Team Fortress 2: A tale of incompetence

Huge concrete silos rise proud against the stunning American landscape. Factories and warehouses grow alongside a railroad, so infinite that it disappears with the horizon. Science and architecture present themselves as the bringers of a new, modern age where work and industry rule the universe.

In this world, two ideologies fight for supremacy. At least, in theory.

A far less glamorous reality lies under the imposing industrial façades. The battle between ideologies is revealed, not as a a battle of technology or wit, but a pointless squabble between two sides barely differenced by the colour of their uniforms.

The secret spytech bases are clumsily built one right in front of the other, driven more by envy than by security. The nuclear warheads they hide and the supercomputers that cover their walls share space with the toxic waste drums someone abandoned on the corridors.

Their unsafe walkways and their silly plumbing systems show the disconnect between an  unreachable utopia and a society that does not believe nor care about the ideals of their time.

Because the mercenaries themselves ought to be one additional example of the ideals of an industrialized world. They are men, working men, experts on their field and so defined by their occupation that we don’t even know their names. Like the buildings, they are drawn in the style of Rockwell and Leyendecker, famous for their elegant works of an often propagandistic nature.

But they don’t comply with those ideals. They don’t know what the BLU briefcase contains, nor care. They don’t stop to think about the inherent uselessness of pushing a bomb cart across the desert to blow up an abandoned warehouse. They think it’s normal to jump through the air by shooting a rocket at their feet. They are a group of idiots, a bunch of incompetents more worried about their paycheck than any noble goal.

Hubris, alcoholism, an unhealthy need to prove one’s personal worth, a very peculiar take on nationalism…Even the war between the Mann brothers, raging for over one hundred thirty years, is but a petty family feud, stoked by the resentment of a disappointed father.

But these are all human flaws and even if the mercenaries are a bunch of idiots, they are not solely defined by their incompetence. The Soldier would give his life for his superiors and his country, but he refused to betray his best friend for them. He only agreed after thinking himself betrayed on a personal level. The Sniper, a priori a cold and amoral mercenary, is a hospitable and cheerful person despite his job.

The ideals shown in the game, the glory of work and industry, are absurd. They shape a world that is not designed to be lived in nor enjoyed, but to look grand and noble in postcards and propaganda posters. It’s not so much that society is not good enough to meet ideological ideas but that those ideals are bound to fail because they don’t take into account the societies they are meant to serve.

It’s a metaphor. The ignorance and lack of interest of the world of Team Fortress 2 for its own utopias is but a reflection of the world of video games, where the narrative ideals of game designers break down against the reality of their player base.

We have all seen how the deep backstories of games is ignored in favour of shooting the closest thing that moves. The serious counterterrorism setting of Counter-Strike does not hold up to the silliness and chaos of online gaming and, for many, the plot of Half-Life was that thing that happened when a scientist trapped you in a room so he had someone to talk to.

Because even if players play poorly, fight each other or even cheat, we are forced to admit that the game would not be able to exist without them. Their reactions, their friendships and their petty rows that end with laughter are far more important than any artistic ideal, no matter how pretty or unreachable. The genius of the setting and themes of Team Fortress 2 is the way they use the reality of how we play games to strengthen themselves, no matter our flaws and incompetence.


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