Warning: This article will contain spoilers for the entirety of Titanfall 2.
Protocol 1: Link with the Pilot
Protocol 2: Uphold the Mission
BT pushes onward to fulfill protocol two while his systems desperately attempt to load the scrambled third protocol. He is going to uphold the mission, and after all we've been through, I am going to do the same. I influence protagonist Jack Cooper's dialogue into reassuring BT, his Titan – his companion.
I knew this was the direction the game would be going. It was written all over Titanfall 2's marketing campaign. Either the big robot was going to sacrifice himself, or we both were. Even so, predictability does not necessarily come at the cost of emotional investment, and I am invested enough to have a big, dumb smile on my face as BT and Cooper launch themselves towards the enemy's weaponized space-fold thingamabobber.
Protocol 3: Protect the Pilot
"Are you serious?" was my first objection. BT tossing Jack out of the cockpit and saving his life wasn't a surprise, but adhering to a pre-programmed protocol had me feeling robbed of emotional impact. It just didn't feel the same, knowing BT's selfless sacrifice was little more than following his programming. Titanfall 2 remained my favorite game of the year, but that narrative decision was one of the few perceived blemishes upon its otherwise flawless face.
Then I played Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare and met E3N, otherwise known as "Ethan".
There was something off about Ethan the second I met him in-game. Or rather, there was something off about everyone's response to Ethan. He – or perhaps it? – speaks with the cadence of a human, makes sarcastic jokes like a human, and may as well be a human in a robot's body. He's the only machine of his kind, and nearly everyone accepts him as part of the crew rather than being amazed or put off by just how human this "robot" is. With the exception of a handful of plot contrivances and conveniences, Ethan is no different than any of the sentient meat bags fighting alongside you.
The only thing Ethan truly accomplished was to help me understand not only why BT was so charming, but also why Protocol Three was a necessity for the Titan's sacrifice.
So much of Titanfall 2's narrative is by-the-numbers that it is easy to overlook what care was taken in how Respawn approached BT as a character. Those three protocols define him, and each line spoken – no matter how emotional his word choice may seem – can easily be linked back to those protocols forming BT's purpose. They are, ultimately, his outlook on life. He is a machine, and when he panics or worries he speaks in the exact same cadence as he would if discussing the probability of rain falling from the sky.
For example, in the third mission BT is grabbed by a mechanical crane and effectively immobilized. Despite calling for the pilot to come assist him, you cannot really hear it in his digitized voice. All the suggestion of panic comes from his limbs thrashing about, firing his weapon ineffectively at an unseen foe. The physical actions convey a very human response, but the loading screen immediately after recontextualizes it right back down to machine speak.
STATUS: Unable to break free from manipulator arm.
ACTION: Initiating attempt #35: FAILED.
Every action of panic you therefore see from BT can be viewed as an attempt to break free. He is running through as many possible combinations of actions he can manage in an effort to escape the arm.
This is still panic, but it is panic reinterpreted through the mind of a machine. BT is now unable to uphold the mission or protect the pilot. He must, in some fashion, break free, and in his communications he does his best to advise Cooper in efforts to keep him alive. BT is limited in his ability to complete his protocols.
In other words, Respawn Entertainment humanized BT by very subtly reinterpreting human thoughts and reactions in a way that a machine would perceive them. Over on Eurogamer, James Bartholomeau suggests that BT asking Cooper to trust him further humanizes the machine. I agree with him, but only from the perspective of the player and Cooper. If we recontextualize BT, his words and actions still make sense as a machine. After all, BT's top priorities are to Link with the Pilot, Uphold the Mission, and to Protect the Pilot. If there were a chance that throwing Jack across a massive chasm would end in failure, BT would not have done it.
By saying "trust me", BT instead appeals to human emotion. He could instead speak about probabilities similarly to C-3PO, but this would only inhibit the player's ability to trust the machine. BT would, in the end, always be a machine.
This is further evidenced by BT's understanding of love. Within the second mission, BT obtains a new weapon, at which point the player has the option to joke that "Somebody's in love".
A human's concept of love requires admiration, attraction, devotion, and respect. Conclusion: I am 50% in love.
On the surface, a typical piece of robot-logic comedy, but what is really being said is that half of those words accurately describe how BT "feels" about that weapon. When you think of the definitions of words like "respect," it becomes more and more conceivable that a machine could come to a conclusion that, yes, they are 50% feeling an emotion (or 50% of a set of emotions) for a weapon.
Further on, BT objects to being given a proper new pilot by informing Sarah Briggs of his statistical analysis of their performance. He wants to stick with Jack due to a familiarity – the same sort of reason that may happen if two partners in a buddy-cop movie were threatened to be taken apart – but reinterpreted through mathematics.
This is why Infinite Warfare's Ethan failed for me. The writers tried to take advantage of his robotic nature at the end of Operation Burn Water, where he and protagonist Captain Reyes are stranded in space outside of Saturn. He insists he is expendable because he is hardware, and asserts that he thinks he is scared, but it fails to make a similar emotional impact. Again, BT never stated he was scared when the crane grabbed and immobilized him, but we got to witness his physical behavior in contrast to the calm tone of his voice. By preventing a part of him from behaving in a human fashion, it only emphasized the human response further.
Which is why I suddenly understand the choice to have BT throw Cooper to safety only after Protocol Three was restored in his systems. BT is not a human. He does not experience emotion as humans do. Instead, he is a software reinterpretation of my own instinctive protocols that rush me to my niece's side as she wobbles at the top of a stairway. We follow all those chemical responses and instinctive behaviors that seem to define us just as BT follows his own protocols when he insists on protecting the pilot. And that ultimately is what makes us empathize with what is otherwise a literal killing machine.