For those unfamiliar with the franchise, the parameters of this game are basically identical to its predecessor: 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.