This is part two of a two-part series on the Team Fortress franchise.
“I see … brilliant people rising from this abyss … a sanctuary in their hearts, and in the hearts of their descendants, generations hence.” — Charles Dickens
Welcome back! Let’s jump right back into it. While “Team Fortress 2”’s (TF2) longevity in relevance has been picked apart for its infamous in-game economy and unique way of creating community, there’s one aspect of the game that doesn’t get enough credit — its premise. The story of TF2 is one of the most ridiculous and complicated alternative histories throughout video games, and its impact stretches across the entire work, starting with the characters.
Its characters — split between RED and BLU teams — are more than just archetypes; they’re blatant stereotypes exaggerated to an unstereotypical level. For example, Rick May’s Soldier is an American so patriotic that (upon being deemed mentally unfit for the U.S. military in World War II) he bought his own ticket to Europe and went on a Nazi killing spree with self-taught skills; the Demoman is an explosively angry Scottish alcoholic so obsessed with pyrotechnics that he accidentally killed his parents in pursuit of the Loch Ness Monster; the Medic is a German mad scientist following the “Hippocratic suggestion” who happens to heal people as a byproduct of his morbid experimentation. There are subversions too — the mass-murdering Russian brute Heavy is actually a gentle giant who cares deeply for his family and Pyro, who is outwardly cruel and maniacal, thinks they’re just playing a childish game. With such a colorful cast, would you believe me if I said the comics make it zanier?
Alright, just hear me out. In the mid-19th century, rich Englishman Zepheniah Mann was convinced by his constantly feuding sons Redmond & Blutarch (the originators of RED vs BLU) to buy most of New Mexico and move there. The land was ultimately useless and Zepheniah died hating his sons, leaving the useless land to be split between them in the hope they’d finally share. Refusing this, the brothers both hired teams of mercenaries to fight over the land to claim it (made up of American legends like the Pyro Abraham Lincoln, the Heavy John Henry and the Spy Fu Manchu). The brothers tried to outlive each other when they came to their mercenary stalemate, but on the verge of death, they both unwittingly commissioned the same engineer to build them immortality machines. After the American mercenaries died out, the “Team Fortress Classic” mercenaries were hired and after them, we reach our current cast. Comics were used to give stories behind updates and to create an ongoing storyline — the currently unfinished one these articles began with. Of course, these comics came after the character clips in “Meet the Team.”
Known far and wide across the Internet for creating the most iconic characters in video games in just a few minutes apiece, “Meet the Team” is a series of shorts created in the animation tool Source Filmmaker that introduces us to each of the nine character classes. Most are shot in a mockumentary format, splicing together interviews and action footage over a couple of minutes to paint a distinct portrait of each character (over the best videogame jazz you’ve ever heard). They range in intricacy depending on the character though, like the super-suave literal motherfucker Spy receiving one of the longest and most plot-driven shorts. The shorts hammer home how simultaneously relatable yet ridiculous these characters are. The Sniper is more concerned that his dad doesn’t think his mercenary work is professional more than pissing in jars and murdering people all day. On the other hand the Engineer wants nothing more than to lay back and spout wisdom from Texas (or from his 11 Ph.Ds) while sitting a few feet away from a burning corpse and wreaking automated-gun carnage all around him. All of this is to illustrate how absurd these characters are, which enhances the game itself — shooters are often absurdly violent, so why not make the characters absurd too?
Not to dunk on “Overwatch” again, but its story of mostly morally-upstanding ‘heroes’ who band together to save the world is often disconnected from the actual gameplay, like repeatedly murdering each other over pushing a flying car. However, by throwing a bunch of morally-disinvested malfeasants into the desert who only care about money and killing each other, TF2 makes everything better. Video games are naturally inclined to be funny: Putting the average player in control of a character means they’re going to do dumb shit with them, and the comedic potential of glitches and bugs creates a disconnect from any attempts at a serious tone. The power struggle behind “Valorant,” the retroactive continuities of “League of Legends,” the behemoth of lore that is “Five Nights at Freddy’s” — serious somber storytelling in gaming is so valuable because the medium itself can act against it. However, TF2 simply doesn’t care and that’s why anything goes. It doesn’t take itself too seriously because it recognizes that it’s just a game, a game that creates a story with every match, stories that stay with its players because of how comedic and detailed their original premises are. It’s one of the things that makes TF2 so goddamn great.
Those silly stories are what led to the kind of unserious narratives created within every match. It’s what made TF2 blow up in the memeosphere and sparked the wide world of its Source Filmmaker/Gmod animations. However, let me first summarize that previously-mentioned main storyline, as told in the comics: To make a silly story very short, the administrations that supported RED and BLU went MIA. They tasked the two teams to unite and defeat hordes of robots — designed by a secret third prodigal Mann brother Gray who was stolen by eagles at birth — that inexplicably run on cash. It’s almost prophetic, published years before the bot problem we talked about in the last piece.
So how did the community manage to #savetf2? On May 26, 2022, the TF2 community, forged by a shared love for the comedic potential of the game, banded together: For what better bonding is there than doing dumb shit together? They spread across social media, mounting every soapbox they could find to get through to Valve. What did they share? Just their memories: their happiest experiences playing the game and arguments for why the game should return to its botless glory days — because when the community had almost everything taken from them, they still had their stories. And what did Valve finally do? Well, it wasn’t an instant fix, but they listened. A response was released on Twitter after the day of protest confirming they were heard, and then substantial security fixes were made to the game to remedy the bot problem. It didn’t completely solve the issue, but at least something was being done, and now the player base is the most active it’s ever been.
So is that the happy ending? What about the story I started with?
The TF2 main comics were written by one of Valve’s most prominent writers, Jay Pinkerton, who is also responsible for opuses like “Portal 2” and the “Left 4 Dead” series. He left the company several years ago before the main comic storyline of TF2 finished, but the most recent reports say that he’s still working and the final issue will be out soon. That was around five years ago. Even with TF2 bringing itself back from the grave, the comics may still never be concluded, and honestly, I’m okay with that. True to comic book characters, TF2 shows a tempestuous relationship with death. It’s more than just the Mann brothers’ immortality machines: like the Medic returning from Hell after denying the Devil the soul he was contractually bound to give by showing he had “surgically added eight more” or the womanizing Bostonian Scout being sent back from Heaven because he didn’t get laid enough and is canonically God’s gift to women. It’s fitting that the story is never over.
The mercenaries are more than just classes, more than just characters — they’re comedic machines built for immortality. Stories and silliness: we find these things persisting long after their creators leave either the work itself or their own mortal coil. The humanity of humor is long-underrated; we mull over the tragedies endlessly before remembering the ancient Greeks had another mask for us to perform in. We keep the memory of our fallen Soldier — Rick May, his voice actor — alive. That’s why I personally believe TF2 will continue its immortality well into the future, certainly outlasting any attempts to knock it down from its throne; as long as Valve keeps its promises and the community keeps fighting to hold them accountable. It’s more than just survival, but thriving in spite of what left them behind, a flower planted in concrete blooming into a spring of hope. It’s a group of ragtag mercenaries getting the band back together in a six-issue, forever-unfinished comic book series. So I ask you: What does TF2 say to the God of Death?
The leader shrugs, continuing with her answer.
“Maybe it was just luck. Maybe it was something else.”
The leader collects herself and then rises.
“I don’t know what to tell you. But either way…”, she pauses as her team gathers behind her.
“We’re Team Fortress. And you’re dead.”
Not today, not while there’s still fun to be had. If you’ve got the time and money (just kidding, it’s free-to-play), come join us. I’d love to welcome you to the team.
Daily Arts Writer Saarthak Johri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.