Robocop is Lawful Good

by Neal Litherland 4 months ago in table top

An Alignment Deep Dive

Robocop is Lawful Good

The film Robocop is held up by many as a classic that combines science fiction with political commentary. On its surface it's a story about a cop who finds himself in the center of a clandestine program to create the ultimate law enforcement agent. He struggles to solve his own murder after become a cybernetic agent of the law, uncovers corruption, and does what he can to clean up the city. Beneath the surface, though, it's a movie about how corporations treat people as little more than objects, how power corrupts, and how even those with good intentions are often bound by societal norms that stop them from doing the right thing.

And for those who are looking for a popular take on a lawful good character, I'd hold up Robocop as a phenomenal pop culture example.

Before we go any further I wish to stress that, for the purposes of this article I'm referring only to the character as he's presented in the first film under director Paul Verhoeven. While there are other versions of the character, and he's been taken in other directions in films, cartoons, comic books, and video games, to keep the narrative straightforward I'm narrowing the subject of discussion to this one particular vision of who the character is, and what he represents.

This is the third installment in the alignment deep dive series, and if you enjoy it consider checking out The Punisher is Evil, along with Judge Dredd is Lawful Evil. If you enjoy the series, then boost the signal by sharing the posts around, or leaving a tip so I know you want more. And if you're looking for more general gaming and geekery topics I'd suggest checking out my gaming blog Improved Initiative, along with my full Vocal archive as well!

Law and Order

When we talk about Robocop, we are not necessarily talking about Alex Murphy. While Murphy had his own life and ideas, Murphy is dead. Part of him still exists in the character of Robocop, but he's a cybernetic being. As such, his programming and purpose-driven creation is just as much a part of who he is as Murphy's physical remnants... and one might argue moreso due to just how little of Murphy is actually within that armored chassis.

The most common element between all lawful characters is that they must have some variety of code that they follow, and which dictates their behavior, if not their purpose. It's why one of the big pieces of advice I gave in both 5 Tips For Playing Better Paladins as well as 5 Tips For Playing Better Monks was to write down what your code is, and what it defines about this character's beliefs and actions.

As those who've seen the film know, Robocop has Prime Directives. He is required to, as the directives say, serve the public trust, protect the innocent, and uphold the law. The fourth directive is, of course, the classified one that states if he attempts to take legal action against an officer of OCP that he will attempt to shut himself down. After all, the company couldn't have their own product forcing them to obey the law when so many individuals from the company are engaging in visible, criminal corruption.

But What About The "Good" Part?

After all, Ed-209 is technically a slave to its programming.

While Robocop must abide by the Prime Directives he has installed, part of the reason that Bob Morton needs a human component for the Robocop cyborg is that a thinking brain needs to be able to interface with the technology to make more complicated decisions regarding strategy and options. His programming can tell him what the law is, and his hardware can record evidence or track threats, but Murphy is the component that makes decisions.

Part of how the film casts this inhuman character who's practically immune to small arms fire in a heroic light is by putting him in clear-cut situations of right and wrong where his actions are completely justified. When two would-be rapists threaten a woman's life, he disables one and arrests them both. When a man is holding up a corner store with a machine gun, Robocop destroys the weapon and disables the perpetrator. When he leads the raid on the drug lab he enters, identifies himself, and demands the criminals lay down their weapons. Only when they open fire does he return it.

In fact, the closest Robocop comes to violating one of his first three Prime Directives is when he assaults Clarence Boddicker during his arrest. Since it's been established that Boddicker killed Murphy in cold blood, and that Murphy remembers this act, the beating Boddicker receives is understandable to the audience. And though he threatens Boddicker in a final confrontation with the phrase, "I'm not arresting you," while pointing a gun at the gang leader, when he does kill Boddicker it's when the two of them are actively engaged in a life-or death struggle while Boddicker is trying to literally destroy Robocop's life support systems with metal spike.

We see dozens of small ways that Robocop acts on his own initiative throughout the film. He ignores orders from those in charge of maintaining him because time is of the essence and it's more important to act on the information he has than to obey the authority above him. We see him access the restricted area of records to identify members of Boddicker's gang, even though techs claim Robocop isn't allowed in the area. And most importantly even after the 4th Directive is revealed, Robocop risks his own shutdown (and assumed demise that would come soon after) to make Dick Jones's crimes known.

It could be argued that Robocop's relatively restrained use of force, his only seeking out serious crimes where people are in danger (we see attempted rape, assault, robbery, holding people hostage at gunpoint, and manufacturing of massive amounts of narcotics, but never traffic enforcement, hassling sex workers, arresting homeless people, etc.) are simply the Hollywood framing to make sure that Robocop is viewed through a heroic lens. It could also be argued that OCP wants to show him doing heroic things, so it picks truly dangerous crimes for him to respond to. But in the context of defying the 4th Prime Directive, we see a mark of a principled man within the machine. We watch him struggle with his code (something that he cannot escape even if he wanted to), and then find a solution that allows him to serve justice and uphold the law, even if another Directive attempts to stop his actions.

What we don't see is just as important as what we do, because it's meant to be a window onto the character, their beliefs, and their actions. In an attempt to make policing into a product, OCP accidentally created a cyborg who eliminates some of the worst aspects of corrupting authority. Robocop never falsifies reports, his body camera is always on, and he only escalates things when someone else escalates first. He never racially profiles anyone, he never looks up someone's record without probable cause, and we always see him act in the best interests of those who are in danger. He still has doubts, temptations, frustrations, and occasional dark glimmers about what he has become, but the one thing both parts of him agree on is that he should try to do what is right.

If that isn't a solid definition of lawful good, then I don't know what is.

table top
Neal Litherland
Neal Litherland
Read next: Pitch Ya Game Round 2
Neal Litherland

Neal Litherland is an author, freelance blogger, and RPG designer. A regular on the Chicago convention circuit, he works in a variety of genres.

See all posts by Neal Litherland