Several Thousand Years of Reploid Aesthetics: An Ethnography of the Mega Man Universe

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I’m really interested in fake realities, how we think about them, how they emerge, how we decide what is a “real” fake story and what isn’t. We’re the nerdiest species in evolutionary history, obsessively connecting things that were never necessarily supposed to be connected, and then obsessively playing with those connections until they make sense. We just LIKE obsessing over pointless stuff, it makes us feel good on a chemical level. Its a mental game that, for whatever reason, we’ve evolved to be particularly good at. Maybe obsessively playing with ideas and abstractly smashing them together until it creates something useful served us well as semi-hairless apes desperate for new ideas about how to get food and avoid predators. Maybe once we settled those basic problems, we couldn’t stop obsessively playing with whatever ideas were around us.

So now we’re a species that has convoluted fictional mythologies WITHIN convoluted fictional mythologies. People today obsess over minutia of the Marvel universe like ancient monks obsessed over scripture. Corporate interests picked up on our obsessions, and we see apocalypse marketed to us on a daily basis. Buy the official book and learn the LEGIT CANON ZELDA TIMELINE! Sonic the Hedgehog’s world has been rebooted, BUY NOW AND LEARN WHAT STORIES ARE REAL STORIES AND WHAT STORIES ARE MADE UP FAKE STORIES! Who will be the new cinematic Spiderman and how will it effect movies coming out six years from now WATCH THESE TWELVE MOVIES TO FIND OUT! And without being too much of a snotty agnostic, is any of that oh so different than ancient humans going “Check it out true believers, a NEW Testament! EVERYTHING OLD IS NEW AGAIN! BUY A COPY NOW TO SEE WHICH GOD STORIES ARE STILL CANON!” We like our carefully crafted obsessions, and someone intentionally shaking them is an easy way to get us to spend money and pay attention.

Its also a good way to get people to do horrible things in the name of defending said obsessions. I’m not just talking about religion or philosophy. There’s plenty of secular nerds who have done horrible things the last few months alone in the name of defending an abstract and fictional view of the world defined by what stories they consume rather than what people experience. A religious jerk harassing people about god and an atheist jerk harassing people about games are both victims of that same evolutionary and cultural trend towards obsession, and both are dangerous people because of that rather than the topic of their obsession.

If this sounds a little bitter, that is possibly because its yet another example of a delightful little evolutionary quirk within our mind becoming a commodity to be exploited. That may seem hypocritical coming from a guy who writes about made up Koopa paleontology and is about to go into a huge thing about Mega Man, but bear with me here. The problem isn’t the obsessions, its what we do with them. Like it or not, we’re the nerd species. We’re Homo nerdus. We can’t stop inventing convoluted bullshit anymore than an aphid can stop secreting sugar from its butt or an ant can stop gorging itself on the sweet, sweet aphid plops. Whether it takes the form of super heroes, fairy tales, video game mascots, economics, religion or politics, we’ll jam random shit together until it makes internal sense to us, and then angrily shout at people whose random shit jamming came to a different conclusion than ours did.

So why talk about the accidental continuity of the Mega Man series? Well, its a series of seemingly unconnected stories and were intentionally put in the same world only separated by centuries. But since the text of the games is nothing but “robot boy goes pew-pew-pew at bad robots” everything that happens between and around the edges of those stories is open to interpretation. Since the games cover several thousand years, there is a LOT of possible subtext and fake history to obsess over and connect. Therefore, it is fertile ground to actually just talk about whatever I really want to talk about.

If we can’t help ourselves when it comes to obsessing over stories, is there at least a way to do so in a way that helps us in the real world?

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In 20XX, Dr Thomas Light created Blues, the prototype robot who would serve as the template for the later DLN series of “robot masters” as well as the military robot “Joes.” Blues was an attempt to create a robot that looked like a person but still possessed abilities beyond those of a human. To help with the DLN series, Dr Light brought in his former classmate and fellow engineer, Dr Albert Wily. Together, they created the first generation of humanoid robots, including Mega Man. The robots of this era are marked by their general simplicity. They are industrial and domestic robots, and while they still feature designs that are a bit unorthodox and less-then-efficient, one can still see their intended purpose. When Dr Wily reprograms the Light-series robots to aid in his terrorist attacks on the rest of the world, Mega Man must fight robot miners, construction machines, all-purpose terrain vehicles, and security systems.

The most extravagant robots Mega Man faces are his fellow DLN Robot Masters. These robots are humanoid, but feature over-the-top visual designs. Demolitions robot Bomb Man is built to resemble a pudgy punk anarchist with a mohawk, arctic robot Ice Man has a fur-lined hood despite having no need for it at all, and lumberjack robot Cut Man has a pair of giant scissors on his head. To understand the reason for these design choices, we need to look at Dr Light’s prototype, Blues. Dr Light not only wanted to create a humanoid robot that could serve as a template for multiple purposes, but also to create a surrogate son capable of evoking empathy in humans. Blues was built to replicate humanity, to be the son Dr Light never have (because Astro Boy is an influential piece of comic literature). That could only happen if Blues not only replicated some human emotions, but triggered emotional responses in humans around him as well. While the other Robot Masters are not built to be family, they still come from a similar design philosophy. The role of a Robot Master is not merely to serve a function, but more importantly to control and direct hundreds of simpler robots at once. For example, Elec Man doesn’t merely produce electricity, he remotely commands a factory’s worth of robots to generate power for the city. As such, Robot Masters serve as an intermediary between the worker robots and the human public. The Robot Masters are given human-features to put a friendlier, relatable face on large-scale industrial projects. The over-the-type design gives these robots a mascot or even super-hero costume-like quality, making them more appealing to the public. As such, the robots under their command are more streamlined in design and focused on specific tasks.

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So much pathos

It is likely that the more ridiculous DLN designs came from Dr Wily’s contribution. While the first two DLN series robots, Rock (Mega Man) and Roll follow Blues’ design in looking as human as possible, every robot that comes after features more and more ridiculous designs. The next two generations of DLN series robots were entirely built by Dr Wily, and are no longer built around serving specific industrial or domestic needs. Some were created to be more useful for Wily’s continued terrorist actions, but others seem more like the good doctor experimenting with form or showing off engineering skills. Wood Man has no purpose other to be a humanoid robot made of hardened wood. Gemini Man’s impressive light-based illusions and lasers mask the fact that he has no particular function beyond vague “mining” purposes. Likewise, the lesser robots under these Robot Masters’ command are no longer industrial or even military robots. They now showcase a variety of forms and functions that defy attempts to comprehend the meaning of. What purpose does a weaponized shrimp or a robot penguin serve? Why would Wily build an army of robots who produce explosive toy tops and giant robot cats with nano-tech fleas? Why would Wily build a fortress made of giant robot snakes?

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Can you believe these two end up destroying the world as we know it?

Wily’s designs draw influence from a variety of sources, including nature, children’s toys and Japanese history. More focus goes into the robot’s appearance and behavior than on its effectiveness in battle or its utility in everyday life. This “Wily aesthetic” turns out to be completely useless in the field of world domination, but manages to be incredibly influential anyways. A number of other engineers and designers adopt the Wily aesthetic into their own work, notably Dr Cossack in Mega Man 4 and the unnamed robot designers whose work was stolen by Dr Wily in Mega Man 6. Only four years after the events of the first Mega Man game, the dominant robot-design philosophy in the world is that of Dr Wily. It even serves to influence the later designs of Dr Light, as the Light-series Robot Masters of Mega Man 9 are significantly less utilitarian than the original 8 DLN series. Dr Light may be considered the father of robotics in this world, but without question the scientist who most left their mark on the field of robotics was Dr Wily.

The rise of Wily’s rather decadent designs worldwide is important for a number of reasons. One, the fact that these robots are all incredibly inefficient serves to form the base of every energy crisis the world would face over the next few thousand years. Two, Wily’s fondness for nature-inspired designs would become incredibly influential to the designers of the year 21XX. In some ways, Wily is like if Miyazaki made robots instead of animation, and was evil.

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X is given “free will” but societal constraints and outside events force him to take on the same role as his predecessor. So does he actually have free will? Four pages, due Monday.

At some point in 20XX, Dr Light created the robot X and Dr Wily created the robot Zero. These two robots were the first reploids, named for their ability to replicate humanity’s free will. While the DLN series robots were intelligent, they were all still slaves to their programming. For example, no matter how much Mega Man might want to, he would be unable to kill a living creature. X and Zero had no such limitations, and had complete free-will. For reasons unknown, both robots were sealed away, and would not be rediscovered for a century. Dr Cain, an engineer and archaeologist, would uncover X and use him as the basis for the first generation of mass-produced reploids. Humanity now had robots with complete free-will, and therefore the same legal rights as everyone else. They were not entirely pleased.

In order to help differentiate reploids and humanity, human engineers turned to the classic designs of the past. Reploids were often built with the heads of various animals, denoting them as not-human and helping insure reploids didn’t end up completely integrating with humanity. Human-form reploids still existed, but they tended to be put in positions of greater power than the animal-form reploids, and were still designed with gaudy colors and shapes to help separate them from true humans. The reploid Sigma is a good example of this aesthetic. Reploids could replicate aspects of humanity, but no one would ever mistake a reploid for a human visually.

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This era also sees humanity continuing the tradition of Wily’s nature-based robots to an almost obscene level. As the environment of the planet deteriorated, robots were built with the purpose of replacing lost biodiversity. Robotic tigers roamed artificial jungles, hunting live deer until these too had to be replaced with robots. Climate change was dealt with by creating artificial environments to manipulate the weather. The polar ice caps were maintained by building mechanical cooling systems into the earth itself, and when this killed off native species unable to adapt, they were replaced with new, stronger, brightly colored robotic versions. The planet itself was becoming a cyborg.

What was more interesting is that these self-aware but animalistic machines were evolving. Robot trees became infested with emergent, insect-like robot parasites, requiring the invention of robot woodpeckers and other mechaniloids (the in-game term for reploids of animal-intelligence) to protect them. Robot foodchains began emerging faster than humanity could invent, some mirroring real world ecosystems and others completely alien. As the Earth suffered more and more environmental damage (everything from mundane pollution to collapsing space colonies) the artificial attempts to mimic the past ecosystems became less stable and realistic.

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A term had to be coined to describe emergent reploid behavior that was at odds with humanity. Mechaniloid environments that threatened human spaces, or were just not serving the aesthetic quality humanity had built them for, were declared “Maverick” and had to be “retired.” As humans were unable to stand against the power even the simplest reploid possessed, new reploids were built (or in Zero’s case, unearthed) with the explicit purpose of destroying these Mavericks. When Sigma, the former leader of this new organization released a “Maverick virus” that could turn any reploid irrational and violent, it presented both a threat to humanity’s survival and an intriguing political tool. Any reploid could be declared “Maverick” and legally destroyed for the “good of the world.” More and more, the Maverick label came to be used not just for malfunctioning AIs and actually dangerous behavior, but also for reploids too outspoken or inconvenient. This reached its zenith during the events of Mega Man X4 and X5, where an entire nation of reploids was declared “Maverick” and destroyed.

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It is also interesting to note that while humans still built reploids, they had given up more and more control of the rest of the world to them. Humanity lived a decadent life while their every need was seen to by animal-headed servants. Every industrial, domestic and security job was in the hands of a reploid, but so was every job in management and government. It is difficult to find any examples of humans running a company or organization in any of the X series games. Even the organizations who decide which reploids are Maverick are entirely run by reploids. In other words, reploids were using the “Maverick” label to exert their control over humanity and eliminate competing reploid philosophies or organizations. All the while, humanity remained in blissful ignorance. Culturally, humans still managed to exert their own control over the reploids in the form of increasingly inefficient and ridiculous designs, requiring dependence on existing power structures. In this age, the Wily aesthetic was not merely an artistic choice, but also a method of maintaining leverage. The only fields humans retained total control over were that of reploid, architectural and aesthetic design.

Perhaps it is this reason that more and more of the extravagantly designed reploids were labeled Maverick. By the end of the X series, human-shaped reploids are in control of every major aspect of the world, and the animal and plant-shaped reploids are often assumed to be Maverick by default. This ends with Zero sealing himself away in order to find a cure for the Maverick virus, thus eliminating the Maverick label and removing that tool from the reploid political playbook. X, now an almost mythic hero to both the human and reploid population, becomes the architect of the new age.

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The Maverick Wars of 21XX had ended with almost 90% of humanity dying and 60% of reploids being destroyed. It also featured the almost complete destruction of the Earth’s biomes, leaving most of the planet a scorched wasteland. Mechaniloid environments were slowly growing to replace the lost natural world, with ruined factories and battlefields becoming the home of new, emergent species. Humanity became more apocalyptic in its outlook, and with the end of the Maverick label, reploids began to take even more ostentatious shapes. The animal and plant-forms took on mythic qualities, mimicking beings from long-forgotten, pre-industrial legend. Even the human-form reploids took on new mythic qualities, such as the Four Guardians and their fey-inspired appearance. This era also saw the invention of the Cyber Elves, a form of AI without a robot body. These AI existed as pure energy that allowed them a temporary physical form, but also meant that they had incredibly short lifespans. Once a Cyber Elf served its purpose, its energy was used up and it died. These energy beings were programmed with even more mythic shapes and forms, not only the fey-like shapes of their namesake but also the forms of knights, priests, wizards and monsters. This era is marked by an aesthetic that combined the decadence of the 21XX age with a longing for an even older bygone era. Humanity had walked away from the greatest catastrophe the planet had ever seen, and they left wanting to build a world where absolute rules dictated a future where such disaster could never happen again. Old fairy tales and myths provided a comforting ideal that could serve as a template for this vision. An ideal of people knowing their place and of divine pantheons watching over everything to insure nothing happened without a reason.

It should be noted that humanity still occupied only one position of authority in this new world: design. Governments were still run by reploids, as was every aspect of industry. Humans such as Dr Ceil and Dr Weil still dictated the shapes and forms those reploids would appear in, but the rest of humanity escaped the harsh new world be retreating into the ideal of their new, mythic creations guiding and protecting them. Reploids taking the form of long-forgotten gods and taking names such as “The Eight Gentle Judges” and “The Einherjar Warriors” ruled the ever-shrinking human population from the city-state of Neo Acadia. The architecture of Neo Acadia follows the same mythic-design of its reploids, with grand spires reaching out to the heavens and little thought going toward energy management or habitability. It was here that the Maverick label returned, not applied not just to reploids, but to humans. Anyone who attempted to live outside this system was labeled Maverick and killed, no matter what their origins. The fact that the majority of mass-produced, lower class reploid now featured a simpler human shape (losing even the X-era embellishments) helped further blur the lines between reploid and human mavericks.

When 90% of your nation’s resources go to building giant angel forms of your dictators, you might be a dying empire.

As the decadent designs of the mythic-reploids grew more and more out of control, energy became a huge issue. Mechaniloid environments had emerged, but none could produce enough food or energy to feed humanity and reploid needs. While Neo Acadia continued to decline, simpler human-shaped reploids left with a handful of humans to create new communities in the few habitable places. These reploids, with significantly less power and energy needs than the Neo Acadian reploids, were much better suited to a drained world trying to recover. However, as the Neo Acardian reploids and humans both needed massive amounts of energy to sustain their lifestyle, they couldn’t afford to allow their future workers to leave and create their own society. The political Maverick label became synonymous with a rejection of the dominant aesthetic. Reploids that rejected the extravagant, mythic designs were just as “Maverick” as reploids who emerged naturally from Mechaniloid environments. The aesthetic of the rebels is one of uniforms, subdued colors, basic shapes and embracing an identity as close to being human as possible. Tellingly, in the games any resistance members who feature slightly more extravagant designs (such as Elpizo) turn against the cause at some point during the narrative.

200 years after the events of the last Mega Man Zero game, the line between these reploids and humanity becomes even more blurred. Reploids voluntarily take on finite lifespans in order to create a sustainable solution to the energy issue. Humans no longer exist as we know them, now only human versions of reploids remain. Whether this is because humanity takes on some mechanical traits to survive the harsh world, or if the new mortal reploids simply replaced them as they died out is not stated. No true humans exist, but the survivors are slowly forgetting this fact. The environment has recovered, with new forests, jungles, ice caps, reefs and other biomes emerging from the mechaniloid ecosystems. Robotic corals and trees, artificial glaciers, non-sentient AIs secretly running the eco-systems of entire continents from under the surface. Earth is now completely a cyborg. During this age, showcased in the short-lived Mega Man ZX series, these environments are a strange intermediary form, with some of these artificial plants and animals possessing organic-like forms and others still retaining the more overtly-mechanical forms of the past.

Spot the robot (trick question, all seemingly-organic life is a robot at this point)

The Maverick label has yet again been turned around, this time once again on the old, wild and inefficient designed reploids, who now exist on the outskirts of civilization. Neo Acadia is long gone, with the inheritors building smaller cities over its ruins. These immortal, wild reploids continue to take on more monstrous forms, and survive by hunting mortal reploids for energy. Over time, they become the source of new legends and tales of monsters. The “humans” who once served these wild reploids continue to try and recreate the lost ages in the forms of other “utopian” cities, but these all in turn fail and disappear. The most successful of these failures is Elysium, an orbital world where the organic descendants of the “real” humans wait to be restored.

This takes us to the last games in the timeline, the Mega Man Legends series. Several thousand years later, the Earth has found some semblance of balance. Most of the world is underwater as the climate finally recovered from centuries of abuse. Mechaniloids have adapted to much more efficient forms that resemble the long extinct plants and animals of the past. Mortal reploids (Carbons) believe themselves to be humans, and no longer realize that every living thing, from the blades of grass to the birds in the sky, is artificial. The descendants of those last, wild mavericks have regressed into an even wilder existence, now known as Reaverbots and no longer possessing even a semblance of sapience. The decadent Neo Acadian architecture lies in ruins, buried underground and sunken beneath the sea. “Humanity” lives a simpler existence, closer to the technology and cultural level of 20XX. Interestingly, the architecture, fashion and overall aesthetic of the mortal reploids of this age is much similar to that of pre-Wily 20XX than any other age. Whether this is due to some cyclical aspect of history, or just the lack of energy and other resources available limiting the number of alternatives is unknown.

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Tron grew up in a world without 99% of the biodiversity we have. Luckily she at least grew up with legos.

This final age runs on fossilized energy of the past reploid ages. The energy from countless long-dead reploids compressing and forming into crystal refractors. While finite, this resource is new enough that to most people it feels limitless. This has given rise to new decadent aesthetics. The Bonne aesthetic borrows somewhat from the designs of the wild Reaverbots (and therefore unknowingly from the original Wily aesthetic) but also draws from other sources. Dr Wily was born in an age before the extinction of most of the world’s biodiversity, and his work showcases a wild variety of natural influences. He also borrowed from a number of cultures that are now extinct as well. Humanity went through a genetic and cultural bottleneck, and the environments of the world are only just starting to regain any diversity. The Bonnes and other robot designers of their age would never have seen most of the animals that Wily built robots around. Some of those animals’ shapes would be known to them, but only from old Reaverbot designs, remnants of remnants of the long-gone X series, and in that case they would have no idea that they were witnessing a message from the past. As a result, the Bonne aesthetic draws more from toys and household objects than Wily’s did, and is also significantly more streamlined than any of his designs. It is as decadent as the limited access to refractors will allow.

So we can we learn from the somewhat accidental continuity of Mega Man? That aesthetics for aesthetics sake leads to ruin? That you can’t separate art from the rest of the world? That surviving a world of artificial systems and concepts forces us to become artificial ourselves? That the best of intentions are always going to be limited by the realities of environment and geography? That obsessing over designs and systems without thinking about the people within them is ultimately fruitless? That seemingly objective labels, like in this case “maverick”, actually change to enforce the dominant society’s status quo? That even when we are ignorant of our history, we still have a connection to it and perpetuate it? That the fictional only connects to reality through our own choices in how we engage and play with it, but that because it is impossible to perceive fiction without engaging with it therefore the fictional always becomes real in some way and so we have a responsibility to think about how we consume?

Yeah, probably. Maybe. I mean, its a little blue robot boy who goes “pew pew pew” at bad robots.

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