December 03, 2010

Spy in Our Midst

If you're wondering why my Twitter avatar has been stealing the identities of others, well, blame Valve's brilliant "Team Fortress 2"--one of those countless obsessions that tend to crop up at the most inconvenient moments. But hear me out, blog patrons, I'm going somewhere with this.

For those unfamiliar with the franchise, the parameters of this game are basically identical to its prede
cessor: a multiplayer first-person shooter that pits two teams, comprised of nine classes (Scout, Soldier, Pyro, Demoman, Heavy, Engineer, Medic, Sniper and Spy), against each other in various wargames. Balance is the key to success--the advantages of one class can be circumvented by the advantages of another--and that's precisely what made the original game so popular. The same dynamic carries over, but a lion's share of the the sequel's lasting appeal lies in its backdrop. "TF2" takes place in a retro-futuristic version of the early 1960s, but what's interesting about this world is that it doesn't really try to parody the era in question. The game carries no pretensions beyond a series of visual and musical cues: it never lets you forget that it is a straightforward fiction created by people born several years after the fact--their idea of contemporary culture dictated by pastel comedies, Silver Age comic books and action movies.

Appropriately, this mentality extends to the purely conceptual inhabitants of "TF2". The classes were updated to reflect this new landscape; the characters in the first game were little more than faceless ciphers, but their '60s counterparts are given personalities based on an Americocentric view of the world. The Heavy is a meatheaded Russian; the Spy is an obnoxious Frenchman; the Medic is a straitlaced, sadistic German--and they all comment on their enemies' performance as they kill them. In an interview with Game Informer, writer Chet Faliszek talks about writing and casting actors for the classes:

"'Team Fortress' was fun, because we knew we wanted to make it sounds like what Americans in the '60s would have imagined these people had sounded like, not what they actually sounded like, which I think got some positive reviews and some negative reviews. Depending on what country you're from, because as we updated each nationality that nationality would be outraged that we got the accents wrong."

However, in terms of visual influence, the creators cite Norman Rockwell, Dean Cornwell and J. C. Leyendecker, all of whom came into prominence long before this period but reflect "TF2"'s aesthetic intentions quite well. The dominant question, then, is not "where are we" but "from where have we come"--and subsequently, we must imagine what forces have led us to this point in time. How did we come to accept these stereotypes? Why do they serve as cultural signifiers for the 1960s? What are these RED and BLU corporations that hire such men to kill one another? Supplementary materials expound upon a century-long war between two obscenely-powerful brothers vying for world domination, but most the specifics are left to the imagination. (The game's production/update blog humorously notes that the game was first created in 1963--the birth year of the modern conspiracy theory.)

After nearly a decade of production and innumerable rebuilds, "Team Fortress 2" was released in 2007 to great fanfare, and it has maintained a steady fanbase since then--thanks in no small part to Valve's savvy marketing campaign. Which brings me to the reason why I'm sharing this game with you, my fellow cinephiles: Valve has produced several promotional videos introducing the viewer to each member of the "Team Fortress" team. They were first utilized as trailers, and now release periodically to celebrate major updates to the game.
Over the past three years, these videos have caused enough ripples across the Internet that even those who are vaguely familiar with the game might cry "old meme." But in the interests of crossover (and passing my personal obsessions on to you), here's the "Meet the Team" series. (HD and fullscreen are highly recommended.)

Meet the Heavy
(2007) was the first video, released some five months before the game itself. I can't possibly imagine a better way to introduce the concept--recounting the mechanics of gameplay (can you devise a strategy to get past this bruiser?) while clearly stating that it would be driven by a deep sense of personality.

The dialogue flows beautifully, but pay close attention to the body language in Meet the Engineer (2007)--the subtle way that this pleasant, easygoing dude shifts his shoulders and grins as you slowly come to realize what sort of man he really is.

Later profiles would describe the Soldier as a rabid hawk who fought the Nazis independently ("I did three goddamn tours of duty and I wasn't even asked!"), but maybe you can already infer that from
Meet the Soldier (2007), which deftly intercuts two similar forms of insanity before smashing them together.

Using a format similar to that of Meet the Soldier, Meet the Demoman (2007) is the first video to directly acknowledge that the characters of "Team Fortress 2" are built on broad stereotypes. Describing himself as a "black Scottish cyclops," the Demoman laments that he is several times removed from the rest of his team--and by placing an angry, depressive interview against the chaos of the battlefield, the video operates as a harsh self-criticism on the use of tokenism in fiction. (The game reaches beyond the setting to further comment on the character's racial politics--a haunted sword called the "Eyelander" would later join pimp hats and afros as the Demo's accessories, further sneering at stereotypes by throwing them in our faces.)

Meet the Scout (2008) also toggles between "documentary interview" and "narrative violence," but blurs the line separating them--his self-congratulatory rhetoric is just as aggressive as his assault on the Heavy. By breaking the fourth wall and addressing the camera on such direct, physical terms, the video introduces the Scout as "that guy" we all know: that guy who's so consumed with talking about how great he is that it becomes a part of why he's so great.

Meet the Sniper (2008) is accompanied by a lovely homage to Lalo Schifrin's title theme from Magnum Force. Most of these videos are in one way or another about the love affairs between men and their weapons of choice. But like the opening title sequence of that film, the video concludes that there are only three things that matter in this world: a man, his gun, and the job. (Whether or not the world outside will understand is another matter entirely.)

We have yet to see Meet the Pyro or Meet the Medic, but Valve filled the gap with Meet the Sandvich (2008), the promo that introduced the titular health item to the Heavy's inventory. By now, the writers are confident that you can recognize their characters--and imagine their hilariously perverse scenarios--without seeing anything at all. The closing shot, functionally identical to the closing shot of Meet the Heavy, establishes that "Team Fortress 2" has developed a culture unto itself.

The same goes for Meet the Spy (2009), which shoves four of its most abrasive personalities into one room without a second thought. This one appears to break the mold set by previous videos--concentrating on BLU characters in an exclusively narrative setting--but it takes an appropriate route by presenting the cutthroat Spy as a man known only by reputation. With that in mind, I like how the video lightly touches upon the fact that these mercenaries are the same characters on either side of the war. Who better to deliver this monologue than the man "closest" to the subject?

Valve has certainly capitalized on the potential that these wonderful short films provide, encouraging viewers to link and share them at their own discretion; while the videos themselves are technically copyrighted, their title cards are labeled with the same notice in fine print: "COPYRIGHT LOLOLOL." Further updates--new items, achievements and voice clips--make direct reference to their stories and dialogue. What's important to understand is that these additions never feel like excessive self-regard or autocannibalism. They simply add to the growing universe of "Team Fortress 2". Is it so difficult to imagine this band of mercenaries watching these videos and studying up on their rivals? Constantly rewriting the rules of their own meta-world, Valve sees "TF2" as as a crossroads between media--a cinematic experience as well as a playable experience.

Because of that artistic malleability, the idea of "interactivity" must be held under close scrutiny. "Team Fortress 2" is an online strategic-multiplayer FPS, so the thing is practically built on player interaction. (Trolls notwithstanding.) Like any good enterprise, Valve pays close attention to how the fans interpret and reinterpret their work--but most interesting is how they incorporate and facilitate those interpretations. One minor example: when players found that they could contort the Spy into a bizarrely unnatural position, Valve referenced the resultant joke as a character taunt.

Fan art has always been encouraged (and design contests have been used to introduce new items!), but one particularly notable outlet is
machinima. Through the use of sandbox tools like Garry's Mod, players can fool around with the basic elements of specific video games. Given free reign over character models and environments--with a library of sound clips at their disposal--users can take screenshots, create their own games, and yes, make their own movies. While Garry's Mod and machinima in general have been around for a good long while, it shouldn't come as a surprise that these specific characters have inspired a wealth of fan films. Creative output ranges from the straightforward...

... to the parodic...

... to the bizarre...

... to the surreal.

"Team Fortress 2" films have become an everyday occurrence on YouTube, and every time there's an update to the game, the new material is almost immediately folded into that collective. Of course, none of these concepts are exactly new. Any popular artistic property will produce
in-jokes and memes--the very idea of pop culture is built on these foundations. As evidenced by the movie references in those fan videos, communities aren't born in a vacuum. But what really fascinates me about "Team Fortress 2" is how it crafted something so self-contained while laying its influences out on the table. It thrives on a system of give and take. It's a '60s-mod landscape that is at once defined and unrestrained by its setting. it's a cult of personality constructed around characters who are self-admitted stereotypes but completely unique all the same. It makes perfect sense that artists and filmmakers would blossom from this particular subculture.

Further reading/watching: Andrew Kepple's Spy & Pyro (a lovely cartoon that recreates the game in its own image in service to a very silly pun); Valve's "The Insult that Made a 'Jarate Master' Out of Sniper" (a perfect spoof of the famous Charles Atlas ad that introduced a disturbing new item to the game); Joe Horan's Meet the Spy (a fan cartoon made before the official video was released, complete with the popular Spy memes and sound clips); FineLeatherJackets' Sniping's a Good Job, Mate (something like a Kids in the Hall sketch); Scoutellite's Scout Becomes a Satellite (weird for the sake of weird--and kind of amazing).

And speaking of recommendations, you damn well better have read Walter's review of Black Swan by now--it's the most incisive analysis of Aronofsky's film that I've read thus far.


Anonymous said...

Have you seen this, Ian?

Patrick said...

And not afraid to sticking to stereotypes, all of the character models are male. Because boyz like gamez and womenz not.

Anonymous said...

Have you seen this, Ian?

Oh man, that's beautiful.

And not afraid to sticking to stereotypes, all of the character models are male. Because boyz like gamez and womenz not.

Careful, Patrick--you might instigate a diatribe about the Pyro's long-debated gender.

Anonymous said...

Off topic but good Slumber party trilogy review Alex

Jared B said...

Hasn't it been all but confirmed that the Pyro is female?

And as far as the other classes go, making them female would be like gender swapping a few people in 12 Angry Men. It just would not make sense.

Don't touch sandvich.

Rick said...

Off topic but good Slumber party trilogy review Alex

I truly enjoy everyone's reviews, and appreciate the amount of thought which goes into all of them. In fact, I think I have read every single review for around 10 years now on filmfreak, which includes ordering the annuals for the reviews which are not on the site. Thank God for Asperger's!

Patrick said...

No, it would not make sense, totally not, to have male and female character models and have players be able to choose. Absolutely, totally senseless. I agree. Better to have a character voiced by a man and then maybe insert a snippet to show that this character who has no female identifying parts is actually a woman, like, totally, and she might have been black, Asian, or an orc as well. It's like the first metroid.

Totally makes it better, having 8 recognizable dudes and a single dudette who is unrecognizable. Because everything else would just not make sense. I mean, somewhere there must be a point where realism wins out, and that point is usually when it comes to women or minorities. Games can only go so far.

Jared B said...

You are trying to make a sociological argument where there is none. The game is set in an alternate universe 1950s with characters in male dominated professions. This is why feminism gets a bad rap.

Patrick said...

So... what kind of *alternate* universe don't I understand?

I mean sure, let's make an alternate 1950s where it's perfectly normal to have red and blue groups of stereotypical characters kill each other – but oh no, those are male-dominated professions, we must stay realistic. It's not like it's about maybe female gamers today, in our universe, being able to play a character of their own gender.

But yes, I agree. In the 1950s, especially in alternate universes (or maybe only there), female spies, doctors, engineers are impossible. Totally. And the background of the soldier is that he wanted to fight but was rejected. Could never be a woman, then. Hunting in the outback? Naa, sniper must be male. The scout had seven brothers and learned to run? Sounds male to me. And the profession of "Heavy" has historically always been male, ever since the first School for heavy heaviness was opened in heaventon, Essex, in 1832.

Anonymous said...

But it's not a reflection of the era, it's a reflection of the fiction of the era. (After all, if you want to talk about the marginalized role of women in modern fiction, James Bond circa 1962 would be a reasonable place to start.) That's why the Pyro's gender, face and voice will never be officially revealed by Valve--it's another meta-joke.

Patrick said...

That may be. But if it's a reflection of (a selection of) fiction of the era, that doesn't make it immune to criticism. I can still say you could have selected differently or infused it with modern sensibilities. Just like I can say the Lord of the Rings films could have changed things up. And when gaming still has such a bias when it comes to most of anything besides a white straight male, I think criticism is warranted.

And honestly, I think it's even worse when the argument isn't even "realism", but realism pertaining to unrealistic fiction. Since I have read more than once that the past usually described in historical fiction wasn't as white-washed or male-exclusive as the fiction makes it out to be, it seems only the next logical step if you want to continue producing such texts, by taking not as reference the actual history, but the biased representation of it. And again, at the same time loads of other things are usually up for grabs and change and modernization.

I'm not arguing TF2 is a willfully sexist media. But at best, it's naive and clueless, and it fits right in with the majority of gaming.

And talking about James Bond circa 1962 is interesting because we are not in 1962 anymore. If you go irony, you might have flipped the gender dynamics of James Bond 1962. Or done something else with them. Again at best, it seems creatively lazy to make a parody that sticks to mere representation.

I disagree with the choice of time frame for the show "Mad Men" because of the inherent sexism and racism of that time, but I hear from many who watch the show that the writers actually turn it into at least a proto-feminist statement, if not an actually feminist show in the treatment of their female characters. Even though it's about a time where that would be unusual. Because it's not a show of that time, but ours.

I can, if I must, excuse Ian Fleming books from 1962 because they're from 1962. TF 2 is not.

Anonymous said...

UGh god patrick shut up.

Kyle Puetz said...

"Again at best, it seems creatively lazy to make a parody that sticks to mere representation."

It's not mere representation. Mere representation would feature some Pussy Galore analogue. Haven't played the game but it seems to be that it's cannily commenting upon the lack of vivid female characterization in the era's fiction by depriving its one implied XX character literal embodiment or voice. It's so bad that she doesn't even register as a token. Oh, AND it avoids the common video-game pitfall of depicting women as sexual objects.

"I disagree with the choice of time frame for the show 'Mad Men' because of the inherent sexism and racism of that time."

Wow. To take offense at the rationalization of sexual/racial inequality is one thing. But to decry the very representation of inequality? That's dangerous, man.

Patrick said...

I don't decry it. I just said I disagreed with it because I think you could represent it even in contemporary fiction. I think there are many examples of media both falling in line with sexist – to stick to that for now – ideas and decrying it at the same time, and the purported historical context (no matter how historical it actually might be) makes it easy to try and do both: show sexism and shake your head at it simultaneously**. That's why I, personally, have not much interest in Mad Men or Boardwalk Empire – and I know I might miss great TV here. But I don't so much rail against the specific show or portrayal. I just think that if the authors really want to make feminist statements, then there are better choices they could have made.

Gaming is, right now, even more concerned with playing to the white male base than Hollywood. Online gaming, even game forums are full of sexist or racist or homophobic comments. It's bad enough that I actually can't just say your point is silly, that *not* featuring a female character at fucking all might actually be progressive. That is the context of TF having no (clear) female character when actually, despite any attempt at flimsy story, this is a game intended for people to play online in arena battles where ethnicity or sexuality would be pretty much a non-issue. And when there are examples even of female soldiers in WWII (and possibly in WWI, I don't know). And I'm not even sure there aren't even spy novels with women in them. In fact, it might be that the game is skewed towards portraying the stereotypical ideas of the male gamers who play it and not even real-world fiction. And if nothing else, I think it's a bad marketing choice.

See also: The asthetics of unique video game characters for an example of good TF 2 character models who are female

**see also "The Social Network"

Daniel said...

Completely beside the point, but did anybody watch the stop motion animated Community Christmas special last night? I thought it was really good.

DJR said...

I hope the FFCers check out Amer before writing up their final year end lists. I could see Walter in particular really digging it.

Joe said...

I don't know about you guys, but I always thought Team Fortress was nothing more than a middle of the road online fps game. You guys sound like crazy people with the way you're talking about it.

Rick said...

And did anyone see Tim and Eric's Chrimbus Special? The audience reactions reminded me of the classroom scene in Forbidden Zone. On a side note, Forbidden Zone may be the most grating, painful film experience of all time.

corym said...


The preview for Malick's Tree of Life just hit. Anyone else get the sense that this would make a killer double feature with The Fountain?

Jefferson Robbins said...

Or with Babies.

jer fairall said...

Off topic and out of date, but I gotta ask: did anyone else hate Scott Pilgrim vs. The World? This might be the most annoying and overrated comedy since (500) Days of Summer and it seems to have even more credible defenders (it was all over the Slant year-end lists that went up this week, for instance).

Frantic, tiresome visuals, a young Asian girl used as a comedic (and literal, at one point) punching bag throughout and jokes apparently meant to be so bad they're funny but really they're just bad...seriously, why the hell is this getting so much love?

Anonymous said...

Scott Pilgrim sucked ass - Ian nailed it in an earlier blog post.

DaveA said...

One thing I love about FFC is that they actually wait for the year to end before they post their best-of-lists; I mean, we're all still waiting for True Grit, aren't we? As for Slant, I only care about what Gonzalez has to say (which doesn't mean I agree with him, but he sure knows his stuff). More than Pilgrim, I'm actually surprised to see Ghost Writer in such high regard over there.

Patrick said...

I was unimpressed by Scott Pilgrim, as well, though I loved the visuals – they were just empty of meaning (aside from stereotypical meaning [Indians do Bollywood and Asians conjure dragons] and on your nose-things like the "get a life"-moment). Main characters I didn't care about, and of course the lesbian who was defeated by making her orgasm.

jer fairall said...

I actually really liked Ghost Writer but for some reason didn't expect it to be the kind of thing to rank so high with critics, particularly the ones at Slant.

Gonzales is indeed awesome, though I actually like Nick Schager just as much. Not my favourite critic, necessarily, but the one I seem to agree with the most, it seems.

Man, am I hating Scott Pilgrimeven more the more that I think about it. The most obnoxious movie I've seen all year, if not quite the worst. I took the greatest offence to the continued bashing of the Asian girl, but yeah, that death by orgasm scene was pretty repulsive too. Plus, for as self-congratulatory as the filmmakers are about their indie-hipness, they don't even know how to use Broken Social Scene's gorgeous "Anthem For a Seventeen-Year-Old Girl" properly. Seriously, what a bunch of fucking poseurs.

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