Let me tell you something odd I noticed last summer. It’s about pyros and candy and dreams. But mostly pyros.
If you haven’t played Team Fortress 2, or read the comics, or whatever, let me see if I can very simply describe this phenomenon. It’s an FPS, in which players select one of nine classes. Over the course of the game’s history the maker, VALVe, released a series of “Meet the Team” videos, profiling each character. For a game with no storyline – there’s no single player mode at all – there’s a lot of story in the form of setting, comics, backgrounds for characters and, in some cases, levels (the MVM – Mann vs. Machine – update features a level that’s a decoy for the invading robots where all the signs are badly painted onto a series of barns) and so on. The final video was “Meet the Pyro.” The pyro is, well, a pyro, clad in a bodysuit and gas mask, carrying a flamethrower and an axe (or, in some cases, a mail box, a neon sign, a rake, and a sledgehammer. The pyro’s identity and even gender are mysteries. So when VALVe said publicly and unequivocally that 2012 would mark the release of “Meet the Pyro” everyone got very excited.
A lot of people genuinely seem to have expected the video to reveal the Pyro’s identity. Theories blew up all over the internet, though it was a popular sport already to guess who the pyro was. No one I saw ever said “some dude [or lady] who burns things. I think I heard the Scout’s mother once, even. I don’t even know how that one started. The summer 2012 Pyromania update featured the video along with a lot of in-game stuff, including new weapons and a new game mode, Special Delivery. In it players race to deliver fuel to a rocket that will send Poopy Joe, an experimental monkey, into space. He dies horribly at the map’s end, over and over, for all eternity. Upshot is that some people even though the pyro was actually an intelligent ape of some kind.
Then the video came out. You should probably watch it.
There it is. Do you see the problem with it?
I didn’t either. But people got pissed. A: as you probably already see coming, people were angry the pyro’s identity hadn’t been revealed. I never thought it would be, though I thought there might be a few more hints. For instance, when VALVe learned people thought the pyro could be female, the pyro started getting women’s hats to wear in-game. So I figured some stuff might show up. And in the dream-sequence in the video, if you look in the sky, there’s a point at which you can see gender signs, so hell, I guess there is one thing anyway.
B, though, B: people thought the video was terrible and it ruined the character. Not everyone, mind you – I’m describing the internet, no one agrees here on anything. Not even that the internet’s good.
OK, so, what did the video say about the character? He’s fucking crazy, for one. He thinks he’s being friendly.
Cue the pasta.
There’s an ancient 4chan pasta that said exactly this. And VALVe’s famous for paying attention to what fans say about their games to one another and working it in. See the pyro hats above. So, in fact, it adds very little beyond a visual pallet for the insanity we all already knew the pyro suffered from. But people thought the pyro was wussified or something, that he wasn’t hard enough, not scary enough.
Go look at that video again. It was the video that VALVe used to debut their filmmaker, and there’s a reason for that: horror-stricken faces. Everyone is terrified of the pyro. That even tracks in-game. Often the pyro succeeds even without killing an enemy, because it’s fucking scary to be on fire. As an old Mac Hall joke went, no matter what you want, you want to be not on fire more than that. It fucks with aiming, it eats at your health, it makes you need a health pack or a medic or a friendly pyro to put you out.
OK, let’s drill down to some kind of point here, right?
I find it fascinating and, I suppose, a little disturbing, that the fanbase did one thing: lose all interest after the video came out (again, not everyone, I know, jeez). I suppose it’s obvious why I don’t like that reaction – I liked the video, I liked the update, good good good.
But it’s interesting because it shows that, honestly, the interest isn’t in the product, but the speculation. The fans actually enjoy speculating about the video (and every major TF2 update) more than thing itself.
Years ago I ran into someone online complaining about the TV show Psych. OK, yeah, we’re far afield here, bear with me.
This friend was upset about the end of an early season, I think two or three. That’s because the main character, Spencer, kissed his long-time interest, Juliet, for the first time. I saw a later episode recently and they do start dating, but not for another few seasons. Why was my friend upset? It wasn’t because the scene was badly written, or handled poorly, or out of character. Well, not out of the actual character.
My friend was upset because she thought Spencer should be gay, even though the show had never indicated he was, and so the kiss was out of character in her head. But only in her head.
This is, I supposed, related to fanon – I don’t know if it qualifies directly or not, I’d actually appreciate knowing. Fanon as in “fan” + “canon,” not the critic Franz Fanon. In the fan canon of the show my friend read into and enjoyed most, Spencer was gay. In fact, he has a thing for Juliet’s partner, the angry police detective that sort-of hates Spencer.
I can understand being disappointed if one’s personal hope for a show doesn’t pan out, but being angry at the show and its creators? Being angry at VALVe for, honestly, not changing anything, but doing so flashily? Huh?
In both cases, the actual thing has been overshadowed by the rickety scaffolding of fan speculation around it, so much so that the fans aren’t looking at the thing, but its new shell. In a Terry Pratchett novel, Small Gods, the narrator says that religions can build up around their gods for a long time, until the religion hardens and kills the god inside. It’s a comment directly on people who care about their religion but not their faith or their spirit, only the rituals and rules, but it also describes a figurative mechanism that I’m borrowing for fan constructions. They, too, could possibly strangle the thing itself, the product. In this case it probably wouldn’t cancel the show or kill the game – though I suppose it could if enough people were angry and stopped watching or playing – but it kills the enjoyment of the fan, and for no good reason. The thing itself is still as good as before, but because its trajectory is not the one mapped out by the fan, it is no longer “good.”
Obviously I disagree with this point of view. But I do also find it interesting as I see it happen over and again. You could apply the same figurative image to lots of things – fantasy novels being reviled because they’re not 1000 page multi-volume epics; music going unsold because it doesn’t fit into an easily-recognizable genre; or even the ever-popular battle between jocks and nerds.
If you’ve enjoyed this messy take on fan readings, probably you should check out my blog, where I do stuff like this specifically about science fiction and fantasy of all sorts.