MegaMan.EXEstential

Finding the ‘Human’ Element

Rory Griffin
ZEAL

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The game is Mega Man Battle Network. The year is 200X, because the specifics of anything that happened in my childhood are foggy at best, and the majority of that time is basically nonexistent. Which raises a question — am I the same person I was when I first acquired a Battle Network game? At the time he picked this game, the child I and others think of as the past ‘me’ had thoughts about the Mega Man series as a whole that prompted him to do so. Years after that, the teenager I’m unfortunately forced to acknowledge as also being me is replaying this game. He maybe has a blurry sort of memory as to his motives in buying the game, and maybe even remembers the actual purchase. He has a clearer memory of the end game reveal — MegaMan.EXE, initially presented as something like a digital personal assistant, has secretly been the human protagonist’s dead brother all along!

An artist’s rendering of my reaction, probably (http://www.giantbomb.com/rollexe/3005-6630/images/)

Cue shocked gasps, mostly from the young me because the games aren’t voiced (the exceptions to this rule are, like all new additions to familiar things, terrible). When the present me plays the game, I don’t remember why I bought it at all, though I’m glad I did. The physical act of buying it, or more likely of looking at one or both of my parents pleadingly while holding a brightly colored case, is also completely gone from my mind. And while the information of MegaMan.EXE’s true identity is never going to leave me, I couldn’t really tell you how the shocking reveal goes down — before looking it up I had a vague memory of something like “final battle; dying MegaMan; his colour scheme changes?”, which covers the most pertinent parts of the whole affair, but not nearly everything.

There’s a certain memory criterion that says I’m the same person as the teenager (ugh) as we share memories of the game’s plot points, while the teenager and the child, who both remember buying the game and why they bought it, are also the same person. However, perhaps I’m not the same person as the child, because we share no memories of bothering our parents for portable entertainment — er, in this specific instance.

Even our reactions to the “MegaMan is a real boy” plot point differ quite a bit. From what I can piece together from context, the young player (as in of video games, rather than anything to do with social activity) pretty much accepted it and moved on, unless I discover a dusty precursor to this essay squirrelled away somewhere, in which case I might have other questions. The adult player (still very much a game-centric term) of the present has an existential crisis, a fairly typical reaction. But at least I can point to some evidence of physical continuity — you can track my awkward transformation from one state to the other through painstakingly acquired photographic evidence. It’s a fairly straightforward, if slightly embarrassing, process. And if I don’t remember my past actions, their effects still travel down the line to the present me writing about the games I begged off my parents. How do you deal with going from diapers to data? I can only imagine what MegaMan.EXE would experience if he thought on his origins too hard.

Fortunately, I’m here to do that for him.

“Diapers to Data” also being the title of a Mega Man Legends tell-all (https://techraptor.net/content/mega-man-legends-coming-playstation-3-vita)

Mega Man Battle Network (or Battle Network Rockman EXE, if you have a preference between titles that are equally awesome) is set in an alternate history of the Mega Man games. Whereas in the original Mega Man people avoided work by creating dangerous robots for menial tasks that are then easily and repeatedly hacked into committing acts of destruction, in Battle Network’s history the focus was placed on developing computer networks into taking over boring jobs, eventually resulting in a society where everything is online — and everything is easily and repeatedly hacked into committing acts of destruction. You’re barely 10 minutes into the first game before someone has hacked the oven to explode.

They said the internet was dangerous

Trapped in a burning house, what’s a 10-year-old to do? If you’re Lan Hikari, you hack back even harder. Aiding him in this is MegaMan.EXE, Lan’s ‘NetNavi’, a personal assistant who helps him traverse the internet and other networks, usually for the purpose of fighting oddly cute viruses, or other NetNavis. Navis navigate — it’s taken me about a decade to get that — the complicated programming of computer systems for their lazy human masters. Humans store these full blown artificial intelligences in uncomfortably named PETs (Personal Terminals), and use them to do pretty much everything. Navis are for some reason also capable of a pretty wide range, if not the full range, of human emotion. Few Navis demonstrate this as well as MegaMan.EXE, the other protagonist of the games, as well as Lan’s personal assistant/best friend/dead brother, sort of.

There lies the difference between Mega and other Navis: MegaMan.EXE is not ‘just’ sentient or semi-sentient anti-virus software, but a digital lifeform based on the DNA of a human — specifically Lan’s twin brother Hub, who died at or shortly after birth. Since rationally dealing with grief is for chumps, Doctor Hikari immediately revived his dead son as his other son’s answer to Siri. Or Pikachu, since Lan and his byte-sized bro mostly bond over ‘NetBattles’, even when the world isn’t at stake. To use an analogy that would have been topical to the child-me who first played these games, it’s a bit like if I used my then-newborn brother as a Beyblade (he would, of course, be some sort of Bit Beast powering the thing, rather than be physically thrown/spun into the ring. I’m not a monster).

After this reveal, Lan and MegaMan mostly get on with their lives, in that they save the world/internet several more times. What does change is that, every once in a while, Lan will refer to his Navi as ‘Hub’, and explicitly thinks of him as his brother going forward. Even before their kind-of biological relationship was revealed, Lan never questioned MegaMan referring to his parents as Mom and Dad, although perhaps in the same way you don’t question your phone telling you ‘Dad’ is calling, if you want to be horrible about it. It’s clear that the family considers the NetNavi not only part of the family, but literally the same person as the child they lost. Child Gamer thought this was kind of sweet — though he wouldn’t have phrased it like that, since being a 10-year-old involved a certain amount of pretentious machismo. Manchild Gamer thinks that’s kind of messed up, since being a philosophy graduate involves a certain amount of pretentious cynicism.

Virtually Identical

Take the physical basis — even though MegaMan.EXE is based on Hub’s DNA, at best this makes him a clone. If there’s anything The Clone Wars taught me aside from how far you can stretch a brand, it’s that clones can share genetics, a general appearance, a voice actor, maybe even an implanted imperative to slay their commanding officers, but are ultimately individual beings. Why treat MegaMan, who has a coded version of Hub’s DNA rather than a biological copy, as the same person? Mega doesn’t even share all of Hub’s converted DNA— in order to avoid being psychically and physically linked to Lan, because that’s how twins work, his DNA is modified by .001%. Notice how in the picture on the left his eyes are a different colour to his brother’s. So even that physical connection is suspect, at least for most of the games, and it can be changed arbitrarily by applying a certain program to MegaMan. But while Dr. Hikari only explicitly mentions coding Hub’s DNA, there is precedent for transplanting minds in the series.

Just putting quotes around the word “self” sums up my approach here (http://lparchive.org/Mega-Man-Battle-Network-3-Blue/Update%2048/)

In Battle Network 3, you’re introduced to technology that can transmit a person’s mind into cyberspace. This “Pulse Transmission System” was banned for being too dangerous, because imagine if you could physically live in the internet, and also something about damaging your real body. But I’m going to go out on a limb and say that with Dr. Hikari’s ongoing project to make digital clones of people to then help them browse the web, and his intention to use his dying son as the first test subject, there was not a whole lot of ethical supervision going on. Because the time-frame on Hub’s death is pretty vague, it’s implied he was alive, but dying when his father created MegaMan. We can assume that something like this pulse transmission happened with the Hub/MegaMan.EXE conversion, because otherwise there’s no real reason to claim the two are the same being as opposed to original and copy, unless their father has gone mad with grief — an interpretation that proves, at least, that I am legitimately committed to casting a pall over my childhood.

‘Cyber-batman’ can have several different meanings in this series (http://megaman.wikia.com/wiki/ShadeMan.EXE)

So there’s some sense of continuity in that we can track or at least guess at the stages of Hub being transformed into his brother’s cyber-batman. But we run into the problem of whether, after such a drastic transformation, you can classify the beginning and the end result as the same being. It’s like the ship of Theseus — is an object that has had all its components replaced still fundamentally the same object? Though even ancient Greek philosophers would be hard-pressed to have come up with this scenario, and they were pretty damn weird on the whole (they may have also been hampered by their historically suggested lack of internet, to be fair).

This isn’t even taking into account how your identity would be affected by being digitized before you could actually form memories. Hub dies of a rare heart condition at an age where he’d be confounded by basic motor functions. His ability to form lasting memories at this stage has to be nonexistent. Mega is clearly aware of his origins — he keeps them a secret from Lan for any number of years of being his cyber-butler, and has an emotional reaction to someone suffering from the same condition Hub died of — but these are things he’s most likely had to be informed of, since Hub died a few months at best after being born. Keeping them from him might have actually been even more messed up than the situation as it was, somehow. So the baby Hub and MegaMan.EXE share no memories by the point the games start. All of Mega’s memories have been formed as a digital being, mostly consisting of waking his brother/legal owner up for school.

The first scene, and roughly half the scenes in the series. Whether this is a running gag or a never-ending hell of degrading servitude depends on your perspective (http://lparchive.org/Mega-Man-Battle-Network/Update%2001/)

Even after the true, strange nature of their relationship is revealed, Lan still mostly refers to his Navi as ‘MegaMan’, as he’s presumably done for the whole time they’ve known each other, with a ‘Hub’ thrown in for when things get emotional or dire. In turn, Mega refers and defers to Lan as his operator — not afraid to voice a contrary opinion, but ultimately he follows Lan’s lead, something that might come from his dependence on him; Mega is capable of fighting on his own, but not nearly as effectively, and when separated from Lan he tries to avoid combat. This says a lot about how different their relationship is compared to what it would be if they inhabited the same place in society. Or the same physical plane.

Mega is pretty different from Lan — responsible, punctual and well-mannered, while Lan is relatable; he sleeps in, hates school, spends all day on the internet if he can, and thinks shoes that are also roller-blades are the best way to get around. It’s unclear how much of Mega’s personality got moved over from Hub, because how can you say Hub had a personality at all? It would be different if, having the same DNA and the same upbringing, the two ended up with the same dynamic. But since Mega’s spent his whole life undergoing a vastly different experience, there’s no way to judge how much, if any, of his personality is from innate traits.

No, that’s not fear of his true nature. That’s fear of ghosts…wait

It’s hard to say which answer is more disturbing — that Dr. Hikari transferred his dying son into a new form that he then declared the property of his other son, or that he created a new person based on his dead son, and treated him as if he was a continuation of the deceased (which, as we’ve covered, does not exactly equate to treating him that well). The original staff have been known to wonder how they got from their original concept of a horror game to the end result (https://www.gamnesia.com/news/mega-man-battle-network-originally-started-as-a-horror-game), but I wonder if they might have accidentally stayed true to that original vision.

Wittgenstein famously said “the human body is the best picture of the human soul”, so perhaps the digitisation of one obscures the nature of the other — and whether converting one necessarily affects both is, as we’ve perhaps established, a messy question. In the games’ setting, there is a system to convert humanity’s collective souls into data, made so that people might gain a better understanding of each other. Perhaps this ‘SoulNet’ would also give us a better understanding of MegaMan’s true nature, and of ourselves.

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Rory Griffin
ZEAL
Writer for

Writes between bouts of teaching and nerdery.