Sunday, October 12, 2014

Why TF2?

While playing The Secret World recently I mouthed off against its sad, tacked-on excuse for a PvP system. If I want to PvP, I said, I'll do so in a game where the interface actually gives some freakin' feedback, like Planetside 2 or Team Fortress 2. One player retorted with a fairly standard line:
"Why would anyone play TF2?"
And unfortunately before I could wind myself up into a full-blown rant, another, believing he was defending TF2, answered:
"TF2 is just mindless fun."

Ouch. Really? As opposed to grinding your thousandth zombie in an MMO, or farming the same mission for the thirtieth time, all the while pressing the same seven buttons in the same order? People who burst an artery if they catch you deviating in the slightest from the basaltically-fixed routine they've learned by rote in an instance run think an FPS is mindless. I disrespectfully disagree.

So then, why TF2?
Because it works.
Oh, sure, it presents a couple of positive qualities as well, like the wide variety of minor variations on the weapons you can use or the playable classes' parody of action-movie machismo, but TF2's quality shows largely in its lack of negatives. It's reliable: lag, crashes, bugs, cheats, exploits, the dirty laundry list associated with most multiplayer games, all blissfully absent here by comparison. Its interface cleanly and unobtrusively outlines the objectives of the game, instead of making you ask "wait, what does that symbol mean?"
You know what, though, let's cut through the flimsy pretexts and get to the core reason why so many turn up their noses at TF2. You've heard it before, about Heroes of Might and Magic, about World of Warcraft and many others, a superficial complaint dredged up whenever players attempt a social coup by declaring themselves above a game without actually understanding anything about it.

Cartoons are, pretty much by definition, less visually detailed than film. Thus they are popularly denigrated as a childlike form, intended for those too young to have acquired many concepts complex enough to require a more nuanced form of expression. Of course, that's missing the point of the larger work of which those drawings are but one part. Cartoons offer both clarity and flexibility of expression. Just as cartoon characters' exaggerated motions and expressions can more easily carry the flow of a story, our 'toons' exaggerated features are meant to be flexible enough for manipulation. Dozens of player actions require dozens of animations to set them apart. Defensive and offensive features must be discernible. There must be no room for accidental, abusable concealment.

That caricature up above represents yours truly in the role of a TF2 demoman. You can instantly tell I'm a demoman by the size, shape, posture and movement patterns of my character model. You can tell one of my main abilities, and my likely intentions toward you in the next few seconds, by the clearly delineated weapon I'm holding.
You're gonna wanna step back right about now.
If I were holding a shield as well, you might want to dodge left or right or get behind cover instead.
If holding a grenade launcher, you'd run into the open and bounce around counting to four of my shots then charge into me.
If I were holding a wider-looking grenade launcher, you'd turn paranoid and start scanning for bombs stuck to the floor or walls instead.

Games are an interactive medium and the graphics serve to illustrate that interaction. What this means can differ from game to game. Single-player games, in which you interact with static landscapes and algorithmically-driven NPCs, need to bank on precision and detail in order to make that more predictable content entertaining. In multiplayer and especially PvP, players must be able to discern and react to each others' choices. Graphics must be flexible enough to clearly convey what is happening. Clarity can mean simplicity, yes, but it can also be the vehicle for complexity. In this case TF2s outwardly simple graphics are meant to allow the player to carry out the sort of fast-paced and varied gameplay which a greater amount of visual detail might obfuscate.

Valve knew this. Give the bastards some credit, they may be a bunch of scheisters when it comes to marketing schemes, but their games are professionally designed. TF2 was delayed for over half a decade. As processors and video cards were rapidly improving around Y2K, FPS games were pressuring each other for greater and greater "realism" and at first TF2 seemed to be hopping that wagon. Had it done so, it would have been hopelessly lost in the swarm of FarCries or Calls of Duty or every other carbon-copy FPS intended to make the players feel like action-movie stars. Instead, TF2 not only parodies the machismo of pretending to be gun-toting hired muscle, but brings the concept of a multiplayer FPS game back to reality.

Cartoonish reality? Why, yes. The reality of a game is that a game is not a movie. It is interactive. Its visuals illustrate that interaction. TF2 functions, cleanly, clearly, smoothly, cleverly, with frills denoted as frills and core features unburdened by overbuilt accessories.

And you know, maybe that's what really makes people uncomfortable. Maybe it makes them realize that when they're buying a gen-u-ine military-modeled automatic rifle in some other game's cash shop, they're actually no better than the people buying funny hats and deadly candy-canes from Valve.
From many players' point of view, the worst thing about TF2 is that it works so well.

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