“The best part about Team Fortress 2 isn’t dressing up my mercenaries, it’s showing everyone online that I did.”
– Xbox 360 Kid
At some point in Team Fortress 2’s infamously prolonged development period, Valve Software made the auspicious decision not to design the game with generic realism—as was the trend in the mid-2000s—but with inspiration from mid-century commercial illustrators, a decision which resulted in bold and colorful art direction reminiscent of artists like Norman Rockwell and J.C. Leyendecker. In addition to enhancing the wacky spy-fi scenario of the class-based multiplayer shooter, it justified the exaggerated designs that are integral to the instant recognizability of its nine playable characters and their in-game roles.
Take the Heavy Weapons Guy, a massive man with a massive gun and little legs—it’s easy to infer that he’s a tough character with a powerful weapon and slow movement. You can even glean his personality from his bald, surly mug—if you guessed that his intense and deliberate demeanor belies a roaring and brutish enthusiasm for shooting that big gun, you’d be right. Yet all of this information comes from nothing but his character design, equipment, and posture. There’s not a single superfluous element to the Heavy Weapons Guy, and that is why he and the rest of Team Fortress 2’s character design is so iconic, even to this day. It’s pure, elegant simplicity.
Ahh. Yes. Pure, elegant simplicity.
In the decade since its standalone release in 2008, Team Fortress 2 has undergone a uniquely ironic shift in priorities. Initial updates and content packs for the game included new weapons, achievements, and maps—standard first-person shooter fare—but from the humble beginnings of one innocuous hat per class in 2009, “the world’s #1 war-themed hat simulator” has become a lucrative free-to-play leviathan, sustaining itself solely on microtransactions from the Mann Co. Store—its own virtual haberdashery—and skimmed revenue from the secondhand Steam Community Marketplace.
Valve was a pioneer in managing massive virtual economies and while a lot has been written and said about the immense, complex, and robust world of trading high-value Team Fortress 2 items, I don’t care about that. I just care about dressing up my mercenaries all cute.
The initial run of hats was extremely simple in both design and execution, with just nine in all that could only be acquired at random. However, after one year and a steady but cautious trickle of additional headgear came the monumental Mann-Conomy Update, in which Valve opened the doors to an aggressively Australian storefront from which players could directly purchase any of the hats that they wanted for the first time. This update also introduced the ability to trade unwanted hats with other players, Paint Can items that could change the color of these hats, “Unusual” hats that were extremely rare but possessed flashy particle effects, and numerous new hats in general.
The Mann-Cononomy update was a watershed moment for Team Fortress 2—since 2010, the game has invested significantly in expanding its line of cosmetic items from mere hats to entire outfits, hairstyles, and even little animal companions. To the chagrin of some, the simplistic and artistically cohesive ethos behind the initial run of hats was abandoned in this frenzied hunger for more hats. Nowadays, why put an appropriate afro or tam o’shanter on the Black Scottish mercenary when he could cosplay Frozone or an Aztec warrior instead?
Despite the argument that the abundance and diversity of cosmetic items in Team Fortress 2 has harmed the carefully crafted aesthetic integrity of the launch-state game, when one embraces the massive wardrobe of cosmetic items available, the deliberate simplicity of the base character designs becomes precisely what makes them such perfect fashion models. The game presents its character customization options in a practical and masculine “loadout” menu, but this aspect of the game has a lot in common with the far more feminine genre of dress-up games.
These games were ubiquitous in the Flash game era of the internet, an era concurrent with the first few years of Team Fortress 2. And while they vary in execution, the core conceit is just what it sounds like—dressing up a character in a variety of clothes. The quality of any given dress-up game is usually measured by how extensive its total wardrobe and customization options are, and Team Fortress 2 has more than 1,400 cosmetic items. If there can be wedding dress-up, Disney dress-up, and fantasy dress-up, why can’t Team Fortress 2 be considered a part of the genre? Maybe it’s just mercenary dress-up.
I should point out that there is no tactical or mechanical advantage to dressing up one’s mercenaries. There used to be, but since these advantages were introduced as part of the same update that introduced the Mann Co. Store, Valve eventually removed them because they were rightfully called out as pay-to-win bullshit. Now, a player that doesn’t dress their mercenaries up at all and plays with a completely stock cosmetic loadout will still be playing the same exact game as everyone else—and may actually be at an advantage against players wearing the most gaudy, noticeable, attention-grabbing outfits possible. Despite that, players spend significant amounts of time and money on creating and acquiring the perfect cosmetic loadouts—not because they want to get rich trading on the secondary market, but simply because they want their Spy to look a certain way.
Choose Your Character
Prior to the introduction of hats, every instance of each character in Team Fortress 2 looked exactly the same. Every Pyro looked like every other Pyro, every Scout like every other Scout. This was integral to the game’s playability, because each class needed to look distinct in order to be quickly and easily identified by enemies and allies alike—you wouldn’t want to rush a dweebish Engineer class only to realize that it’s actually a rocket-launching Soldier, right? Even with the abundance of cosmetic customization in Team Fortress 2, this is still largely true—no cosmetic loadout will render any particular class unrecognizable.
But, if you ask any kid who has ever attended a school with a strict uniform policy, people want to express themselves in situations where they’re forbidden to—and they will find ways to do so even within restrictions. Here, those restrictions are that the team colors of red or blue will necessarily dominate the clothing of each class, each class can only wear three cosmetic items at once, and combined cosmetics can’t conflict with each other. For instance, you can’t wear two hats at the same time—unless you’re wearing two hats at the same time. Within those restrictions, though, there is still a massive volume of discrete cosmetic items that can be combined in any non-conflicting way imaginable, and most items can be individually painted one of twenty-nine different colors.
In Overwatch, a more modern class-based shooter developed by Blizzard, characters can only be customized with “skins” that change their entire design or costume at once. While Overwatch players can enjoy one particular skin over another, this system doesn’t come close to the level of personalization that mixing, matching, and painting the hats and accessories available in Team Fortress 2 does. Additionally, Team Fortress 2 allows multiple players on one team to play a class while Overwatch does not—this means that a 12-on-12 game of Team Fortress 2 could be comprised of 24 people playing the same class and each of them could still look unique. The greatest strength of the game’s extensive cosmetic system is that every player can make each class something of their own, altering their appearance to suggest a personality or backstory that they personally project onto them, and that can be something meaningful, something funny, or just something strange for the sake of it. The aforementioned mechanical restrictions aside, the only other limit is a player’s imagination.
Yet when a player’s personal loadout becomes iconic, it can transcend representing a mere virtual mercenary and become an avatar for the player themselves, a phenomenon embodied most by the wide variety of Team Fortress 2 personalities on YouTube. Since Team Fortress 2 is a class-based game, players tend to have a “main” class that they play the most or are best at. “TF2bers” frequently base the content of their channel on whichever class they main, so there are different channels run by Scout mains, Spy mains, and so on.
Due to the intimate link between the YouTuber and their main, the customization of the latter becomes an inextricable representation of the former on video thumbnails and artwork, as icons in games of H-O-R-S-E, or as the vessels through which they monologue about how the game is a timeless masterpiece. Pictured below are not a random Medic, Engineer, or Soldier—these are the loadouts made famous by ArraySeven, Uncle Dane, and LazyPurple, and these loadouts may as well be these YouTubers the same way that an actor may as well be their most famous role.
In the culmination of the shift from the game’s initial state to its current ethos of sartorial anarchy, you can now get all the fun of dressing, modeling, posing, and animating the game’s nine mercenaries for no cost through Loadout.TF, a tool for previewing loadouts that I used to render everything pictured in this article. Best of all, unlike the game itself, Loadout.TF doesn’t enforce restrictions on how many items you can equip at once or where. I encourage you to build the best—or your definition of best—mercenary that you can and tweet me the results.
Pure, elegant simplicity.