Titanfall 2 and the Trope of the 'Good Robot'
This essay contains spoilers for Titanfall 2
The recently released first-person shooter, Titanfall 2 has you playing as the novice pilot of a “Titan,” a two-story-tall military robot that can be climbed into and controlled. In Titanfall 1 your robot was effectively a (pretty cool) power-up to be used during multiplayer matches. But the sequel’s added single player campaign has you piloting a Titan named BT who possesses both intelligence and a personality. In executing on this premise, the writers of the game borrow from a rich history of media focused around the relationships between humans and their futuristic weapons.
There’s no shortage of stories about robots gaining sentience and forming relationships with their human companions. But some of the most memorable examples of this theme turned up in films from the last few decades of the 20th century. Terminator 2 gave us the hope that a big, bad metal killing machine could stand in as a father figure for a teenage boy. Short Circuit gave us the slapstick transformation of a soulless death robot into a Pinocchio figure, yearning for life. Finally, The Iron Giant used a robot from outer space as an allegorical lense to talk about the existential fears brought about by cold war rhetoric.
The threat of nuclear proliferation loomed large during the late 1980s, and was the backdrop for all three movies. Short Circuit and Terminator 2 in particular were released in the years surrounding the collapse of the soviet union and the slow and anxious demilitarization that followed. U.S. society, in its death race with the Soviet Union, had built such remarkable things -only to see them used for destructive ends. In turning these weapons into beacons of hope, perhaps we could reclaim a future through our stories that seemed all but impossible in reality.
Like the stories that came before it, Titanfall 2 seeks to reckon with humanity’s over-reliance on technology and our over-eagerness for war. The tools of war may have seen an upgrade - high tech drones and enhanced supersoldiers reflect a society that has seen DARPA and Silicon Valley take the place of the Pentagon and the “Evil Empire” - but the anxieties surrounding war have stayed the same.
So too has the idea remained that the same technology that could destroy us might also be the best thing that ever happened to us. As efficiently homicidal as your Titan is, it’s his kindness and loyalty that makes him memorable. In humanizing the weapons we use, in having these weapons reflect back only the best parts of ourselves, we attempt to assuage our collective guilty conscience. In these stories, our creations, like Frankenstein's monster (with which they share plenty of DNA) wind up being morally superior to their creators. It’s no accident that Titanfall 2 ends in the same way as the above examples: your robot pal, in all its purity and innocence, sacrifices itself to save you.
When writing the script for Terminator 2, James Cameron decided early on that he wanted to subvert the character that he had spent the first movie building. He wanted to make the killing machine into a pacifist father figure. Despite the the film’s backdrop of nuclear annihilation, this newer, kinder Terminator represented hope for a species seemingly destined for apocalypse. His emotionless demeanor - which previously made him more threatening - became an asset as the humans around him succumbed to fear and terror. When Sarah Conner speaks about how the Terminator treats her son John, she admits: “The Terminator would never stop, it would never leave him... And it would die to protect him. Of all the would-be fathers who came and went over the years, this thing, this machine, was the only one who measured up.”
Even as your pilot, out of his depth and behind enemy lines, frets and worries about his capabilities, BT is calm and consolatory. Like the Terminator, his robotic demeanor is actually an asset in these frightening and chaotic conditions. And like the Terminator, he does all he can to protect you from danger. He rescues you from a fatal drop (giving you a thumbs-up afterward that would make Arnold weep), he reaches out and scoops you into his womb-like pilot seat as enemy fire peppers his hull, and he huddles over you to shield you, Groot-like, from a crashing ship. BT may have been programmed with three total “Protocols” - to uphold the mission, to link to the pilot, and to protect the pilot - but it’s keeping you safe that seems to take the highest priority.
As our attachment to him grows, so too does the threat of his being taken away from us. As much as Short Circuit was a fun and memorable movie from my childhood, it was primarily a story about an innocent robot running from a constant and overwhelming threat. It was about a machine gaining self-awareness at one moment and a fear of death in the next. The unconscious lesson is that a sentient robot cannot survive long while fighting its function. When treated as a mindless weapon, Johnny 5 faces no real threats. But once he turns away and imagines other roles for himself, the whole world conspires to cut short his quest for freedom. Like Tyrell told his replicant creation, Roy Batty, in Blade Runner: “The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long; and you have burned so very brightly, Roy.” Along with our admiration for these precious beings, comes the expectation of the brevity of their existence.
One of Titanfall 2’s most memorable stages follows immediately after BT has been mortally wounded and disabled by the enemy mercenary, Blisk. Blisk leverages BT’s attachment to you to force it to expose itself and hand over the key to the doomsday weapon they seek to activate. Later, as BT lies in shambles, he surrenders to you his most valuable component: his eye, which doubles as his CPU and a hidden holster for a powerful gun. To move forward you must essentially cannibalize your friend. Even down to his last bare essence, BT exists to help you, like a giving tree of pistons and gears instead of roots and branches.
And when your robot friend finally departs, it’s through a grand and selfless act. Titanfall 2’s final scene is strongly reminiscent of the climax of The Iron Giant; where, seeing the town threatened by an incoming nuclear missile launched by an overzealous military, the Giant sacrifices himself because he is the only one who can. As the dreaded Arc weapon that threatens your rebel homeworld (ok, no points for originality to the context) readies itself to fire, despite a deep and surprisingly meaningful friendship that has formed between you and BT he removes you from the cockpit and in his final act, flings you far away from the explosion that destroys him and the weapon both.
Having done all he could, the robot companion inevitably leaves us all alone. Like Hogarth watching his only friend light up the sky in fond farewell, like John Conner watching what could have been a father disappear into molten steel, our pilot and we the player mourn the death of our companion, but ultimately live on, improved. The world is too imperfect, and humanity is too cursed to allow these manifestations of purity to live on much longer than they serve the story. Their greatest act is to die, and in dying to provide a lesson in selflessness. Cameron, speaking on the Terminator’s role in relation to Sarah Conner’s, says: “We wanted the two of them to change characters as the film went on: she becomes the Terminator while he becomes a human being. And it’s partly through the Terminator’s transformation that she understands what humanity really is.”
Why are we as audiences so swayed by these stories? Why was Terminator 2 so successful at repainting an emotionless killer into robot dad? Why did Short Circuit’s wise-cracking robot leave such a lasting impression - giving us Pixar’s Wall-e -another story about a compassionate botAlly? Why did The Iron Giant give us a robot that dominated many of our childhoods with its image of innocence and selflessness?
In our heroes we often look for better versions of ourselves. Perhaps doubly so in the machines we surround ourselves with. Indeed, part of the impetus behind filling our lives with automated assistance is linked to our inherent distrust of other people. Drones are supposed to be more accurate and safer than jets piloted by humans. Self-driving Ubers won't take you on longer routes or sexually harass you. If the fridge reminds you to buy more milk you won't have to get angry at your spouse for forgetting. Machines and technology were always there to save us from ourselves and our own darkest impulses, even as we used them to increase the likelihood of our extinction.