LAW ORDER + REPLOIDS: Subversion, suppression, and the question of justice in Mega Man X


The year is 21XX. Advanced humanoid robots known as Reploids (a portmanteau of replicant and android) flood the streets of this brave new world. In every factory or kitchen, in every diamond mine and farmland, Reploids, programmed to act and think almost entirely like humans, have kept society stable.

But, when a powerful computer virus compels Reploids to “go Maverick” against human kind, only one hero stands between peace in our times and total annihilation. Players take control of the titular Mega Man X, a pacifist Maverick Hunter who uses an arm cannon to fight crime and can absorb and replicate the powers of other Reploids. However, his blue-colored exterior hides his true power: his heart.

Reploid uprisings, apocalyptic events, and conspiracy theories haunt the world of Mega Man X. Not a single moment in the game showed any moment of peace. If there was one, it would either be immediately interrupted by scenes of mechanical carnage or be preludes of darker things to come.

The titular X himself is barely seen to have had any chances at peace, awakening 100 years after his creator, robotics pioneer Dr. Thomas Light, placed him in a stasis chamber to test his morality. Thrusted into one life-or-death situation after another, X is ultimately burdened with the daunting task of prioritizing the wants of his human masters over the needs of his fellow machine-kind (with almost all Reploids being based on X’s own designs, therefore he serves as the Reploids’ version of Adam). 

Even when he is constantly forced to charge-up his arm buster and blast his enemies to hell, X is always shown as being a conflicted soldier. He hates violent means but he knows that, given the lines he walks, there is only one way to end the conflict. His dedication to justice and his nearly limitless potential to be compassionate makes X “more human” than machine. In fact, it’s been said by X’s former commanding officer and the series’ main antagonist Sigma that X’s own empathy is the key to Reploids’ “evolution.”

There has been no shortage of stories focusing on a prophesied chosen one who is the key to a party’s future because of their upright moral compass, especially ones involving robots turning against their machine selves to embrace their more human aspects.

However, in the case of Mega Man X, while the series is quite clearly non-political and is not at all interested in exploring the social implications of X’s actions, this instead acts as more of an ode to the status quo.

Laws of the concrete jungle

His ... worrying ... That is precisely the quality that will prove beneficial to our cause. He alone possesses that ability. He thinks more deeply than the rest of us. He feels ... normal Reploids are no match for his art. But ... he is unaware of his incredible power.”

- Sigma in The Day of Σ

To better understand how the games implicitly enforce the importance of a status quo, one may look at the series through the Marxist concept of the base and superstructure model. This refers to the cyclical relationship between the means of production and the workers involved in that area (base) and those that attempt to dictate the sociocultural and economic dynamics and standards of the base (superstructure), and how each affects each other simultaneously.

Reploids are built to accomplish feats humans could not do, including being able to to perform construction in harsher environments and to be able to accomplish more military goals efficiently. Since Reploids are barely seen outside of industrial areas such as factories and power plants and are seen being designed for other purposes such as mining and construction, these are enough to suggest that these mechanical beings are representations of the base.

However, the games subtly take this a step further by designing most of the Mavericks as animals. 

Although it was never explicitly stated as to why there would be a need for animal-themed Reploids, there are two possible interpretations that can both explain this and can support the base and superstructure model.

The first of which is that the world of 21XX is one that has long been ravaged by environmental collapse (not counting the eventually, explicitly detailed apocalypse that takes place in the fifth game and Mega Man Zero, the sequel subseries). Besides the complete absence of organic animals, all forest-themed levels across the series show pieces of technology integrating with trees in the background. Again, what these are were never explored, but one can assume that the technology is some form of growth-enhancement or botanical life support (or like in Mega Man X5, the integration may be of “natural” occurrence”).

The second and perhaps the one that I found the most plausible being that by designing Reploids as animals, it would be easier to treat them as being “beneath” humans, therefore making it possibly easier for humans to treat Reploids as mere gears in a machine (outside of the Mechaniloid mooks faced before the bosses, which were confirmed to function more like appliances than sentient beings).

According to anonymously posted fan theories in TV Tropes, the animal-themed Reploids are generally frowned upon as they may be parts of a lower social class. Though this was somewhat debunked by the fact that most of these bosses held high ranks, this does not negate the possibility that they face discrimination because, perhaps as a case of unintentional irony, they are just parts of an artificial ecosystem and robbed of free will completely.

For every zoo, there is a zookeeper. Enter X.

X, based on this model, can be seen as the superstructure incarnate. Since factors involved in the superstructure, from cultural norms to even religious and philosophical beliefs, are keen on maintaining order, it makes sense that X can be viewed as some form of a police stand-in. This is only made more blatant by the fact that X’s blue contrasts his partner and series secondary lead Zero’s red.

X is bound to avenge the unseen humans who have been killed or harmed in the chaos, to dispense his understanding of justice as he sees fit. Even with his hesitations, he (and by extension players) are compelled to outright kill all enemies, and are even rewarded by doing so with health regeneration collectibles, power-ups, and even upgrades.

Although this is due mostly to the game’s linear design, wherein players are not free to make certain choices outside of the basic mechanics of side-scrolling mayhem, it can be interpreted that this is completely X’s doing and players are simply viewing his adventures the way that he wants us to see it: one that is dictated by “necessary” violence. This is further enforced by certain attempts at “humanizing” enemies that are mostly kept at a bare minimum (mostly through brief cutscenes of the villains monologuing), leaving players barely any chance to see the Mavericks as nothing more than violators of the social order.

One nation under Sigma

" ... We're going to build a nation for the Reploids. That's our ultimate goal. We'll fight anyone who tries to interfere with our independence."

The General from Mega Man X4

Once one of the best Maverick Hunters in the organization, Sigma became the overall main antagonist after becoming infected with the Maverick Virus. Now obsessed with the idea of evolution, Sigma has made it his goal to be a ruler of a Reploids-exclusive society, but not if X or Zero had anything to say about that.

But what exactly is the virus? In-universe, it was revealed to be a debugging program gone awry. As most players have seen, the virus almost always compels hosts to commit genocide on humans or be subservient to Sigma.

While this may be the case at face value, perhaps this may just be a case of the games showing us what they want us to see: a chaotic world that needs the help of a pro-democratic hero in X. As we have only ever known the story through X’s eyes, perhaps we can even interpret the virus as a non-existent threat to justify the Maverick Hunter’s actions? After all, we never truly understood the virus beyond its barest, conflict-inciting core.

If X is the villain, then why are we supposed to root for him? Because Sigma’s actions go against the status quo. If we are to look at the story through this view and if we are to look at the story through Sigma’s perspective (without the megalomaniacal tendencies), then we can see the threat was never an epidemic of rogue machines all along, but a crackdown on individualists.

David Easton’s Political System Analysis can add some depth to the otherwise surface-level study on a seemingly typical tyrannical overlord in the making. As detailed beforehand, the environment that both Reploids and humans live-in is one driven by industry and quite possibly survival in a growingly unsafe ecosystem. The presence of these needs led to the mass-production of Replloids, creating a world that is seemingly better just because it had a helping hand.

The continued support for this system, however, is flawed and unfair for Reploids in general because this framework cancels out their needs, reducing their existence to products.

The need for independence is what forces Sigma to rebel and organize a movement. One that almost functions like a nation in the making, due to their use of both political and in this case military power to assert their autonomy against the more dominant force. If one were to subscribe to the Marxist thought, this idea of nation building would be quite humorous if one were to notice that mines, factories, and even military bases are the stages (as this subtly suggests the idea of workers taking back the power from their oppressors).

Alas, subversion is treated as a virus, and for all intents and purposes and the game’s limited focus on the political undertones, Sigma’s quest for liberation is treated as a villain’s journey. A perspective that harkens back to the radical Western view on democracy, with X being the “liberator” of those who have been swayed by the devil’s influence (which is even more fitting, considering Sigma did take on such form in the eighth game).

This brings to mind the experiences of Cold War paranoia as the doomsday clock nearly crossed all the way through midnight. The fear of subversion is not brought on by the possibility of apocalypse, but because the powerful fear the possibility of freedom from their control. Given this, perhaps it may not be a coincidence that there hasn’t been a single stage or scene in the games that showcased a moment of peace the moment Reploids go Maverick. It’s always a scene of devastation and destruction in the wake of the machines breaking free from their initial programming.

Democracy is an anti-virus

"Your dedication to what you refer to as ‘justice’ is what first got me thinking ... I realized the imperfection of this world, and decided I must change it."

- Sigma in Mega Man X8

The story of Mega Man X is a series of games that shines thanks to its timeless gameplay and classic narrative. However, implicit, underlying messages in the game suggest that we were never meant to be the hero of the tale all along. The game is fashioned like a fun side-scroller, but the joy that comes with it may very well be the result of one democratic lie.


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