The End of the TF2 Honeymoon (or: Coming to Terms with my Waning TF2 Obsession)

It’s no big secret that I love Team Fortress 2. I delight in TF2’s trademark mayhem, and its mercenaries’ raucous battlecries are like the uplifting birdsongs of a brand new day. My wall and desktop are adorned with REDs and BLUs in glorious gratuitous combat. My MP3 player boasts a playlist of TF2 voice clips rearranged into music. And whenever a new substantial update for the game is about to come out, like thousands of other fans, I too am glued to its homepage, compulsively refreshing for the briefest shred of new information on the changes that are to come.

So why don’t I play Team Fortress much anymore?

 I’m actually feeling some minor emotional turmoil over this. I remember when sessions of TF2 were a daily event for me, when Dustbowls and Gravel Pits were what I looked forward to after a hard day of classes and work. Once, I clocked in an average of 18 whole hours per week, and I was proud of that in my own absolutely daft way. Today, I only play for a third of that time. I am also well aware of how entitled all this makes me sound.

Visual self-criticisms have never been easier, thanks to Meme Generator(tm)!

“Woe and dismay! I do not play Team Fortress 2 as much as I used to! My world is undone!”

However, in my defense, my fondness does not solely stem from its quality as a game. For instance, the distinctive cartoonish style of its characters endears itself to me in ways that no gritty gung-ho FPS can ever achieve. I have no desire to be another cookie-cutter military man overloaded with biceps and six-packs, to be one more in a line of cookie-cutter space marines with icing snarls and gumdrop grenades. Give me the scrawny double-jumping legs of a baseball-loving Bostonian. Give me the besotted eye of a black Scottish Cyclops. Give me the hearty paunch of a big war hero. Far better to be fat and unique than it is to be chiseled and unremarkable.

And it’s not just the characters. I revel in its light-hearted setting, with the bright colors of its maps plus the humor of its scattered easter eggs. I am moved by the effort put into updates for a game that (before the Mann Store opened up at least) was already released and sold. I am awed by a community that has grown and thrived alongside the game since its release in 2007, celebrating and contributing to their much-loved world of mercenary maniacs. I am doubly awed by the company that has responded to that enthusiasm in kind in myriad ways: bestowing one-of-a-kind specially named items for player excellence; creating the Steam Workshop for contributors to more easily display their creations and, in some cases, profit from it; and making Source Filmmaker (a movie-making program that uses in-game assets from various games including TF2) freely available for fans and artists to make their own masterpieces.

A scene from TF2’s highly-awaited Meet the Pyro, which was introduced alongside the Source Film Maker.

Team Fortress 2 is more than entertainment. To me, it is a symbol of the potential that games and game companies can achieve. It is a promise that one does not have to follow the formula and designs of past games to succeed. It is a promise that companies can form long-lasting bonds with their player base, crediting and celebrating their contributions. Mind you, while I also believe that the game isn’t completely perfect, I still look at it and think, “This is a game that has it right.”

And this brings me back to the topic I was originally mulling over: if I love the game so much, why am I not playing it as much as I used to? I could say that it’s because of how busy I am with work and life, but that would be an absolute lie. I frequently plunge myself into the digital distractions of a variety of games, and I know without doubt that some of them aren’t very good.

Even without comparisons to TF2 or other titles I hold in high esteem, some games will have elements that simply rub me the wrong way on their own. Those long periods of travelling and/or repetitive actions, intended to represent epic journeys and convey hardship, but instead instill tedium and restlessness in the hearts of gamers. Then, the lengthy tutorial lectures about an exhausting expanse of statistical variables, most of which eventually end being inconsequential to the player. Oh, and I shall not forget the bane of bad writing, not now or ever. Whether it is melodramatic prose or stilted dialogue, excessive macho posturing or ill-paced lowbrow buffoonery, every inelegantly delivered word grates on me. They savage my immersion and enjoyment like screeching claws on a chalkboard. Individually, they irritate. In concert, they weigh heavier and heavier upon me until they transition fully from games to chores. It would take a troupe of wisecracking commentators, mocking the game’s faults every step of the way, to make me reclassify it as entertainment once more.

MST3K: Pioneers of the “Mock something terrible to make up for its lack of entertainment” method.

When a game gets so ponderous and its plot so cringe-worthy, it invokes in me this thought: “Why am I not playing a game I already know I enjoy? Why did I spend money, time, and effort on a new experience that has now proven to be unsatisfactory?” However, that train of thought leads to a problematic stance of constancy, something that the world at large argues against with no end of proverbs and anecdotes.

A developing world like ours obviously favors change; you can’t get the modern conveniences of life without trying out a few new things. Hell, I myself am ever a proponent for new experiences, seeing and hearing and trying as much as is possible in the one life available to us. And while the familiar may bring its own kind of bliss, even the fondest sensations become bland after the hundredth or the thousandth time. Worse still, staying forever with the familiar exposes me to much fewer ideas of improvement, fewer insights into how different games can truly entertain players and how different stories can be conveyed to audiences. And even if I am playing a game or reading a book that has turned out to be utter soul-cringing tripe, at least I will know why it is tripe and how it became so.

Team Fortress 2 and other favored games are my ports to return to after testing the teeming seas of new game titles, whether they be big-name or indie. They are the memory-evoking dishes that mom used to make. They are the old favorite songs you recognize on the radio. They are the understanding swinger wife, who tolerates my dalliances with younger games in return for my compliance with her cross-promotional swapping parties, dropping hats in a bowl and bringing home every new player that catches her fancy.

Awkward metaphors aside, my point is that trying and enjoying something new, whether it be food or games or activities, is most certainly not betraying what I already love. These new experiences do not replace; they add on, growing and refining my knowledge of what makes games excellent. They let me better appreciate games by learning more about what they include and what they rightfully do not. Yes! Plunge headfirst into the new and unknown! Be it treasure or be it trash, every game adds to my ideas and ideals and so long as I do not overindulge and cut into time I set aside for my own creative obligations, I will…

Posted on August 23rd, 2012.

I will…

November 16th, a date that is approximately 85 days after August 23rd, give or take a few hours.

I will be berating myself in a future post for failing to achieve a goal I have explicitly set. To any readers who may have been waiting, I apologize for yet another outrageous lapse in my willpower.

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