Ashrah is one of my favourite characters ever, and if written right, she could be one of the best Mortal Kombat characters ever.
A while ago, I wrote a review of Ashrah’s story explaining why it disappointed me and giving suggestions on how it could have been better. Today, I want to explore this topic in more depth.
Apart from being a fan of the Mortal Kombat franchise, I am also a professional writer, and Ashrah was one of the characters who helped me hone my craft through fan fiction. I have written (so far) a total of three multi-chapter fan fics with her in the leading role, which gave me the opportunity to study her character and analyse my own feelings towards her: why did I like her so much? What made her special? I am, by no means, a perfect or even great writer. However, this kind of profile study is vital if you want to create a character who is consistent, genuine, and fascinating.
When we talk about Ashrah’s core, the soul of her character, there are two key points to keep in mind:
- Dual nature: Ashrah is a creature torn between tragedy and hope, vice and virtue, darkness and light.
- Obsession: She’s a demon from the Netherrealm who seeks spiritual cleansing, and this goal occupies her mind and soul. She’s obsessed with attaining absolution.
The best version of Ashrah is the one that best encompasses and explores these attributes. And that is her 3D-era version.
Now, is her OG story a prime example of character building and development? I want to make this clear – absolutely not. But even with its limited storytelling potential, Deception and Armageddon gave her more than NRS did.
In Mortal Kombat: Deception, we were introduced to this gracious-looking woman dressed in white from head to toe. We learn her story and her true nature as a Netherrealm demon seeking to escape the hellish land. And we see her anger. Because that was how Ashrah was in the Midway times: angry. She was rather unpleasant to everyone she met except Shujinko, whom she trained and helped to navigate the Netherrealm. Is the rage necessary to her character? No, but it did the job of representing her deep frustration at her situation and her intense desire to change it (obsession).
Then, in her arcade ending, we learn that Ashrah accomplished her goal… or, at least, part of it: she killed so many demons that the Netherrealm used its metaphorical foot to kick her out of there. Interestingly enough, the kriss that helped her purify herself could not go with her.
So, between Konquest and Arcade Towers, Ashrah faced conflicts, and through her actions, her life went through a significant change. This, combined with her portrayal, is already more than she got in the latest game.
Mortal Kombat: Armageddon then presents another layer to Ashrah’s quest: Datusha, the real name of her kriss (which she retrieved supposedly thanks to Shujinko), is not a blessed sword, but a bloodthirsty artefact forged in Vaeternus and whose purpose is to exterminate the vampires, with a special taste for Nitara’s sweet blood. To achieve that, it is deceiving Ashrah with promises of purification. She does not know that, but Nitara does – Nitara, who back then was a neutral, far more interesting figure than a generic vampire villain.
This is fascinating because it twists the story: suddenly, we realise Ashrah is not the being of light we believed (even though she herself does not know that), and consequentially, Nitara is not the villain Ashrah would lead us to believe. Better yet: Datusha is not entirely to blame. It is misleading Ashrah, yes, but none of that would have happened if Ashrah wasn’t obsessed (remember the key point?) with purifying herself to the point of letting the sword blind her.
Then, of course, Armageddon happened, and we never saw the continuation of that story. A story I hoped beyond all hope would be further explored in the New Era. A story that Dominic knew we wanted – the nearly-identical backstory for Ashrah and the mention of “Datusha” in Nitara’s trailer were not accidental – but refused to deliver.
What did he deliver, then? First of all, I like the foundation of this new character and some ideas he proposed e.g. Ashrah training with the monks, the sisterhood with Sareena. Change in itself is not bad; her story did not need to repeat the events of the previous games. But I immensely detest how her new story was developed – or, rather, how it lacked development.
I was hopeful when she was first announced and we saw the demonic scars and black eyes. Finally, I thought, they got the dual nature right (one of my issues with the original design, even though I love the suit itself, is the complete lack of demonic characteristics)! But they did not. (Here I blame the designers as well. But more on that later.)
Let’s get back to her anger. In Mortal Kombat 1, she is the opposite. She is “cute” (a word I have regrettably read far too many times when talking about much of the game’s cast). Again, Ashrah being angry is not essential to her character, but limiting her to “cuteness” is essentially wrong because it goes against her desire to change herself! You are portraying a creature with deeply ingrained inner conflicts as if she boasted inner peace, that makes zero sense!
“But she’s angry at Quan Chi,” you might say. And sure, she speaks a little rougher with him. But it’s not enough. Not when her conflict with her former slaver was treated like any other fight in the game. She was not allowed to hurt Quan Chi. All it took was Kenshi asking her to stop when Ashrah should have gone mad with the mere necessity of breathing the same air as Quan Chi! Ashrah could’ve even killed him back then – Quan Chi is a smart necromancer, and it wouldn’t be unbelievable for him to have created a “safeguard” in the event of his death. Indeed, his dying and coming as a lich-like entity would’ve given his paleness much more meaning!
Even worse, she did not exchange a single glance with Sareena, the person who was supposed to be so important to her. I went through this in my Ashrah story review, but Ashrah’s chapter should have been focused on her fight against Quan Chi and her rescue of Sareena (or at least her attempt to rescue her Sister). Add Nitara as a poetic contradiction and complement to Ashrah’s character (because that is the beauty behind the rivalry that was so easily disregarded), and you have a wonderful chapter filled with conflicts.
Conflict – that is exactly what Ashrah lacks. One of her best intro dialogues goes as follows:
Liu Kang: The battle between good and evil is eternal.
Ashrah: Why must it be fought inside me?
It is a beautiful line that expresses Ashrah’s inner conflict. But where is this battle? Not in the story, surely. Not in her arcade ending, either. And not in any other intro dialogue. Her dual nature, her most important trait, was treated with so much irrelevance and negligence as to be virtually inexistent.
“There was no time to develop it,” someone told me. But the thing is: there was. Even in the very short time Ashrah had in the story, there was plenty of time to explore her dual nature. She is a more kind-hearted creature now? No problem there. I love her impressionable nature when it comes to Earthrealm and Outworld; it makes sense for someone who spent eternity in the cruel pits of the Netherrealm without knowledge of how other realms truly were. But do not infantilise her. She’s thousands of years old (just like Nitara, who’s also infantilised; a problem, truly, that affects many in the cast); her life was extremely different from ours, but she did live. Show us hints of her anger, of her demonic self, of her vast experience. Make her someone who is both kind and cruel, with even her allies. Make her try to kill Quan Chi despite Kenshi begging her not to. Make her someone who embodies, even if accidentally, both light and darkness. Because that is what her dual nature means.
Going a little further, imagine this scenario: in Reptile’s chapter, they are surrounded by Shao’s forces. Heavily outnumbered, the group is on the brink of defeat and capture – this time, they will not escape. Ashrah, enraged at the prospect of losing the companions she just met and the promised life in Earthrealm, loses control and unleashes her demonic form, saving her companions through the chaos she spreads until the group manages to calm her down.
All that (Sareena, Nitara, Quan Chi, Ashrah’s increased lack of self-control) would have made Ashrah’s new life in Earthrealm far more rewarding. Remember how I said that in Deception her life went through a significant change at the end of her Arcade Tower? This does not happen here. Significant change is obtained through conflict. In Mortal Kombat 1, Ashrah goes with the flow – or, better saying, she’s swept in by events like Johnny and Kenshi’s bond, Ermac’s creation, the destruction of the Living Forest, and Kenshi’s communion with Sento. Absolutely nothing that happens in her chapter is dependent on her as a character. Kung Lao or Baraka or Reptile could’ve easily done exactly what Ashrah did and it would have made zero difference. This is one instance where I like the idea (Ashrah earning this new life in Earthrealm and becoming a monk) but abhor the execution. It just doesn’t feel rewarding. She did not earn that.
Speaking of earning, she did not earn the Order of Light either. This order isn’t new to the Mortal Kombat universe; it already existed in the 3D era as this group that gathered warriors from various realms to fight for peace. Listen, I love the idea of Ashrah leading the new version of this group. She represents well the virtues of the group. But not yet! Ashrah has barely left the Netherrealm before living in it for thousands of years and knowing only pain and suffering. She hasn’t travelled, didn’t have time to meet many different races and cultures, and above all, she doesn’t even understand herself! We’re back to the dual nature problem and how poorly handled it was. Ashrah founding of the Order of Light should’ve come as this monumental moment in her life after a journey of self-love and self-understanding. She went through none of that. How can she lead the Order of Light?!
Ashrah is a warrior, and through her fighting, she should have shown the rage she keeps locked inside her, the demon she hides. Because, if we are to believe the intros, the demon is still there, as she tells Johnny Cage he would die of fright if he saw her natural form.
Indeed, if we are to believe the intros, Ashrah’s purification is even more vague than usual. In the story, she says she looks nearly human because she purified most evil from her soul. In an intro with Kitana, she says she and others (assumedly Sareena, Kia, Jataaka…) can take human form because they are cambions (in Mortal Kombat lore, cambions are supposed to be demons who can take human form, not human/demon hybrids). So… which is it? And if Ashrah is a cambion like Sareena and her other Sisters, why is she the only one who has scars and black eyes in human form? Do you see where I am getting? How can we expect development if there are so many inconsistencies surrounding her lore? Again, it is abundantly clear that, lore-wise, Ashrah is lost.
Here’s a piece of truth: no version of Ashrah has ever explored what it means for her to be purified (aside from that random arcade ending she got in Armageddon, which was also kind of vague) and why she feels the need to purify herself. Is her nature evil? But why? Sareena is not evil, and she seems to perfectly switch between her human and demon forms. Even when Sareena was evil in the OG timeline, she redeemed herself without the need to purify her soul.
Here’s another piece of truth: Ashrah does not need to purify herself. She feels guilty about her thousands of years of torment and hopelessness in the Netherrealm, and she wants to atone for the wrongs she did, which is great… but she does not need purification! Indeed, she should not get it. If you allow me some “self-promotion”, in all my fan fics, Ashrah always found the balance between light and darkness because that’s how I deeply believe the character should be: someone who embraces the truth of her dual existence. She is light and darkness, not one or the other. Hell, eliminating one might as well kill her. (We, of course, never got an explanation as to how Ashrah got light powers in the first place. In my headcanon, she always had them but only unlocked them once she saw life in other realms and found Datusha along with the hope of a better life. Before that, escape wasn’t even something she considered because why would she if the other realms were the same as the Netherrealm?)
Another issue brought by this weak portrayal of her conflict: if Ashrah is “cute” all the time and has total control over her human form, then why is purification so important to her? Is it purely aesthetical because she doesn’t like her scars and black eyes (which, for the record, is a design decision that I like!)?
The disgusting “relationship” (if it can be called that) forced on her and Syzoth is another prime example of how Dominic misunderstood her character. As pathetic and frivolous as Cage Match is, the writer there understood at the very least one thing: for as long as Ashrah seeks purification, she will never get into a relationship with anyone. That goes in direct opposition to her obsession. One of her in-between round lines when fighting Syzoth – you know the one I mean – is one of the most grotesque examples of character misinterpretation I ever had the displeasure of seeing.
And here, I must be clear: I am not against Ashrah being in a relationship. It would be hypocritical of me to say that considering two of my three Ashrah fics portray her in a romance. But I am fiercely against this relationship and how it… I won’t say “developed” because there was minus zero development there. No chemistry, no reason, and once more, no conflict – because yes, even romantic relationships need conflict. Conflict fuels plotlines, shapes characters, and adds depth to a relationship, no matter what kind.
You want to write an Ashrah who, through meditation and living in Earthrealm (and facing conflicts, of course; conflict is the soul of storytelling, after all) ends up understanding that she doesn’t need to purify herself, and then gets into a romantic relationship? Great! Hell, you want her future romantic partner to help her understand she doesn’t need purification? Perfect, that’s a lovely idea! But the understanding comes first, before any kind of romance, not after. For Shinnok’s sake, develop her character, give her a chance to breathe! It’s not that hard! Show us her evolution – an evolution that Ashrah most definitely did not achieve in Mortal Kombat 1 (she barely left the Netherrealm, a place she spent thousands of years in suffering and pain!), not even post-story as some people love to throw the crappy excuse that “we don’t know how much time has passed.” (Ten seconds. That’s how long it took Syzoth to apparently forget about his murdered family – a family he slaved to protect and was willing to die to keep them safe. Beauty privilege really is quite something, eh? Some people have the grotesque habit of forgetting character development if said character is pretty or sexy.)
Compare it to Shadowheart in Baldur’s Gate 3 (some spoilers ahead). She’s an acolyte of Shar, Goddess of Loss and Pain, and much like Ashrah, she’s obsessed with her faith and pleasing her Lady Shar. While you can romance most characters in BG3 before the end of Act 1, Shadowheart’s romance only truly begins at the end of Act 2. Before that, you can have a nice moment with her, drinking wine, and even share a kiss. But Shadowheart doesn’t commit to a relationship until after she denies Shar. Why? Because her faith shaped her life, her ideals, and she couldn’t let herself be close to someone else while she had this inner struggle. Larian understands that; they understand character development, and so they wrote this arc. With Ashrah, it’s similar. Do you want to show her starting to romantically care about someone while pursuing her purification? Okay, cool. Do you want her to share a hesitant kiss with this someone and feel guilty about it (which would make the most sense for her character)? Hell, that’s cool too! And then, once Ashrah solves her inner conflicts one way or another, do you want her to embrace this blossoming love? Great, this is an arc that could work amazingly! But what Dominic did was completely erase the importance of Ashrah’s personal quest and how much it influences her.
In this particular case, Ashrah isn’t even the only one to suffer. This pathetic “nomance” is extremely harmful to both characters. There seems to be a horrible mindset at NRS (which has sadly affected a chunk of the community) that every character needs to be in a romantic relationship. The new dynamic between Kitana and Mileena was a plot point that excited many fans, myself included, and in the game, we got nothing from them. A few short scenes here and there that barely scratched the surface of who those characters are and what they mean to each other. Kuai Liang and Bi-Han’s relationship as brothers was also only superficially explored – and let’s not get into how poorly written Bi-Han was. The friendship between Kung Lao and Raiden falls flat because Kung Lao himself is flatter than a flitter. Sindel says she considered Rain a “son,” but why? We never saw them even looking at each other during the story! Why aren’t Ashrah’s new companions treated as her new siblings (a new “sisterhood” to help her understand what she went through with Quan Chi and the Netherrealm isn’t the norm; to teach her what family means)? Why isn’t her sisterly bond with Sareena depicted as the incredible relationship it deserves to be since those are two amazing characters? Sareena should be the one helping Ashrah understand herself and vice-versa. If Ashrah is Sareena’s saviour, then Sareena is Ashrah’s guardian, and here we could – should! – have a compelling and lovely story.
Why aren’t family and friends being developed with the care and attention they deserve, and are instead being shoved aside by inane, meaningless attempts at romance? Is Mortal Kombat one of those shallow teenage dramas or is it a fantasy epic? I am afraid it has become the former.
Sareena, Nitara, Syzoth, Baraka, Mileena – those are characters Ashrah should have built a connection with (not romantic, at least not at first), for they share her dual nature theme and have conflicts that complement and contradict her own. (I mean, Nitara should have had those conflicts; instead, Dominic reduced her to a dull, generic vampire villain who bears no resemblance to the original character – the same applies to Ashrah.) She could’ve had an especially strong bond with Mileena, and indeed, before the game came out, many fans speculated that Ashrah would eventually teach Mileena to control her furious Tarkat self. Imagine how awesome that would’ve been! Unfortunately, Mortal Kombat 1 missed the mark by many, many miles.
“There’s no more radiant sight than that of someone who’s learned to love themselves anew.”Gale
The line above is said by Gale, one of the main characters in Baldur’s Gate 3, a game I have been playing lots and lots of (as you might have noticed). The first character I created for the game was based on post-acceptance Ashrah. And it was beautiful. The Oathbreaker Paladin represents exactly what I wish Ashrah would understand: that the darkness is dangerous, but threats also hide in the light, in plain sight. The “good” arc of many companions – especially Astarion and Shadowheart – mirrors exceptionally well the learning curve Ashrah should also embark on. Because after spending eternity and a day in the Netherrealm, believing nothing existed beyond pain and suffering (as her bio itself states), Ashrah needs self-love.
Of course, this entire arc should not have happened in a single game. And I do not expect Mortal Kombat to have the same depth as Baldur’s Gate 3 – at least not with this awful chapter system it insists on. A Konquest mode written by a proper team of authors who understand character development, world-building, and long-term storytelling could very well explore longer and – very important – personal character arcs. Because unlike what NRS believes, not every character needs to fit into a linear plotline. Their stories can, of course, affect the main plot, but shoehorning everyone into a single story thread is extremely limiting as we saw with characters like Havik, Nitara, Sub-Zero, Syzoth, Baraka, Mileena, and Ashrah herself.
And the designers went with the easy way out on the angel imagery. It’s no coincidence that the best fan designs for Ashrah depict her as an Asian-looking human. Mortal Kombat 1 did a good job of incorporating more Asian elements in characters such as Raiden and some of the Outworld cast and culture, so why did they leave Ashrah aside? I am sorry, I have nothing personal against the model they chose for Ashrah, but she does not look like the part. She looks like… a common white woman who doesn’t embody the grace and hidden danger Ashrah should convey. (My personal reference for Ashrah is the Indonesian model Ika Rovika.) There are so many Asian myths and legends that could have been used as a reference for Ashrah’s design and powers. They chose the generic instead.
There are many stories they could have told with Ashrah, in and outside the Netherrealm. But for that to work, the writer must understand who Ashrah is. The sad truth is that Dominic only writes caricatures. I don’t know if it’s his fault or if it’s Warner Bros’ mandate, but he never develops the characters beyond their very basic premise – and Elder Gods forbid a character to be something other than pure good or pure evil! It’s the sole reason why Tarkatans were turned into a disease: that was the only way he knew how to make Baraka and Mileena sympathetic. No complex feelings, no layers of personality. They are now a tragic case, so we must root for them, right? In a mindset like this, will Ashrah ever earn the subtlety and mastery her character deserves? Never. Instead, she was turned into a cheap Wonder Woman facsimile.
I hope I explained well why Mortal Kombat 1 broke my heart so deeply. I know some people see me heavily criticising Ashrah and think I’m hating on her. Quite the contrary: I love this character so much, and I want so badly for her to have a story that reflects how amazing she is. Unfortunately, the new game did her dirty.