While the backbone of the score is the bombastic symphonic orchestra, I chose to use non-orchestral elements for each of these leitmotifs — hardware synthesizer sounds, metal-influenced guitars, and traditional instruments and vocals from around the world. This sonic diversity made each of the character motifs more easily recognizable within the soundscape, even within the busiest of mixes.

With MK 11’s story about past and future timelines, did you use any previous Mortal Kombat sound influence in this new soundtrack? How did you translate Mortal Kombat’s history into its music?

Mortal Kombat 2 and the Mortal Kombat film were my main sonic inspirations for this score, particularly in their use of octatonic harmony, dense percussion beds, east Asian traditional instruments, and electronic and metal guitar elements. I expanded on this with a more bombastic orchestral backing and the use of Mediterranean and Arabic instruments, Scandinavian “kulning” vocals, and more overt use of analog synthesizers, but I would still say there is a direct lineage between my new score and the original classics. And there are even a few “Easter eggs” sprinkled throughout the score too, with subtle references to these two groundbreaking soundtracks in the underscore.

What is your opinion on Mortal Kombat’s evolution towards a more realistic graphical style over the years? Do you think this trend directly influences the way OSTs are made (e.g., how we are now seeing more of cinematic style in gameplay and music)?

Actually, realism is what drew me to the original 1990s Mortal Kombat games in the first place! The franchise has always gravitated towards realistic characters with interesting storylines, and as game engine technology has evolved over the years, so has their ability to create increasingly believable characters. Similarly, the developers’ budgets and resources have grown greatly over the years, allowing for the blockbuster cinematic story modes we enjoy in the current generation. I made sure to hire as many live musicians as possible for the score, including a symphony orchestra recorded in Budapest as well as solo instrumentalists and vocalists from four different continents. But again, while the Hollywood sound is definitely at its core, my primary influence was still the classic Mortal Kombat 1-3 soundtracks.

Do you have a favorite, or rewarding, experience from working on Mortal Kombat’s new sound?

There were many moments throughout the story that I found particularly inspiring and memorable – the universe-bending Timequake, Kitana’s rise to power, Raiden’s flashback and of course Liu Kang’s ascension. But although my score is unique within the franchise for its Hollywood bombast, my favorite scenes to write were actually the more emotional moments between characters — particularly the heartbreaking scene early on with Johnny and Cassie Cage, and Kotal’s romantic interactions with Jade. One might not expect love themes or emotional family tragedy within a Mortal Kombat score, but this title’s story was dynamic enough to call for these more human, non-violent musical moments.

Outside of the composition, the most rewarding aspects of this project have been working with my incredible team of musicians and performers, and hearing and seeing fans’ reactions to our story. Many content creators on YouTube and Twitch have recorded and uploaded their playthroughs of the story mode, and you can imagine how gratifying it is seeing their reactions to our story beats, sometimes even reacting to the music itself — I was shocked at how many people noticed and even sang along with the underscore! The response on Twitter and social media has been overwhelmingly supportive, and as a long-time fan of the fighting game community myself, it has been a particularly tremendous honor to contribute to this title.