The cast of TF2['The Interactive Palette' is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Gregory Weir that examines the tools and techniques of the digital games trade with a focus on games as art, using a single game as an example. This time - a look at character roles in Team Fortress 2.]

The concept of character roles in video games is a common one. It's most common in traditional RPGs, where the player chooses a certain character class with unique skills and abilities. In the mid-to-late-nineties, the concept of class or character role spread to other kinds of games, with one of the first examples being the original Team Fortress mod for Quake.

The Team Fortress series features first-person, multiplayer, team-based gameplay where each player selects a class and the classes compliment each other. Each class has an important role, and the strength of the team as a whole depends on each player properly fulfilling their role. The series came into its own with the release of Team Fortress Classic, an official mod for Half-Life. TFC refined the classes and reinforced team-based goals like capturing the flag or protecting territory.

Multiplayer class-based games like Team Fortress can be quite entertaining. The separate character roles make it necessary to work together, which promotes socialization among teammates and increases the feeling of accomplishment when the team succeeds.

The multiple classes also broaden the appeal of the game; a player who doesn't feel comfortable dodging and weaving can choose a slow-but-strong class like TF's Heavy Weapon Guy, and there are even roles for players who like to avoid combat, like the Medic class.

However, these roles also mean that there is a bigger barrier to entry for the game, as new players don't necessarily understand their role or how to carry it out. Additionally, everyone's experience in the game can be hurt by a player who doesn't serve their purpose.

Anyone who's played with a medic who doesn't heal people knows the frustration that can cause. In the interest of fun and accessibility, it's important for players to comprehend their character role as quickly as possible, and to be interested in fulfilling that role. The latest game in the series excels at this.

Valve's Team Fortress 2 was a bit of a surprise for eager fans. Many were expecting a World-War-II-themed, realistic war simulation, as described in previews years before the release. However, in the intervening time, Valve completely changed their design, and the final product was a silly, colorful game with cartoon characters inspired by early 20th-century commercial illustration.

One of the most memorable parts of the new game is the cast of colorful characters. Each character class in TF2 is represented by a quirky, distinctive personality with an easily-recognized voice and appearance. There is discussion in the game's commentary of how the distinctive class silhouettes enable players to easily identify opponents, but there's little mention of how these characters enable the team-based gameplay by allowing class roles to be easily understood and internalized.

Comparison of TFC and TF2 Heavies"We Make Good Team."

In most games with character roles — including the previous TF games — there's little individuality to the classes. Yes, characters look different, and have different effects, but they lack identity. Sometimes, this is a good thing. In World of Warcraft, for example, race and gender give a distinct appearance, but not a strong personality. This allows players to roleplay a character of their choice. However, it does mean that character personality has little affect on gameplay.

In TF2, things are different. Comparing the old Heavy Weapon Guy to the new Heavy, or the old Spy to the new one, shows that there has been a drastic change in character design. Previous games in the series let you play a scout, but in TF2, you play The Scout. The Scout has a distinctive accent, appearance, and personality. He is conceited, sarcastic, and sadistic.

Through Valve's "Meet the Team" promotional videos and through the in-game voice taunts and reaction sound bytes, each class is provided with a unique and easily-identified identity. This is amusing and easy to identify with, but it also serves as a simple introduction to the class.

By looking at and listening to the Scout, new players immediately know several things about him. The Scout is thin, but wiry, implying his speed and lack of fortitude. His rapid-fire taunts match the class's preferred fighting style of circle-strafing around enemies. Because of this, players can easily tell what role the Scout is meant to fulfill, and are encouraged to roleplay the character and therefore be a useful member of the team.

As a contrast, we can look at the Spy. He is dressed in a suit and balaclava, implying that he is perhaps not the most physical of classes. His voice is haughty and sly, which matches his sneak-and-stab play style. A player who sees the Spy in action understands that he is a tricky character who is meant to attack from the shadows.

The same inferences can be made about the other classes. The Heavy is slow but sturdy, while the Medic is a weak technician. The Soldier is, well, a soldier. The Demoman makes clever use of explosives, the Sniper calmly waits, and the Engineer makes intelligent constructions. As for the Pyro? He (or she?) clearly just likes fire. These are not complex, deep human beings; they are stereotypes. That's fine in TF2, a game with little emotional depth which demands quick thinking and trained instincts.

Not only do the personalities educate new players, but they also help players pick a favorite class. Someone who sympathizes with the slow-but-forceful Heavy is likely to also enjoy the class's methodical approach. Likewise, a player who identifies with the Demoman will find herself satisfied by bouncing grenades off of walls and laying explosive traps.

Comparison of TFC and TF2 Spies"I am Credit to Team."

The technique of giving character classes distinct personalities can be applied to any game which separates players into distinct roles that should be understood quickly. A similar thing was done in Blizzard's Diablo, which gives the Warrior, Rogue, and Sorcerer unique appearances that helped to indicate their roles. In Diablo, however, there is little personality assigned to each class, and teamwork is much less important than in TF2.

The primary lessons to take from TF2's personalities are to create unique identities for each class, to make the identities reflect the class's role, and to make the identities easy to identify and identify with.

Making the class identities distinct allows players to easily differentiate the classes by sight, sound, and behavior. Matching the class identities to the class roles allows the player to easily understand and remember a class's strengths, weaknesses, and responsibilities. Lastly, when the identities are memorable and likable, players are more likely to feel connected to their character and to pick a class based on personality.

Few people would claim that Team Fortress 2's world is especially deep, or that it has a particularly complex storyline. What the game does have is a distinctive, appealing cast of characters, and it portrays its characters in a way that supports the gameplay. TF2 is so easy to learn and fun to play in part because of the excellent character design, including appearance, voice talent, and personality.

[Gregory Weir is a writer, game developer (The Majesty Of Colors), and software programmer. He maintains Ludus Novus, a podcast and accompanying blog dedicated to the art of interaction. He can be reached at Gregory.Weir@gmail.com.]