Nintendo has always had this air of mythology around it. Like Walt Disney or Hayao Miyazaki, Shigeru Miyamoto enjoys a healthy amount of reverence amongst his fans. Mario, Zelda, Kirby, and all the other Nintendo mascots have a firm hold on their place within pop-culture.
There’s no denying the artistry, passion, and sheer fun behind these games and characters. Yet, part of growing up with video games involves finding new ones to love. As you get older you start to notice differences and similarities between not only these games, but their developers too.
Team Fortress 2 opened up gaming as more than a hobby. It showed me how people with passion, talent, and discipline could create a unique experience through video games. Nintendo taught me to enjoy games; Valve taught me to think about them.
In 2007, Valve released a collection of games that changed modern gaming, a triple-threat package called The Orange Box. It showed the studio’s full breadth of design: engaging narrative, experimental mechanics, and immersive worlds. However, contrasting Half-Life 2‘s and Portal‘s stark reality sat TF2.
TF2 oozed style from its many orifices. The Rockwell-inspired visuals, bombastically jazzy soundtrack, and pure carnage were more than enough to get 14-year-old me riled up. As easily as I’d raised my hopes, reality crushed them just as swiftly (as it’s wont to do).
I’d rented the Xbox 360 version of The Orange Box from Blockbuster which, aside from being the most 2007 sentence I’ve ever written, made it difficult to find a match. Mom wasn’t about to pay for two different online services, so sorry XBox Live, but PS+ won that round. I got through Half-Life 2 and Portal, then swiftly returned the game to Blockbuster.
Still, TF2 made me a bit curious. It possessed a clear departure in style from the other two games on The Orange Box. What exactly was this game about? My Google-fu quickly led me to the video that kickstarted my longstanding love for Team Fortress 2: “Meet the Heavy”.
This video embodied everything about TF2: style, fun, and mayhem. I understood exactly what the game was without even playing it. Who were these magic-makers at Valve that could make such an amazing cartoon out of a video game? I spent hours on our family’s aging laptop looking up screenshots, replaying videos, and indulging in everything about TF2. I trawled through concept sketches, listened to developer commentaries, and tried to learn how a gritty military shooter turned into an R-rated Pixar movie.
When the time finally came that I got my hands on TF2, it really did play out just as I’d imagined it. The 9 unique classes felt good, the maps were fun and varied, and updates happened on a regular basis. Through these factors and more, TF2 was my gateway into the larger gaming world behind the screen.
I got my first gaming computer in the fall of 2008 at the age of 14. Video games had been a large part of my life until then, but the world of PC gaming was always far off. For the longest while, I’d stuck with my consoles. Occasionally, I’d look up guides for certain games but I spent most of my time offline. With my new computer, I found myself online more and more. Not only did that allow me to play PC-exclusive multiplayer games, it gave me a chance to engage in those communities.
Nowadays, TF2 features matchmaking and official Valve-hosted servers. Before that, however, the TF2 player base relied on custom servers to host games. In addition to hosting official Valve maps, these servers were platforms for modders to show off their work. Because TF2′s modding tools were extremely accessible, the custom maps were all over the place.
Sometimes, you’d get a cleverly designed map that used space and positioning in interesting ways. In other cases, you’d get different maps entirely, like the Zombie Fortress, Surf, or Jail maps. Sites like GameBanana made it easy for fans to upload and share their creations.
It didn’t matter if your map was trash or just plain garish to look at. Chances were, people would play on it. Yet much like how people tune out to idle games, dozens of players used TF2 maps to just pass the time. Maps like the 4chan-inspired mario_kart and the barebones cp_orange_x3 were endless meatgrinders to mess around in.
The maps were just the starting point, a hub around which the TF2 community coalesced. That community was comprised of a wide swathe of individuals, from modders to memers. TF2 had developed its own subculture, spawning endless amounts of content.
10 Years On
Between the official Valve content and thriving community scene, TF2 provided hundreds of hours of entertainment. Sure, a large portion of that was the gameplay itself. But in many ways, TF2 was an interactive social networking platform. These community servers that were the primary way to find games quickly became second homes.
Valve’s constant stream of updates, videos, and events kept the TF2 community alive far longer than it reasonably should have been. Even now, with matchmaking having killed off community servers and updates slowing down to a trickle, people continue to play. This wacky, outlandish, crazy game is important to thousands of people for so many different reasons.
Valve and TF2 may not look the same anymore, but their effects on me have remained. Writing on this site is proof enough that video games have an important place in my life. While Nintendo kindled my love, Valve made it stronger. I saw gaming as I never had: a creative, collaborative project. Whether that meant devs pumping out updates or fans making silly hats, TF2 was more than just a game. It was a creative platform, a social network, and a crash-course on design all in one.
I don’t play TF2 as much as I used to. Yet, I know that if I boot it up and hop into a game, having fun will be as easy as slipping on an old hat.