Team Fortress 2—Valve Corporation—2007

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Spies can become invisible, disguise themselves as the enemy, and destroy an Engineer's buildings. It always feels like John Carpenter's 'The Thing' when you realize that one of your "teammates" is trying to literally stab you in the back.

The bulk of my playing experience has been on the XBOX 360—the system of Team Fortress 2‘s origin. However, the screenshots in this article are primarily culled from the Mac version (on Steam). I only took pictures of levels/characters that are included in The Orange Box, and the only noticeable difference is the “press F5 to save this moment” command at the top of some screenshots.  I had to use the Steam version because I don’t yet have image capture capabilities for my XBOX. Some images were also taken from Google and assorted Team Fortress 2 Tumblogs.

A team prepares for battle. Notice the blue stream of healing energy. The Medic is one of the most interesting character classes in TF2.

In the world of Multiplayer First-Person-Shooters, homogeneity is taken for granted—even prized. Every character is “equal”, and the game’s outcome is inevitably determined by a player’s ability to aim. Team Fortress 2—developed by Valve after their Quake Mod Team Fortress became an unexpected cult hit—takes a different approach with amazing results. It features some of the most thoughtful design I’ve seen in any work of contemporary art. The mise-en-scene is more focused and effective than in any contemporary Hollywood flick, and its design gives the typically meaningless world of online play a shape and structure of both aesthetic and narrative import.

Rather than merely achieving a stylized look, the shading techniques are designed to quickly convey geometric information in our desired illustrative style using variation in luminance and hue, so that game players are consistently able to visually “read” the scene and identify other players in a variety of lighting conditions.—Illustrative Rendering in Team Fortress 2

Mise-en-scene in TF2

Spies can become invisible, disguise themselves as the enemy, and destroy an Engineer's buildings. It always feels like John Carpenter's 'The Thing' when you realize that one of your "teammates" is trying to literally stab you in the back.

The mise-en-scene in Team Fortress 2 was carefully designed for both beauty and function. The art syle has won at least three awards so far, and it’s definitely the primary appeal of the game. Influenced by early 20th century commercial art like J.C. Leyendecker and Norman Rockwell, the designers interpreted their artwork and deduced a set of aesthetic principles.

  • Shadows aren’t black, but cooler versions of their base color. All shading goes from warmer to cooler hues, within the scheme.
  • The colors are more saturated closer to the terminator line.
  • Where possible, detail is omitted.
  • Silhouettes are emphasized with clothing folds and rim highlights.

Merely creating such a list and analyzing their influences so closely would have helped give the game an interesting visual style, but the Valve team went all the way and used these simple aesthetic rules for practical results.

…over the years, we’ve—through playtesting—come up with this idea of what we call a read hierarchy…where for the player what’s really important is being able to quickly identify the other characters on screen—whether they’re friends or enemies; what class they’re playing; what kind of weapon or object they have out, to show intentionality.—Robin Walker

The characters were given very distinct silhouettes, so that you can recognize them from a distance. The world was rendered with visible brush strokes, to lend a painterly quality to the surfaces. The characters have strong rim highlights which make them pop off the screen even in chiaroscuro. Colors are used everywhere to help orient the player. In the Blue base if you see a sign, you see a blue sign. If you see junk, its blue junk: blue boxes, blue walls, fake blue advertisements; all put there with foresight in order to simplify the pallette and make both the imagery evocative and the information transparent. These choices give the game’s visuals a highly unique style that not only pleases the eye—it helps you play the game, and it blurs the line between aesthetic and technical design decisions.

A class should be an experience in a bottle. An Engineer should be an experience, a Soldier should be an experience, and those things should be different—so there’s no point of having two classes where the experience of playing them is the same, or at least is negligible in terms of the difference.—Robin Walker, Designer

All men are not created equal

Different character "classes" perform different roles. Here, left to right is the: Spy, Soldier, Engineer, Heavy, Pyro, Medic, Sniper, Scout, and Demoman. Each has a different weapon loadout, different levels of health (from 125 to 300), and individual play styles. Some characters—Pyros, Demomen—are better at ambushes. Some—Soldiers, Heavies—are better head-on. Others—Scouts, Snipers—have advantages at the edges of the playfield.

Team Fortress 2 is a Class-Based shooter. Instead of each playable character being equal (equal health, speed, jump height, etc) each character is unique. The nine individual classes are divided into three super-classes (offense, defense, and support), and the six maps included in the XBOX 360 release let them duke it out in map-exclusive gametypes (one capture-the-flag [here: intelligence] and five attack/defense.) The art design is a nostalgic blend of retro-50s advertising, Art Deco heroics, and Looney Tunes hijinks.

When we think of different experiences we’re thinking about things like player decision making, when you’re in some situation as a class, the ones you make as that class should be different than if you were a different class…—Robin Walker

Playing a team-oriented game online can be very frustrating. Cooperation, attention, and other basic aspects of team-play are often ignored in favor of camping, killing, and running up your score. Traditional Shooters—Unreal Tournament, Halo, and everything in between—enhance this effect by featuring equal characters and unequal weapons. Each player is encouraged to seek out the best weapons and health upgrades, monopolize access to them, and leave their teammates in the dust. That anyone ever works together online in this fashion is more a testament to human cooperation than game design. Its a miracle, and it happens about as often as one.

TF2 blows this paradigm out of the water with its Class-Based gameplay. Because each character is—and feels—100% unique, and because none of them are inherently stronger than any of the others, TF2 creates a dynamic where if you want to deal with every type of situation that you’ll confront, you have to work together as a team.

An Engineer's turret is a powerful adversary. Because it's motion activated, the Engineer can run around to grab ammo/health, flank the enemy, and scout out new locations for his buildings.

The Engineer is a great example of this effect in action. He can build powerful, motion-sensored sentry guns in addition to his shotgun/pistol loadout—and a fully upgraded sentry is a formidable roadblock to capturing the intelligence or taking a control point. It isn’t impossible to take a turret down single-handedly, but its very difficult. Different classes have certain limitations (i.e., the Heavy can’t dodge the sentry’s bullets, the Scout’s health is inadequate, and the Pyro can’t get close enough.) Spies and Demomen are great turret-busters, however, and a Medic attached to almost any offensive class will take it down. In this way players are encouraged to balance themselves against the rest of the team and take on whatever role is required in that moment. The very existence of an enemy Engineer rallies the team around a common goal.

Ups & Downs

The designers at Valve call these efforts pacing—just like in a narrative. There is a narrative to a multiplayer match—who wins, who loses, who dies, and who lives. However, most online multiplayer experiences lack subtlety in their pacing. It’s BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM with the killing, respawning, and running into battle to die again. Things like the Engineer—and his deadly sentry gun—enhance pacing by providing high and low points. Successfully taking down a sentry gun can be a difficult and thrilling endeavor. Defending one can be imperative to a team’s chances of success.

One of the really important things we want in single player gaming is pacing. When we looked at TFC [Team Fortress Classic] and some of our other multiplayer games we found that pacing was nowhere near as good as it is in single player; There weren’t highs and lulls and so on, it was just kind of on all the time. And so what we tried to do with the Medic, invulnerability, and the critical hit stuff is to try and craft pacing.—Robin Walker

The other prime example of a class promoting teamwork is the Medic. The Medic’s secondary weapon fires a healing beam of energy which fills up a teammate’s health bar to 150% capacity. Obviously this alone creates a great incentive for teamwork, but Valve takes it a step farther by giving the Medic the ability, over time, to build up an “Ubercharge”—which makes him and his patient invulnerable for ten seconds. On top of that, the Ubercharge builds up faster if the patient is taking damage.

Sometimes all it takes to win or lose is a well timed Ubercharge. Here a Pyro confronts the far stronger (300 vs. 175) Heavy, but with invulnerability the deck is stacked in the Pyro's favor.

This all has a profound impact on a round’s pacing. If someone on your team spawns as a Medic, he’s instantly the most popular guy on campus—especially for wounded people. Eventually the Medic becomes more attached to one character, and they get joined at the hip. As his Ubercharge builds up, protecting him becomes more-and-more important, and when he’s finally fully charged, the invulnerable Ubercharge-assault is a huge high point for the Medic and his lucky comrade.

On the enemy team, if you see a Medic running around it will inspire you to either close the Medic-gap or find some other way to deal with him before his Ubercharge is ready. If the other team does get their Uber, it’s a powerful, boss-battle-esque moment; the opposing team only has to hold out for ten seconds. On both sides, the existence of a Medic increases tension, coheres the team, and leads to an intense climax. Together the Medic and the Engineer are powerful instruments of pacing that suggest narrative in a seemingly story-less world.

Unusual, fun—Unusually fun

When I bought The Orange Box—the 5 game compilation that first featured TF2—I was hesitant to sit down and play it. One of the many unique aspects of its design is the exclusivity of its online multiplayer. There is no “campaign” or “story” mode to ground you in a fictional universe, and there’s no offline playground for you to test your skills on the battlefield. Instead you’re dropped into a real world with real human beings, and it can be a little scary—even for an experienced gamer.

A spy waits for the right moment to strike.

However, as I hope this essay has shown, the game is designed with everyone in mind. Most of the classes only have three simple, common, and intuitive weapons, and the game types are as old as Adam. The world is designed so that someone who’s never played before can pick out the different shapes and make tactical decisions on instinct. By using a visual style based in commercial art, Valve tapped into shared experience stretching back a century. Everyone understands advertising, because the art is designed to get across simple messages. Team Fortress 2 is a lot more fun than sitting through a commercial though, and it’s available for free online (Mac/Windows) through Valve’s Steam service.


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