The Protomen are an American rockband from Tennessee. Their discography includes two concept albums in which they have reworked the story of the Mega Man videogame franchise. The games follow a rather linear plot of good versus bad, despite some twists and elements that have also found their way into the two albums analysed here, but the band has reworked this into a dystopian narrative of Orwellian proportions. The surprises and twists don’t stop there though! Dystopian narratives often feature a totalitarian regime or corrupt form of government, and there is often some criticism of these political regimes or society in the narrative or sub-narrative. The (social) criticism that the story on the albums offer, however, does not seem to solely lie with Wily’s regime over the city. But if it’s not the one who’s ruling the city, who might then be in the iron sights of criticism? And what does this mean?
Chances are that you are not familiar with the music of The Protomen and the story on their albums, so a summary is in order. The story analysed here is told on their debut album Act I: The Protomen, which was released in 2005, and on Act II: The Father of Death, which was released in 2009. The story is a continuing rock opera, and while a good bit of story happens through the lyrics, much of the story is also told through the booklets that accompany the CDs. In terms of chronology, the second album, Act II: The Father of Death, is the prequel to the first album, The Protomen.
Act II (The Father of Death)
Dr. Thomas Light has had to witness his father work himself to death in the mines, which inspires him to build robots to create a better world. Together with Dr. Albert Wily he works on this project, but the two of them get into an argument about their goals for the project. Wily aims to use the robots to take over the city and lead mankind on to technical advancement. The two have a falling out, because Light just wants to aid mankind and make work easier for them. Wily goes to Light’s house and is going through his drawers when Light’s girlfriend Emily walks in. He tries to persuade her to join him. She stays loyal to Light, and he has his robot kill her. Soon after, Light finds her and is struck with grief and guilt. The police find him with her body, and he escapes, knowing how things look.
Wily, in the meantime, has been planning this all along; he spins the story and talks to reporters, pinning the murder on his former partner Thomas Light. Light is arrested at the cemetery, an hour after Emily was buried there. Light is put on trial and Wily whips it up into a media circus. After the trial, Light is sentenced not guilty. Wily entices the crowd against the justice system that allowed a monster like him to live, and gets the crowd on his side. Light is escorted to a railroad station and flees the city, which is in Wily’s hands now.
As Light lays low, Wily gets on with his project of developing the city. The mining sector and factories are completely replaced and staffed by machines. Wily clears the homeless and the criminal. For a while, it seems perfect and the people live in fear, for it can all too easily be taken away from them. A new generation grows up in the chokehold that Wily and his robots have over the city. Joe is one of these people. He distrusts the robots and disagrees with the state the city’s in. He sees that the city is chained. He visits his old home, and finds his late father’s motorbike. He takes it and leaves for the outskirts of the city. Here he finds Dr. Light. Together they kill a robot assassin sent to kill Joe for his thoughts of rebellion.
The two men hatch a plan to detonate a bomb on the transmitter on Wily’s tower, so that they might inspire hope and show that Wily can be touched. Joe races over to the tower and runs up the flights of stairs to the roof of Wily’s tower. From a distance, Light sees the flames erupt from the tower and watches a body drop from the tower. As he gets closer to the tower, he finds that it is indeed Joe. The transmitter and the telescreens are down. But then they switch back on again, and Thomas understands that Wily had backups for everything. There was a second transmitter, and Joe had died for nothing. Wily uses the situation to spin this as a “threat to the safety of the city” and uses this as a possibility to deploy his army and completely crack down on the city. Thomas witnesses what happens, and while he is overcome with grief and more guilt, he also finds that it fuels his rage and determination to fight Wily: “Joe, when you see Emily \ tell her to wait for me, \ ‘cause I still have work to do.”
Act I (The Protomen)
Dr. Light has worked on his revenge for many years, and in the year “two-thousand-x, Protoman was born, a perfect man, an unbeatable machine.” Protoman is sent to fight Wily and his evil robots. Protoman is defeated in the fight, and when Wily orders the final attack, none of the spectating citizens comes to his aid.
In his grief for his son and his rage against Wily and the citizens, he builds Megaman. Knowing that he will find out anyway, he tells Megaman of his older brother Protoman and his fate, and how he thinks mankind deserves the cruel oppression from Wily and that Protoman had carried a weight no single man could and should bear. He tells Megaman this to protect him and teach him, but instead, Megaman is furious and wants to avenge his brother. He visits his brother’s grave, a monument in the city, and then rushes on, frenzied, to fight Wily and avenge Protoman. Before he can get to Wily, he has to defeat a great army of his robot henchmen, led by Wily’s second in command. When he reaches Wily’s gates and the commander of the robot troops, he finds that the one in charge of Wily’s forces is none other than his brother Protoman himself!
Protoman tells him that mankind is doomed because they will not stand up for themselves:
“Do you see that the truth is they don’t want to change this? They don’t want a hero. They just want a martyr, a statue to raise.”
Protoman kills the remainder of his troops to make it an even fight, and the two brothers face each other, about to decide the fate of mankind. Megaman refuses to fight Protoman, who says he must. He tries to win back his brother, saying that they “both know they’ll never fight”, but fails to convince his brother. The crowd is pressuring Megaman into killing his brother to save them, and he gives in. Protoman falls, and Megaman finally understands, and walks away. Without commander, Wily’s robots don’t know what to do, and they look to Wily’s tower. With a single gesture, Wily gives them new orders, and the machines march and massacre the gathered crowd for their thoughts of rebellion.
The Dystopian Elements
It’s quite difficult to write such a comprehensive story within the textual confines of lyrics, even with the added textual notes. Yet the two albums offer two full narratives that share many elements with other dystopian texts. Quite like other dystopian texts, this particular dystopian narrative starts “in medias res, within the nightmarish society,” which is true for the Act I album, which was released first. Tom Moylan notes that this causes “cognitive estrangement by the immediacy and normality the location.” Cognitive estrangement is a theory coined by Darko Suvin, which is defined as the “factual reporting of fictions,” describing unfamiliar things, values, concepts, and worlds as if they are familiar. Through this “distancing or by the unfamiliarity of science fictional worlds, we are estranged from our assumptions about reality and forced to question them.” This mindset is also invoked and required for the story by The Protomen. By the end of Act I, the estrangement works to get the audience to reflect on themselves and society.
It is interesting to note that, while dystopian narratives often feature an immersed main character who is slowly opening his eyes and starting to question the state, the story by The Protomen does not share this. This can easily be explained, however, by the fact that the Dr. Light in this narrative facilitated the development of the world into this dystopian state and even witnessed it change. This is another remarkable feature: the fact that we also get to hear how this dystopia came to be, in the form of the second album as the prequel.
There are other dystopian and Orwellian elements as well, for instance in the way that a regime is established. Moylan notes:
“To be sure, the official, hegemonic order of most dystopias rests […] on both coercion and consent. The material force of the economy and the state apparatus controls the social order and keeps it running; but discursive power, exercised in the reproduction of meaning and the interpellation of subjects, is a complementary and necessary force. Language is a key weapon for the reigning dystopian power structure.
Wily works his way into his position of power from within; he reforms the city with his robots and makes it a place with better work environments and less crime. He cunningly sets a trap, and when it is sprung by Light, he can deploy his army for the safety of the city and take the city without losing the loyalty of the citizens. So, Wily greatly boosts the economy and eventually becomes the state apparatus by himself, and thus in the position to control the social order.
Dr. Wily and Protoman as envisioned in the 1994 cartoon series.
In terms of language, there is a small number of instances in which Wily is described using his telescreens and loudspeakers as propaganda, rallying the citizens or ensuring them that everything is under control: in “The Will of One” it reads:
“The rusting metal loudspeakers mounted at intervals on the side of the stone wall are humming, chanting now words to settle the stir created by a new hero. Words to quell a potential uprising. Words to inspire fear. Words to drive back the idea that freedom is within the grasp of one angry mob headed by one unstoppable leader.”
Wily is using language to control and play the citizens and reduces language to a tool for mind- and crowd control. So, through a combination of language, military force, control over technological and economical advancement that he created and can take away again, Wily establishes his dominion over the city.
Some of these elements are typically Orwellian and are very similar to the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Most significantly is Wily’s telescreen on the tower from which he rules that he uses to broadcast his propaganda. Quite like the state in Nineteen Eighty-Four, Wily uses fear to keep people in control, and has an assassin who makes criminals, homeless, and people who seem to disagree or rebel, disappear. Wily’s regime is totalitarian in an Orwellian fashion.
Indeed, Wily even seems to have control over people’s behavior, and even ideas that are forbidden:
“Ideas forbidden in Wily’s society
The society for which he worked,
The society in which he lived
The society he would set free.
And so Light worked, far into the night, when the watchful eyes of Wily’s robots weren’t upon him.”
The lyrics also illustrate that Wily is monitoring people in his society, similar to what happens in Nineteen Eighty-Four.
The Meaning of this Brave New Dystopia
It is interesting to see that the focus of social criticism that often comes with dystopian settings and stories has shifted: usually, dystopias are created to criticise certain political concepts or regimes. In these cases, the inhabitants of the regime are the oppressed and painted as the victims. In the story of the two albums by The Protomen, the criticism is aimed at these people who do nothing and bide their time, hoping for change to come somehow. As Moylan notes, “most dystopian texts offer a detailed and pessimistic presentation of the very worst of social alternatives.” This is definitely true for the city in the story told by The Protomen, but whereas other texts base their social criticism on these extreme social alternatives, The Protomen do not; it’s not Wily or the city that leads them to social criticism of a tyrant or an oppressed state. Instead, they criticise the inhabitants and their behaviour, their lack of rebellion and activity.
So, now we’ve established that the narrative in these albums by The Protomen shares many elements with traditional dystopian texts, and even with the classic Nineteen Eighty-Four. Not only do these albums paint a very grim and haunting image, via the disconnection with our own world and values (the cognitive estrangement), the music moves the listeners to question their own world and its values. The lyrics of The Stand (Man or Machine) and Sons of Fate, the crux of the story, (can) fill in the answers to these questions, as they focus on the fact that mankind won’t stand up for themselves.
This shift in focus also causes a shift in meaning. The social criticism that can be read in the albums can be summarised along the lines of standing up for yourself, not waiting for others to do your job for you, and not to tolerate oppression, and perhaps even that there is strength in numbers. This new message coming out of a dystopian narrative fits the modern times, in which society has grown individualistic, where many tasks and responsibilities are taken away from us by others or by machines, and where we sometimes seem to forget that the power lies with the people, not with the people who represent (or rule) them.
In short, The Protomen took the linear good versus bad-plot from a videogame franchise and spun it into a dystopian narrative. Remarkable as this is, even their dystopian narrative differs from other dystopian tales in the way it the focus of its implied criticism has shifted from a criticism of the state and political system to a sense of socio-criticism that well fits the modern era. On top of that, the music is amazing and diverse and worth a listen! There may be no heroes left in man, but fortunately for us, we have The Protomen.
 The Protomen, The Good Doctor. Act II: The Father of Death. Sound Machine, 2009. CD.
 The Protomen, The Father of Death. Act II: The Father of Death. Sound Machine, 2009. CD.
 The Protomen, The Hounds. Act II: The Father of Death. Sound Machine, 2009. CD.
 The Protomen, The State vs. Thomas Light. Act II: The Father of Death. Sound Machine, 2009. CD.
 Give Us The Rope. Act II: The Father of Death. Sound Machine, 2009. CD.
 How The World Fell Under Darkness. Act II: The Father of Death. Sound Machine, 2009. CD.
 Breaking Out. Act II: The Father of Death. Sound Machine, 2009. CD.
 Keep Quiet. Act II: The Father of Death. Sound Machine, 2009. CD.
 Light Up The Night. Act II: The Father of Death. Sound Machine, 2009. CD.
 The Fall. Act II: The Father of Death. Sound Machine, 2009. CD.
 The Protomen, Here Comes The Arm. Act II: The Father of Death. Sound Machine, 2009. CD.
 Hope Rides Alone. Act I: The Protomen. Sound Machine, 2005. CD.
 Funeral For A Son. Act I: The Protomen. Sound Machine, 2005. CD.
 Unrest In The House Of Light. Act I: The Protomen. Sound Machine, 2005. CD.
 The Will of One. Act I: The Protomen. Sound Machine, 2005. CD.
 The Stand (Man or Machine). Act I: The Protomen. Sound Machine, 2005. CD.
 The Sons of Fate. Act I: The Protomen. Sound Machine, 2005. CD.
 T. Moylan and R. Baccolini, Dark Horizons: Science Fiction and the Dystopian Imagination. New York: Routledge, 2003. Print. p.5.
 P. Nodelman, “The Cognitive Estrangement of Darko Suvin.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 5.4, 1981. Project Muse. Web. 23 June 2016.
 Moyland, T. Scraps of the Untainted Sky: Science Fiction, Utopia, Dystopia. Boulder: Westview Press, 2000. Print. p.147.
 Hope Rides Alone. Act I: The Protomen. Sound Machine, 2005. CD.
 T. Moylan and R. Baccolini, Dark Horizons: Science Fiction and the Dystopian Imagination. New York: Routledge, 2003. Print. p.6.