Mortal Kombat 1 - Homelander Hero Image

How NetherRealm Studios Methodically Designed Homelander for Mortal Kombat 1

Summary

  • Designer Joe Epstein shares the diligent work the team at NetherRealm Studios did to bring Homelander to Mortal Kombat 1 on Xbox Series X|S.
  • “Does this feel like Homelander?” was a key tenet throughout the creative process.
  • Homelander will be available on June 4, 2024, as part of the early access period for Mortal Kombat 1 Kombat Pack owners on Xbox Series X|S, followed by wide availability on June 11.

I joined NetherRealm Studios not knowing what I’d be working on. So, first morning, I was stunned to learn what felt like everything at once about Mortal Kombat 1. And I was beyond excited to work on Homelander as an upcoming guest fighter.

I’ve often recommended “The Boys” by claiming Homelander as one of the great characters in modern fiction. If Butcher is Ahab and The Boys his Pequod, Homelander makes a helluva white whale. Through the monstrous indulgence across each aspect of the character, from the writing to costuming to the performance above all, Homelander becomes a blank canvas for any interpretation you like. This includes the obvious ones the show invites; he’s wearing stars and stripes, after all. You can draw a line from the groundbreaking superhero deconstruction in “Watchmen” to the terminal cynicism of “The Boys.” Both stories repurpose archetypes of prior eras to ask some unsettling questions. Which is more likely, that a real costumed vigilante would be a heroic idealist, or a net danger to others? Would Superman worry about gauzy American values, or about the stock price of the research conglomerate that made him?

So, I’m happy to go book-club with Homelander, but that isn’t what got us in the door. We’re here because Homelander is awesome, great, and terrible, in the way a nova or rogue wave or H-bomb has those qualities. He is the merciless last boss of a story with no credible heroes in sight. That’s what punches our ticket. Later, we can see he’s lonely, juvenile, and tortured, despite unmatchable powers… that he’s, if not sympathetic, at least understandable. Few people would choose the life that made him so strong but so cruel. And what better fit could there be for Mortal Kombat, a hard-edged universe where we sometimes half-joke there are no good guys?

After careful preparation, we began work. Nailing tone was key. “Does this feel like Homelander?” Was our guiding-light question applied to everything: poses, movement, sound effects, facial expressions, hand gestures, even the set of a shoulder or angle of a dangling foot. Homelander’s central emotion is a bottomless contempt, which he struggles to hide for the sake of appearance. Watching that mask slip is the show’s core tension (and most perverse joy), and we strove to maintain that here.

And that’s before we get into his arsenal. It’s an amusing task translating Homelander into a game like Mortal Kombat 1 – in “The Boys,” he’s so strong that few encounters actually become fights, so there aren’t many direct attack pose references. This of course was not a problem developing his Fatalities and Brutalities. Homelander carelessly dispatches most would-be attackers with a laser-eye flicker or casual neck-snapping. Even against other ‘supes,’ he usually deters futile confrontations by merely enkindling his eyes or waving a hand. With few exceptions we won’t spoil, Homelander lacks credible foes, and he knows it. So, we leaned heavily on the fighting references that do exist, laying the foundation of his kit with the haymakers he uses in the show’s most intense battles. We pepper in his disdain with some slapping and shoving attacks, more insulting techniques than a Lin Kuei or Shirai Ryu would dare use. And it was a no-brainer to include several versions of laser eyes, his most destructive and frequently used ability. Beyond that, we had to embellish, always still asking ”Is this Homelander?”

To emphasize his mobility and distinguish him from both Mortal Kombatmainstays and from other guests, we gave him unique flying poses and modes, so ”the only man in the sky” rightfully commands airspace better than anyone. Developing the game’s first flight mechanic naturally introduced complications. Art considerations involved how to distinguish flight visually – all sorts of animations depending on travel direction and what led into flight, mussed hair on Homelander himself while he’s airborne, and cape physics adjustments. These overlapped with technical tasks ensuring Homelander flies in the correct trajectory, with the right velocity, depending on the player’s inputs. Design considerations included setting when it should be possible to enter and exit flight and what Homelander is capable of while soaring.

To demonstrate how skeptically he regards challengers, we gave him a punch-specific counter pulled directly from a flashpoint moment in “The Boys”Season 3. As with flight, this is a small-seeming decision that leads inevitably to hurdles. No existing counter-style move needed to differentiate between punches or kicks, for starters, and it isn’t as simple as just checking if the incoming attack resulted from a punch or kick button, since some punch button attacks don’t result in punches, while some kick button attacks do. Plus, Homelander may attempt a punch counter with either his chest or back toward the player’s POV, while incoming punches may also likewise emerge from either chest-to-camera or ”flipped” stance. So, any given punch-versus-counter interaction has four different ways it can visually play out, therefore that many more possible outcomes to set up and quality-control.

“Catch punches and kick back” or “get a guy flying around” might sound like straightforward things. But implementing them was an interdepartmental effort between animators, designers, engineers, and QA to get great-looking and feeling results. We set out to spotlight Homelander’s most brutal exchanges and honor (or maybe appease?) him with novel spins on familiar mechanics, and we hope you agree.

Homelander will be available on June 4, 2024, as part of the early access period for Mortal Kombat 1 Kombat Pack owners on Xbox Series X|S, followed by wide availability on June 11, 2024.

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