Sunday, 20 December 2009

Team Thought-ress

And so it is that another free weekend of Team Fortress 2 comes to an end. I haven't spent as long as I might have wanted, due to the aforementioned birthday celebrations. My logical brain tells me this is probably a good thing.

Meanwhile, my lower functions scream at the accursed social life.
MUST. PLAY. MORE. TEE. EFF. TOO!

I'm hooked. I'm hooked bad, in a way I haven't been since my first experience with TF2 two Christmasses ago.* Is it the sweet, satisfyingly lumpy sensation of every successful kill? Well, yes. The giggle-inducing, pun-loving presentation? Definitely. The beautiful Pixar-cartoon design? Even though my non-gaming-friendly laptop appears to have knifed up the graphics in a back-alley, yes.
It's very much all of that. But why now?
It's the fault of... and, okay, appreciate this is a multiplayer deathmatch game about two teams called BLU and RED, killing each other, respawning, killing each other, with a cast of characters entirely made up of red/blue versions of various unbending stereotypes - German mad-scientist doctors, Australian huntsmen snipers, French gentlemen spies... it was the fault of Narrative.

It all began with a mystifying comic put up online at the TF blog, which peeled back the curtain of the game, to show the (fictional) workings under each fight. TF2 has always done mini-narratives well: the basic premise puts your own small story (clocking up kills) in front of a backdrop of a larger story (capturing the control point). Simple but effective- the basis of most multiplayer shooters.

More unique stuff like the game's Domination feature- announcing a character who has killed you multiple times as your rival - and the natural class rivalries/symbioses that develop (the love between a hit-point-endowed Heavy and his Medic) build on that effectively, allowing you to sketch your own story on top of everything happening (and exploding) around you.I reckon, perhaps controversially,** that Achievements, flawed and artificial though they are, extend that. Team Fortress is probably as close to playing an MMO I'm ever going to come. It means a certain level of grinding for the newer, exciting-er weapons but, allowing you to put progress bars and reminders for achievements on the screen, there's a constant sense of varied aims and slow improvement. In traditional narrative terms, character development.

But this week was the first time it's ever imposed such a big meta-narrative over the gameplay. First, making the narrative explicit with (admittedly nonsensical) backstory for the fight, and then setting up a direct war- between the rocket-jumping Soldier and explosive-wielding Scottish cyclops Demoman, all done in traditionally well-written, genuinely funny style over the Team Fortress blog. The winner would receive a special unlockable weapon.And that was it. I had to represent for my chosen side (the Soldiers, obv) so I re-installed TF2, fired up a game and jumped straight into the Soldier's boots, where I loyally stayed for the duration. The thing being, while I probably would have started playing TF2 again this Christmas, nothing else would have got me this instantly attached.

Watching my 'War Contribution' kill-counter slowly tick up, immediately booing at any Demomen I saw, furrowing my brow and making a mental note to throw as many rockets their way as possible (those damned Scots!) and striving to get better at that, TF2 temporarily took over my brain. I was logging on every chance I got, checking the War results like a football fan.
There are some stats floating around on the internet somewhere*** tht show the spike TF2 sales take after each update, and it's well deserved. There was a large internet backlash when Valve announced a Left4Dead2, rather than merely updating the first game for free, and TF2 is the reason. But I can't see L4D updates pushing up the number of interested gamers the way these do- a lot of that is probably due to the more finite nature of level add-ons in an essentially linear game, and a lot to do with the clever way TF2 is marketed- take the Meet The... videos, individual works of genius.

With every update, the attention to detail and sheer amount of jokes (under which a mythos is starting to quietly creep in) are astounding. The value-for-money feeling is as much reading the fake newspapers and comics and watching the videos, as it is the addition of weapons and maps. And it's testament to Valve's investment in new ways of storytelling. This is a game which doesn't feature a single cutscene, but which has managed to build an atmosphere, if not a particularly necessary fiction.
For all people talked about L4D telling a story in a new way with its graffiti and posters (and it did that reasonably well, but in a too-limited way), this is the ultimate showing-off of Valve's confidence. Because they're ace, and they understand gamers of all types- the whole spectrum of nerd- and they make computer games I buy 2 or 3 times.

If you're reading this and it's still Sunday, then the game is still free and you can get it from Steam here. I leave you with the latest promo video, Meet The Spy.


*In many ways, TF2 is as much a Christmas tradition as over-eating and kids' films for me. First got the 360 Orange Box in the boxing-day sales and lost the rest of my Christmas holidays to it. I bought it again for some mystifying reason on PC, where it entirely failed to run until I received a new laptop last Christmas, and kissed farewell to any chances of leaving the house till New Year. And... well, here we are again. A lot of free time, a lot more work to do, and the temptation. Oh, the temptation.

**Controversially because I know a lot of people- PC people especially, and me includedly- look down a bit on achievements as a cheap play-me-look-play-me grinding mechanic. Which they can certainly be, and I'm in no way endorsing the fact that sale page up there including "326 Steam Achievements!" amongst the game's features.

***Just not within reach of my Google-stick.

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Videogames, film, music, comics: feed them into the Alex-Spencer machine and out come neat little articles. Like the ones you're looking at here.