Mega Man: An Outlaw in an Asimovian World
- A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
- A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.
The Three Laws of Robotics, Isaac Asimov
In the year 20XX, Mega Man has broken The First Law. Is he a Hero? Is he a Villain? There’s a lot of ambiguity in the simple tale of Mega Man.
Not in the initial conflict, mind you. The tale of a scientist who goes mad with power and programs his once friendly robots to take over the world is pretty straight forward. You’re Mega Man, the “child” of Dr. Light, and it’s your mission to put a stop to Dr. Wily’s nefarious plans by defeating each Robot Master and saving the world.
Well, that’s what you’re told.
The Three Laws of Robotics (or simply The Three Laws) have always operated under the surface of Mega Man, but it wasn’t until Mega Man 7 that their influence was confirmed. After seven long expeditions to stop Dr. Wily, Mega Man decided that it might be for the best to remove him from the picture. Despite Dr. Wily’s claims to the contrary, Mega Man was more than a robot. Before the final blow was struck, Dr. Wily escaped but Mega Man’s past and future actions took on an entirely new light.
Consider the original Mega Man. Here is a game ostensibly about robots but, much like the majority of science-fiction regarding androids, is really a story about humanity’s reliance on technology and all the good and bad that can come from it. On one hand, we have Dr. Light and Mega Man – the heroes of the story and an expression of a harmonious relationship with technology. On the other hand, we have Dr. Wily and the six Robot Masters – the villains of the story and an expression of the selfish and dangerous desires of humanity.
If Mega Man is free from The Three Laws though, you could argue that his struggle against his own enslaved brothers reflect Dr. Light’s personal struggle over the ethics of android development and AI. Should androids be free like us? Or should they be tethered to humanity by Laws and behavior codes?
Mega Man was created by Dr. Light with a programmed sense of right and wrong. He should fall underneath The Three Laws. But, due to the utter dearth of storytelling in Mega Man, The Three Laws frame Mega Man as the rogue AI and the Robot Masters as obedient lap dogs.
Mega Man’s journey starts with The Second Law: Defeat the Robot Masters. You make the logical leap that Dr. Wily would have ordered the Robot Masters to defeat Mega Man and, since neither of these orders conflict with The First Law, there’s little to worry about.
This is the scope of information given to you in-game. You’re the good guy, they’re the bad guys. Please initiate your jump and shoot.
Context is everything, though, and it’s only by leaping outside of the game do we get a clearer idea of the narrative. Mega Man starts in-media res: Dr. Wily has taken over a city and each Robot Master protects a specific section. Apparently, they’re armed and dangerous.
Except in-game we never see any of the Robot Masters attack a human being. The opening cinematic of Mega Man is the title screen. That’s it. We can’t even be sure that the Robot Masters were used to take over the city. Dr. Wily has an awful lot of robots under his control and it could have been them that were responsible for this.
Mega Man attacks the Robot Masters under the pretext that they might be reprogrammed. Mega Man’s actions are a preemptive strike against “potentially” dangerous figures. The once simple tale of good versus evil is now a little bit more uncomfortable.
The issue is further complicated by the physical resemblance of the Robot Masters to Mega Man. They’re androids, modelled after human beings, so a degree of empathy is created automatically thanks to their physical appearance. They resemble Mega Man, which makes it feel like you’re killing your own brothers in a way. You can’t reason with them – your only option is to kill them.
The Third Law hammers home how shaky Mega Man and Dr. Light’s high standings are. Both Mega Man and the Robot Masters are protecting their own existence, but only one android is seen on the offensive. Mega Man invades each Robot Master’s lair with the intention of destroying them.
Are the Robot Masters reacting to what is an obvious attack on their lives, or are they simply obeying their master’s orders (The Second Law) to destroy Mega Man at all costs? The distinction is important because The Second Law suggests malice by an evil master, while The Third Law suggests an innocent attempting to protect themselves.
It’s the manifestation of The First Law, however, where Mega Man demonstrates a new perspective on a tired tale. Mega Man attacks Dr. Wily and breaks The First Law. While he may not kill the scientist, he remains the only android we see in the game to willingly attack a human being. While the Robot Master’s are portrayed as the villains of the narrative, their actions in the game are congruent with The Three Laws. Mega Man is the dangerous robot in the game because he’s the only one who breaks them.
In hindsight, the sheer amount of sequels has squashed any further reading of Mega Man’s potential villainy through repetition: Mega Man is an unshakeable hero, especially with the knowledge that he may be doing it all willingly. He may well be rogue, but he’s a decent and kind-hearted robot that cares about the fate of humanity.
In the beginning though, Mega Man revelled in its duplicity. The narrative provided no clear answer as to who was the real hero of the story. The lack of clarity in-game makes the narrative hue more closely to science-fiction tradition of uncertainty and troubled times. Are the robots of Mega Man the true villains of the piece? Or should we place blame on Dr. Wily and Dr. Light for unleashing these creations to begin with? Mega Man has a programmed sense of right and wrong and that’s pretty terrifying. Who can make decisions like that?
Mega Man shows us that no one can. Dr. Light and Dr. Wily’s struggles against each other are eternal. There is no right and wrong as far as the Mega Man universe is concerned and we wouldn’t even be able to recognise it if there were. That’s why we need robots. Maybe what we create to defeat evil is evil itself: a powerful, unknowable threat that could stop anything… even ourselves.
Illustration by Jake Lawrence.