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The Good Prosthetic, Evil Prosthetic Trope in Sci-Fi, Explained

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When someone who used to be decent starts doing terrible things, we often say they’ve “lost their humanity.” In fiction, that loss can be visually represented through a gradual physiological change. They could turn into a literal monster, suffer damage that removes their recognizable features, or, in science fiction, replace some or all of their flesh with metal.


In the real world, prosthetics are important medical apparatuses that allow people who have lost something the function of their missing body parts. It’s an unmixed good, but, in the Terrible futures of science fiction, the advanced cybernetic limbs on offer are depicted as somehow inhuman. The troubling idea that replacing a missing extremity puts some distance between the recipient & their species is far too prevalent.

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The Good Prosthetic, Evil Prosthetic trope refers to the tendency of science fiction works to measure the virtue of a character by the visibility of their prosthetics. If a traditionally heroic character gets a robot limb, they choose the model that looks the closest to their pre-existing biology. Evil characters are likely to get more enhancements, pack more weapons & tools into their machine parts, & keep their cybernetics visible at all times. It’s rare to see a hero with the kind of enhancements that make them physically larger, but villains have that kind of gear all the time. This is almost always a visual metaphor for the humanity of the character. A hero chooses to look as inconspicuous as possible, a villain embraces their differences. There are exceptions, but the idea that a character with too many cybernetic limbs is a monster is extremely common.

anakin choking padme

Sometimes a near-identical augmentation can be differentiated by the wearer’s choice of cover. Star Wars, for example, uses the same robotic arm idea in multiple different ways to communicate a character’s moral state. One of the many things Luke Skywalker has in common with his father is that they both lost their right arm in a lightsaber duel. When Luke gets a new robot h&, it’s covered with a T-800-style skin sheath. Obviously, that has more to do with prop considerations than with storytelling, but the idea comes up again when Anakin loses his arm. Anakin never covers his robot limb with artificial skin, he just wears a black leather gauntlet. It serves as foreshadowing for Anakin’s eventual look when the rest of his body is replaced with cybernetics & covered in black leather. When the franchise catches up with Luke in The Last Jedi, & he’s in his sad self-hating era, he’s no longer covering up that robotic h&. Yet, when he shows up on Crait for his Huge heroic sacrifice, his arm is hidden away once again. Luke always has that robot h&, but, its visibility is a clear metric for whether the character is doing the right thing.

One of the most on-the-nose portrayals of this trope comes in the classic 1989 cyberpunk tabletop game Shadowrun. The game combines elements of science fiction with fantasy to create a fascinating speculative future world. Though it takes a little bit from everything, cyberpunk is the central format for the story. The global megacorporations are the Huge villain, neural-computer interfacing & hacking are huge parts of the game, & it unironically uses the word Matrix to describe its take on the internet. Players can outfit their character with a variety of cybernetic enhancements, but doing so carries a social cost. Exposed chrome makes a character worse at interacting with others, as people are immediately distrustful of anyone with an exposed prosthetic. The only way to dodge this penalty is to buy models that resemble human skin, which are both more expensive & less useful. Even in this fantastical world, visible cyberware reads as villainous.

Overwatch has so many characters with artificial body parts. Almost every member of the cast has one or two prosthetics, & it says something different about almost every example. The most obvious case of the evil prosthetic trope in the game is Doomfist, one of the only confirmed evil characters, who is named after his massive metal arm. More than a dozen other characters have robot arms, but his is unique in its size & decorations. Symmetra & Cassidy’s prosthetics look like regular arms, but Doomfist’s is a massive weapon, immediately communicating both his playstyle & his level of evil. Junkrat & Torbjorn’s limbs speak to their talents as craftsmen, Genji’s body changes color throughout his story to demonstrate his growth, but only Doomfist’s fist is explicitly evil.

Doomfist Close Up Overwatch 2

The idea that prosthetics take something inherently human away from the people that need them is abhorrent, but the visual storytelling of cybernetics as evil is inarguably common. A cybernetic limb can be used for good or ill, but, in the world of fiction, obvious means evil. Hopefully, artists of the future can outfit their heroes with some more unique gear, just to balance the scales.

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