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Pyro Maniacs: Achieving Nothing in TF2

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This isn’t a rant for or against Team Fortress 2 Achievement servers. It’s a recounting of the bizarre/hilarious/terrifying experience I had on one of them – yes, my personal reactions to what I encountered do inevitably slip in, but mostly it’s a portrait of this unique facet of gaming subculture. Whether you agree or disagree with their existence, these beat-the-system servers are fascinating enough to be worth talking about.

“Were you beaten as a child?”
“FOR FUCKS SAKE DONT SHOOT THE FUCKIN ENGI”
“Scout need 2 kill scouts someone spawn scout”
“Retards ur all retards omg retards!!!!”

Having been away from the TF2 scene for a few months until very recently, I wasn’t previously aware of Achievement Servers. I heard about their existence come the release of the Pyro update, and the idea that there were legions of TF2 players grinding away like Lineage players on special maps for impatient unlock-hungerers was so curious that I had to see it for myself. As the sampling of chat-channel quotes above might imply, I wish I hadn’t.

The server I elected to play witness on was an odd, unsettling place. The tiny, custom map placed the red and blue spawn points right next to each other, removed the wait period between respawns, dropped a single capture point in the middle and placed intelligence briefcases at either end. A small pool of water was placed awkwardly in a corner, and health packs scattered in bizarre columns. No-one could ever win this map – it was set up to repeat forever.

From the narrow strip between the start points spawned a constant stream of Pyros – a silent, infinite army. Half the time, it wasn’t possible to escape this six foot starting area, as I’d be toasted into nothingness within milliseconds. Other players screamed time and again that those attacking each other were ‘retards’, oblivious or unconcerned that their unchecked use of this most stereotypical of Angry Internet Man insults made them even more detestable than those they lambasted. Perhaps these kill-crazed interlopers were simply childish troublemakers, but more likely they were chasing the 1m points of fire damage and 1000 kill Achievements.

Once I finally managed to sneak to a safe-ish corner, I couldn’t help but join the fray. There’d been no explanation as to how this server worked, and the only communication between players involved the word ‘retard’. So I presumed mega-death was the done thing here – certainly, that steady stream of disorientated spawnees were fish in a barrel, a Pyro’s wet dream. Stood next to a supply cupboard, with my health and ammo infinitely replenished, I spent a few minutes clocking up kill after kill after kill – forever twisting my TF2 stats. In TF2 proper I play a Heavy almost all the time, but my permanent record is now dominated by Pyro points. They’re just numbers, but they make me oddly sad – it’s as though someone’s stamped LIAR on my Steam page.

As TF2’s achievement system gives only the vaguest sense of progress towards its more long-winded, uber-grindy tasks, my interest and blood lust soon diminished. So my eye at last drifted to the bottom left of the screen, where I noted that I too was now a ‘retard.’ One player on the other team had taken a specific objection to me – a cursory check of the score screen revealed he was one of the six or seven players I was currently Dominating – and was unleashing a storm of horrific invective, predominantly about parental abuse he claimed I’d suffered. Tired of the senseless, joyless carnage, I tried to leave the starting strip to investigate the rest of the map, but he followed me, using his compressed air blast alt-fire to knock me off course, preventing me from reaching anywhere I wanted to go. During my attempts to escape I was killed a few times by other players, and every time Compressed Air Guy was waiting for me upon my respawn.

Meanwhile, a Heavy had spawned. The Pyros circled him excitedly, believing him there to help ’em reach the MAKIN’ BACON Achievement (roast 50 Heavies). Instead, he let rip. Standing just far away enough from the spawn points to dodge the flames, his amazing cannon was able to shred any and every Pyro before they could get to him. No Pyro on the server was Achieving anything. The chat channel went mad. Fortunately, it did mean Compressed Air Guy finally stopped hounding me.

The banhammer eventually fell on the Heavy, and I took advantage of the brief lull in spawn-point genocide to finally slip into the rest of the small map. At last the nature of this place became clear to me. The map was designed specifically to make certain Achievements easier rather than simply to clock up the kills for the PYROMANCER and FIRECHIEF grinds, as the two or three dozen instant deaths I’d suffered I had initially implied. It was carefully designed as an obstacle course, not the infinite dance of death I’d been swept up in at the spawn point. That’s why there was such vitriol on the chat channels.

Gazing around, left more or less in peace now I was away from the fury of the spawn point, the rest of the place was like a series of surrealistic art installations. To the left, three Pyros forever danced around the capture point, gently roasting but never killing each other. Ding! CONTROLLED BURN.

To the right, a lone Heavy stood by the water’s edge, allowing a half-dozen Pyros to set him ablaze then leaping into the pool to extinguish himself. Then he’d haul himself out and the process would repeat. Burn, douse, burn, douse, burn, douse. Ding! BAPTISM BY FIRE.

Just ahead of me was a Spy, waiting. As I approached him, he coolly flicked his cigarette up from and back into his hand. I waited, unsure whether I should attack. “Come on then”, he said in Chat. I moved closer. He flicked again. This time I emptied my flamethrower onto him. Ding! GOT A LIGHT.

Beyond was a BLU Engineer, also surrounded by a throng of RED Pyros. Planted firmly next to a supply cabinet, he had infinite metal at his disposal. So he built and built tirelessly, seemingly unconcerned that each of his dispensers and turrets and teleporters were destroyed the second they appeared by the mute, masked horde. Ding! ARSONIST. As I watched, a further RED Pyro ran in, paused, then turned his flamethrower on the Engineer. As the helpful BLUman’s charred corpse slumped to the ground, the Chat channel again erupted in outrage.

We waited a while, but the Engineer didn’t return. Who could blame him? The other Pyros said nothing, but I could sense their disappointment. So I changed team, picked Engineer and stepped into the fallen man’s shoes. I built and I built and I built, all of it turned to rubble the second I created it. Sisyphus in a hardhat. I felt slightly pleased to be helping, though no-one thanked me – as I hadn’t thanked those that had assisted me. This was not a place of etiquette. Some 70 or 80 destroyed Teleporters in, I had a moment of horrible self-awareness about exactly what it was I was doing. I had to stop.

And so I climbed back into my red Pyro overalls and continued, reaching the map’s last bizarre setpiece – a concrete bridge atop which were health and ammo packs. A single BLU soldier was beneath it, and I joined a small queue of three or four RED Pyros waiting in front of him. The Soldier looked down at the ground, jumped and fired a rocket. As he sailed smartly into the stratosphere, the first Pyro in the queue let off a jet of flame. Ding! PILOT LIGHT. The Soldier landed neatly on the bridge, replenishedhis health and ammo and was just embarking on his next rocket jump when a sudden shotgun blast from behind me disrupted his manoeuvre. As one, we Pyros turned to look. As we did so, an axe-weilding newcomer charged past me and duly dispatched the poor jarhead. Ding! LUMBERJACK. Good for him. Bad for the waiting Pilot Lighters. Once again, there was much wailing, gnashing of teeth and bellowing of ‘retard.’

By now, I’d ‘earned’ 14 Achievements – enough to unlock the Flare Gun. Woo? I didn’t feel good about it. It wasn’t that I felt like I’d cheated. I was sad because I was not in a place where a team-mate would congratulate me for achieving the unlock – on this server, I was just one more feckless dope grinding away. I didn’t feel good that, though fun in concept, the current nature of the Achievement system seemed to make so many people want/need to shortcut it this horrible, artificial way. And I felt slightly sick at humanity, or at least more so than usual – this server promised altruism, a perfect barter system where good-natured strangers would help each other attain these hallowed Achievements. Instead, it was a mess of self-interest, abuse and griefing. (I’ve since been informed that other Achievement servers are more amiable places, but still – I’m sticking to TF2 vanilla myself). I took one more look at the endless slaughter by the spawn point and logged off, just one achievement shy of the Backburner.

I sated my curiosity, but I’ll never do it again. It’s even made me briefly wish TF2 had never introduced unlocks. I know the Achievement servers weren’t part of Valve’s plan. I know that some people genuinely see them as necessary and even enjoy them. I know that most servers are entirely free from the horrific attitudes I encountered. I know that it’ll all calm down in a little bit when everyone who wants the unlocks has got them. But, to me, the game currently seems grubbier and sadder for this mass obsession with statistics, and I’ll be glad when it’s died down. Yeah, I’ve got my Flare Gun, and it’s certainly a fun toy that expands the possibilities of the game, but I don’t want it. I’m going back to my Heavy. My pure, untainted Heavy – just a big man with a big gun. That’s what I play TF2 for.

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