In Valve's boardroom sit a collection of gigantic steel recreations of Team Fortress's
most famed pieces of weaponry - flamethrowers, rocket launchers, mini-guns. "Some guy from Norway made them," muses Valve man Doug Lombardi, before launching into a tale that involves an obsessive Scandinavian metalworker, some signed Valve paraphernalia, several thousand dollars of postage fees and a fair few problems with US customs in the paranoia-fuelled closing months of 2001.
It's the sort of scene that shows exactly how much of a cherished commodity lies within the boundaries of its much-loved CTF maps and, while I'm not sure that you'll have noticed this, it's been a bit backward in coming forward for the last couple of years. "Some people get the impression that we had this kind of blasť reaction after showing TF2 in '99 - we feel terrible about that," laments Charlie Brown, engineer on a game that's been on the top of the vapourware charts (beneath the obvious, obviously) since time immemorial. "There are things I've waited for forever and then they don't come out. We can totally sympathise."
To this I give a reproachful look usually reserved for dogs when their owners return from week-long Balearic holidays; the 'I've been locked in a kennel for a week with other dogs and the food tasted funny. I thought you loved me' look of forlornness. To this tragic look, and my brief murmur of, "So what have you been doing since '99?", Brown opens his big box of secrets.
"Since we showed that initial launch, we've tried about three additional 'experiments' as we like to call them, but none of them felt like a product we were happy to call Team Fortress 2. However, there was a bunch of good stuff within each of them, so we skimmed off the good ideas and decided to do further experimentation on those."
So what did these works-in-progress look like? "Well, a lot of the experimentation stayed in the realm you saw back then, more military - they were really more for testing gameplay ideas. If you're talking about more of their stylistic look, we tried three or four ranging from watercolour to a bunch of other stuff. Ultimately, a lot of the experiments we did were really cool, but they didn't feel like Team Fortress."
BLINDED BY IT
And so, around this time last year, Valve saw light at the end of the tunnel, hit the nail on the head and reached a point where many other clichd sayings are applicable. They thought their gameplay fit - but how should it look? More than any other game, TF is about unrealistic weaponry, rocket-jumping and daft physics - a fun, funny team-game.
"So when we sat down," continues Brown, "we decided that instead of actually combating that kind of exaggerated gameplay with a realistic, serious style, we'd embrace it and do something a bit more stylised."
And so now we have cute little gun turrets placed by the Engineer that build themselves in half-animal, half-stickman fashion. We also have a boyish scout speeding around with his head down like the kid in The Incredibles, and we have soldiers with a beautiful lumbering plod and legs that tread through the air after a well-placed rocket-jump. They're exaggerated, yet toned, caricatures - and when you introduce physics and ragdolls and you see bodies slipping and sliding around the map, it really is a special moment. Team Fortress is a fun and funny game, so it's been given a style to match.
At this point in my presentation the screen in Valve's boardroom flickers into life, and the new rendition of iconic TF map 2Fort appears before me. "We chose to do a kind of '60s sci-fi theme, and the reason for that was the exaggerated environments, the unrealistic weaponry and the notion of having one team just across the bridge from the other team." I nod. There are, after all, few international conflicts that revolve around two hangers that sit 100m away from each other. "Another reason we chose it was that thing of James Bond and the volcano with the secret lair underneath," continues Brown as we share a knowing You Only Live Twice 'Little Nellie' moment. "So it's seemingly simple, unassuming and non-threatening, but underneath it's hiding its intent, and so that again fits into this role of why team A is right across from team B."