Imagine a pickup game of soccer, you and your friends against whoever shows up to challenge you. There’s a reason why soccer is known as “the beautiful game”, and it’s not only because some players have exquisite ball control. Just watching the flow of players on the field, watching them respond to one another’s positions, watching pure motion in the form of bodies—this is beauty to me. The familiarity that makes you play as a team instead of a group of people—that same familiarity comes out when playing Team Fortress 2.
TF2 is a first-person shooter game, where the primary interactions are projectile-based combat, seen and controlled from the eyes of the characters doing the shooting. Valve, the publisher and developer, released Team Fortress 2 in 2007 as a sequel to Team Fortress Classic, a 1999 mod for Half-Life. The Half-Life series is widely acknowledged as a landmark game in the genre of first-person shooters, and TF2 draws on this history to innovate in the realm of engaging team-based play. You’d expect it from the name, but it’s not just a facile invocation of the idea of a “team”. TF2 truly understands what it means to be as part of a team, to move as part of a team, to talk as part of a team. It’s all about bodies in motion.
While you can play TF2 on an XBox 360 or a PlayStation 3, I personally don’t know anyone who does this. Most play on their personal computers. The game runs on Windows, Mac, and Linux, and went free-to-play in mid-2011, making it one of the more easily accessible games out there. On December 2, it was second on a major online games distributor’s rankings, with a peak of sixty-four thousand players on Steam that day.
Most players use a mouse and keyboard setup, and will often customize their key mappings. For a variety of reasons ranging from ability to preference to habit, players choose to re-map commands to keys that they find more convenient. This can cause confusion if, in a group of friends, players switch computers and their keystrokes have no effect, or more hilariously, unexpected effects.
As the name suggests, the gameplay is entirely team-based except for tutorial levels where new players are invited to learn the controls in isolation, and Valve has gone to great efforts to encourage cooperation within teams. In TF2, you play as a occupation (called a “character class”) rather than a particular character. Despite having richly-developed characters, the game does not treat each character as unique. A team may have multiples of any character class, because selecting a character does not prevent other players from also doing so. All of the character classes are designed to play off each other’s strengths. For instance, the Pyro with a flamethrower is a great defense against an invisible enemy Spy, and so the Pyro and the Engineer work well as teammates. The most famous duo of the game, the Heavy and the Medic, are often inseparable, with the Heavy shooting things as the Medic stands behind and heals.
With a game like this, where every player’s movements matter, communicating with teammates is essential, and playing with friends in the same room takes play to a whole new level. You talk, of course, because talking is faster than typing and why would you type when she’s two feet away? Sometimes, he gets loud and you know, without even hearing it, that you need to hurry back to your base and help defend.
Valve, as in many of their other games, understands the importance of communication for teamwork. The game comes with a standard voice chat, easily toggled by pressing “v” during gameplay. It has text chat, both among all players and solely your team. It also has a full set of helpful one-liners, such as “Thanks!” or “Spy!”, that are transmitted with two strokes on the keyboard to the text chat and through the character’s voice. Finally, if you are playing in a common space, you can always talk even when you’re not supposed to, and you can read one another’s body language. There’s a particular joy in playing with the same group of people and developing a common language, just like the satisfaction that comes after practicing corner kick plays with your soccer teammates.
I’ve played soccer for years, so I understand the aesthetic appeal of organized groups of people moving around. I remember how it felt to play soccer with my best friend for years, how we could read each other and know when to go on the offensive, when to cover each other. Team Fortress 2, especially played with friends, is this same kind of beautiful. I play, and I remember. Call me sappy and nostalgic, but I find a sense of belonging here.