Going Maverick

the Politics of Terrorism in Mega Man X

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Chris is a third-year Ph.D. student studying games at the University of Waterloo, and serves as Book Reviews Editor for FPS.  He is presently researching innovative new ways to procrastinate working on his dissertation, which involves exploring applications of gamification to the emotional wellness of graduate students.
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Sticks, Stones, and Software

It’s an election year here in Canada, and regardless of your political convictions, that means that everybody is just a bit more wary of the amount of bullshit flying through the air.  In these times of deliberation and change, we tend to pride ourselves on our heightened sensitivity to the ways in which words are weaponized, for good or ill, by all sides.  Much journalistic capital is made by interpreting the various narratives that politicians weave on the campaign trail, and much more social media capital is made by the 140-character reactions to both the narratives and the interpretations.

The fact that we tend to look for narratives in everything, from politics to video games, might simply be regarded as evidence that storytelling is one of the primary algorithms of meaning-making embedded in our genetic code.  This means that video games often draw narrative inspiration from contemporary geopolitical trends, as the Metal Gear franchise has done for decades.  Conversely, it also means that the political narratives that make headlines today have often been foreshadowed in our literature and media for years.

Terrorism, as one such political narrative, has remained at the forefront of public consciousness to varying degrees since September 11 2001, but in particular has been retooled and pulled in new directions over the last couple of years by the Government of Canada under Conservative Party leader and Prime Minister Stephen Harper.  While all kinds of video games have tackled the subject of terrorism over the years, one unlikely franchise has echoed with uncanny fidelity the trajectory that terrorism as a narrative has followed under Conservative governance: Mega Man X, originally developed and published by Capcom for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System in 1993.

Contemporary discussions on the power and potential of storytelling in video games seldom deign to wade into Capcom waters.  Whether your preferences lean towards the cinematic (Metal Gear Solid) or the symbolic (Journey), anyone weighing in on the unique narrative affordances of video games would be forgiven for overlooking the company that brought us Street Fighter, Mega Man, and Monster Hunter; a company which epitomizes the mantra “gameplay is king.”  More recent efforts by the publisher, while naturally heavier on story by virtue of the more advanced multimedia capabilities of contemporary gaming hardware, might rightly be described as nonsensical in their efforts, whether deliberately (Asura’s Wrath) or not (Resident Evil 6, Bionic Commando).  Conversely, narratologists like Janet Murray have made a case for studying narrative in even the most abstract games, such as when she describes Tetris as “the perfect enactment of the overtaxed lives of Americans.”  Naturally, vociferous critics emerged in response, like Markku Eskelinen, who dismisses Murray’s American-focused reading of a video game made in the Soviet Union.  I’m not personally sold on Eskelinen’s particular attempt to critique cultural criticism by himself invoking cultural criticism, but it will suffice for my purposes here to point out that long after the dust from that particular scholarly scuffle has settled, we continue for the most part to focus narratively on the likes of Gone Home and HerStory over things like Final Fight and Strider.

This is why I’d like to focus for today on Mega Man X, a subseries in Capcom’s action-platformer-epitomizing Mega Man franchise.  It’s not the sort of game that immediately attracts narrative scrutiny, but in a recent playthrough of the 24-year-old series, I’ve noticed some astonishingly relevant themes given the current political climate in Canada.

Over the years, games in this series have remained both narratively and mechanically concise: you navigate eight levels in any order you choose, fight eight bosses along the way, steal their weapons, and then navigate a final gauntlet of challenging stages to whoop the Big Bad.  The games in the X series are far from being standout examples of narrative experiences, even by the standards of the 90s.  For one thing, there is ludonarrative dissonance all over the place.  You assume the titular role of X, an avowed pacifist, who is continually rewarded with flashy armor pieces and creative powerups throughout his genocidal career as gaming’s foremost “jump n’ shoot” man (Egoraptor).  You are occasionally treated to a cutscene or a snippet of dialogue where X asks if violence is really the only possible solution–only to be dropped immediately thereafter into a new level where violence is the only possible solution.  So there’s that.

The Politics of Terrorism in Mega Man

Much like the works of Isaac Asimov, however, the Mega Man X games are bad stories (often exacerbated in English by dodgy localization of the Japanese originals) which nonetheless collectively comprise good Science Fiction.  The main idea, (novum, as SF scholar Darko Suvin would call it) is in fact lifted wholesale from the pages of Asimov: that somewhere down the line, we will build robots with consciousness, emotions, and free will, and that their physical superiority will necessitate the implementation of laws to protect humanity.  The opening cutscene of the first Mega Man X game refers explicitly to Asimov’s Three Laws of robotics by introducing the android X as the product of a bygone era who has been sealed in a capsule to undergo decades of rigorous testing to ensure that when activated, he won’t violate Asimov’s Laws.  In the series backstory, a scientist named Dr. Cain unearths the capsule, awakens X and, after thorough study, is able to duplicate X’s cognitive circuits, giving rise to a new race of replicant androids, or “reploids.”  The game and its sequels follow the rise and fall of reploid society, and while X himself never violates the Laws, many of his mechanical progeny do.

Reploids who violate the Laws and endanger humans are collectively branded as “mavericks” (“irregulars” in the original Japanese) and an organization of “maverick Hunters” is formed to hunt down and “retire” them.  The protagonist X is a high-ranking member of the organization, putting the player in a role stylistically disparate but thematically similar to Deckard from Blade Runner.

In the earliest games of the series, the chief cause of Reploids going maverick is identified as a virus that inhibits their “morality circuit” and causes them to develop reckless and violent personalities.  The game’s recurring antagonist, Sigma, is introduced as a former maverick Hunter who succumbs to the virus, but eventually transcends the destruction of his physical body and becomes one with the virus itself.

Even from the earliest games, however, there are suggestions that “Maverick” is as much of a political term as it is a medical diagnosis.  One of the bosses in the original game, Storm Eagle, is described in supplementary material as not having contracted the virus at all; instead, he reluctantly chooses to follow his commanding officer, Sigma, knowing full well that he will be branded and hunted down as a maverick.

While the reploid/virus Sigma remains prominent throughout the series, other references to the virus diminish as the series advances.  In Mega Man X4, Sigma frames another paramilitary organization, the Repliforce, for the destruction of  a city.  When they pridefully refuse to surrender to the maverick Hunters, they are branded as mavericks and hunted down, despite never having succumbed to the virus or even violated the three laws (as a group, at least; a pair of individuals among the Repliforce are indeed guilty of attacking humans).

Things escalate even further in a later subseries of Capcom’s X series, the Mega Man Zero quadrilogy .  Set a century after the end of the X series, the Maverick virus has long since been eradicated and most Reploids desire nothing more than peace.  However, an energy crisis (precipitated in part by an asteroid impact in Mega Man X5) leads the humanocentric government of Neo Arcadia to brand all Reploids as mavericks to be hunted down and retired.  The genocidal campaign is, ironically enough, instigated by a duplicate of the long-missing X, who it is suggested lacks a strong moral compass because he wasn’t subjected to the same rigorous testing that the original X was.  In a final development in the ensuing sequels that severs the label of maverick once and for all from any factual basis, a Coup d’Etat of the Neo Arcadian government sees a mad scientist (of which the Mega Man series is in no short supply) rise to power and label rebellious humans as mavericks, starting the cycle of persecution anew.

Taken as a whole, Capcom’s X games start off as rote action-platformers but ultimately wander into starkly posthumanist territory.  In-universe, the development of sentient robots pulls philosophy into a hard materialist tailspin, where algorithms can be used to describe reploid behavior and human consciousness by extension.  In this scenario, “maverick” begins with nominally physiological roots as a virus but is eventually laid bare in true Asimovian fashion as an inconvenient algorithm where any deviation from a proscribed set of social norms becomes undesirable and dangerous.  The posthuman conclusion is that the creation of artificial life will ultimately have deep and lasting consequences for our own ideological processes.

The Terrorism of Politics in Canada

We don’t need to have invented sentient artificial life, however, to notice that ideological labels already follow a similar trajectory in the real world.  Take, for instance, the Government of Canada’s relentless refrain of pursuing ever more draconian security measures in the name of combating “jihadi terrorism.”  A popular western imperialist fallback since its catalyzation in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, the specific terminology “jihadi terrorism” efficiently marginalizes a set of ideologies and behaviors (which include but are not limited to politically motivated violence and fear-mongering) while simultaneously identifying a convenient marginalized “other” to blame as a collective whole.  The term is successful, of course, because it is rooted in a foundation of truth: that Islamic extremists orchestrated the bloodiest act of terrorism in the contemporary North American history.  This fact, however, is ultimately most useful for proponents of the term as an anchor for ever-broadening uses of the word “terrorism” in the ostensible name of security.

Nowhere has this term been broadened more quickly or effectively than in Canada under the watch of the majority Conservative government.  While even Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s sharpest critics begrudge him a certain insidious cunning, there is something simultaneously amusing and horrifying in the idea that his entire political playbook has been cribbed from a 90s Capcom video game.

You can substitute the word “maverick” for “terrorist” or vice versa and the results play out in the exact same fashion.  Like “maverick”, the term terrorist originates from a legitimate and justifiably condemnable set of individuals and groups: mavericks by virtue of the virus that strips them of their capacity for morality; terrorists by virtue of their ideologies and behaviors which render them fundamentally incapable of peaceful coexistence with the rest of the world.  Once the ball gets rolling, however, both terms become grounded less in fact and more in political convenience.

Compare the trajectories of the words “terrorist” and “maverick” through their real and imaginary histories.  In both cases we can observe a transition from a term describing actions to a label describing people.  The term “maverick” is broadened throughout the games to include reploids (and even humans) who are less dangerous and more inconvenient for the ruling hegemony, while the term “terrorist” becomes political shorthand for people from the Middle East, and eventually, through such vaguely-worded pieces of legislation such as Bill C-51, gradually expands to include those who interfere with “the economic or financial stability of Canada,” which could include, for example, people who express non-violent opposition to any number of oil pipeline projects in Western Canada.

This brand of politics is, of course, old hat for the Conservatives: recall for a moment one of their previous attempts to push through overreaching surveillance legislation.  2012’s Bill C-30, originally called the “Lawful Access Act,” immediately drew fire for its perceived effects on the online privacy of Canadians.  Digging in, the Conservatives renamed the bill to the inflammatory “Protecting Children from Online Predators Act” in an effort to demonize their opponents.  When then-Public Safety Minister Vic Towes infamously declared in Parliament that opponents of the bill could “either stand with us or with the child pornographers,” he dragged the argument into the same binary argument that the Mega Man X games have been problematizing all along: maverick vs. maverick Hunter, Reploid vs. Human, Sega vs. Nintendo, Coke vs. Pepsi, Filthy Child Pornographer vs. Simpering Orwellian Drone.  In this particular case, the Conservatives had overstepped and knew it; Towes quietly retired from federal politics and the bill was scrapped, only to be given the less incendiary title of Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act and passed with considerably less fanfare the following year.

With years of experience in dividing Canadians, Conservatives have taken the art of the narrative binary to previously unseen heights during the current federal election.  Deflecting the conversation away from their record, they have hammered wedge after wedge into the campaign and indeed metamorphosed the veiled racism of terrorism to the overtly terrorizing racism on veils.  While Mega Man X details how political narratives cast wider and wider nets, the Conservatives have accomplished the truly spectacular in rallying millions of Canadians against the grand total of two Muslim women who sought legal recourse to take the public Oath of Citizenship without having to remove their Niqabs.

At the outset I remarked that we Canadians pride ourselves on our finely-tuned bullshit detectors during an election, but during this campaign in particular it seems as though we’ve been afforded a Conservative-engineered glimpse into a world gone truly mad.  Binaries rule the conversation in an endless finger-pointing contest.  Voters point fingers at Muslims whom they believe are told how to dress, and the only solution they proffer is to tell them how not to dress.  The two primary opposition party leaders point fingers at each other for the policies of a preceding four-year period in which both of them were quite toothless, while the Conservatives stealthily rise above them both in the polls.  And Stephen Harper himself implores Canadians to “let [him] be clear” when he points the finger at refugees for allegedly receiving better medical care from Canada than his esteemed base of “old-stock Canadians”–whoever the hell they might be.  As the opposition eats itself alive and the Conservatives limp relentlessly toward the finish line after weathering scandal after failed court challenge after scandal, we can almost see the plot of Mega Man X4 being played out verbatim, wherein Sigma pitted the Repliforce against the maverick Hunters and emerged as the true enemy only after he had already succeeded in orchestrating the deaths of millions.  Stephen Harper is Sigma incarnate: the true maverick; the true terrorist.

In his 1975 book Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault observes that “There is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations.”  On the 14th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, Stephen Harper pledged $10 million to researching “terrorism and radicalization.”  You don’t need to have read your Foucault to realize that Harper is essentially funding a justification for his own continued mandate, however: it’s all laid bare in a Super Nintendo game that you may well have enjoyed quite innocently when you were a kid.

Jump ‘n shoot ergo sum.

Works Cited

Asimov, Isaac. I, Robot. New York: Gnome Press, 1950. Print.

Capcom. Mega Man X. Capcom, 1993. Super Nintendo Entertainment System.

—. Mega Man X4. Capcom, 1997. PlayStation.

—. Mega Man X5. Capcom, 2000. PlayStation.

—. Mega Man X Collection. Capcom, 2006. PlayStation 2.

Eskelinen, Markku. “Towards Computer Game Studies.” First Person: New Media as Story,

Performance, and Game. Eds. Noah Wardruip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan. Cambridge; Mass: MIT Press, 2004. Print.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans Alan Sheridan. New York:

Pantheon, 1977. Print.

Hanson, Arin (Egoraptor). “Sequelitis – Mega Man Classic vs. Mega Man X.” Online video clip.

YouTube. YouTube, 31 Oct. 2011. Web. 12 Sep. 2015.

Inti Creates. Mega Man Zero. Capcom, 2002. Game Boy Advance.

Inti Creates and Natsume. Mega Man Zero 4. Capcom, 2005. Game Boy Advance.

Murray, Janet. Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. New York:

Simon and Schuster, 1997. Print.

Suvin, Darko. “On What Is and Is Not an SF Narration; With a List of 101 Victorian Books That

Should Be Excluded from SF Bibliographies.” Science Fiction Studies 5.14 (1978). Print.