In Team Fortress 2, unless you’re playing Arena mode, you respawn when you die. Respawning is a common thing in video games. Often it’s hand-waved as part of the game, you just do. It’s either that or having a limited number of lives, showing a Game Over screen when you lose them all. Some games manage to explain respawning after death pretty well – the first and second Bioshock games have vita-chambers from which you can respawn and can be turned off for Super Hard Mode; and Borderlands basically charges you money, the whole thing being a paid service to players and bandits (who can afford it) alike. TF2 is in the first category. Nothing has ever really explained why the mercs come back. Or even how you can have 5 Snipers on the same team. There ARE theories though.
I’ll start us off with one of the best. The Respawn Hypothesis by Tim Denee. I’m not going to go through all of this, but his theory is really good. It covers all the basis and is pretty damn plausible. The only problems are that 1. Engineer’s father and grandfather may not have died, 2. the TFC mercenaries turned out to be alive (but he didn’t know that at the time) and 3. if you have a small screen, some of the text goes off the page. You can fix that by changing the size of your browser window though. I’m not going to go over it in detail, because I feel there’s more to it than just Engineer, and I have some of my own theories.
The basic idea is that Engineer built machines that connect to spawn rooms. Mercenaries show up at work, punch themselves in with a punch card and start fighting and respawning. Copies of punch cards are used to create copies of mercenaries, more punch cards are in the intel briefcases and hats are used to differentiate between clones and the original mercs before they punch out for the day. Really simple when you think about it.
I’ve always been rather happy to accept that as the most plausible theory. But it does mean that everything happens because of Engineer. He gets quite a bit of the lore-based lime-light. Let’s not forget that we also have another genius hanging around in the form of Medic. They work together already, what’s not to say that they’ve worked together in the past? There’s also the thing that there are OTHER engineers around, as seen in Blood Brothers. Now, they’re probably just hired help, but they’re very Engineer-y. Wouldn’t surprise me if Blutarch had his own engineers too. Perhaps the respawn system is a collaboration? Considering how it all seems to need a lot of looking after.
One other idea that’s worth noting is that maybe everyone’s just a clone, perhaps the original mercs are long dead. A giant production line that creates endless mercenaries. Teleporters are common in TF2, perhaps the spawn rooms are teleporters. Corpses have always just faded away after a while, and this explains why no one questions anything and we always hear the same few words.
But personally, I’ve always preferred a slightly different variant. Clones seem tacky. And cheap. And soulless. It makes the media outside the game seem empty and hollow. You could assume that all the mercs are just very similar to one another. Scout’s one of eight children for example. Then again, that is a bit silly.
There’s a big problem though. One that isn’t obvious. Team Fortress’s external media doesn’t really use any of this. You see duplicate Soldiers in Meet the Medic and there are people on the BLU team, but that’s it. Generally, they’re referred to as 9, but sometimes as 18. The catch-up comic suggests that there’s been many teams of mercenaries. At the end of Team Fortress Comics #4 (spoiler alert), one Sniper shoots another Sniper. Death hangs over them.
So maybe the mercenaries don’t respawn? Maybe respawning is just an in=game mechanism to make people enjoy the game. It has no meaning in TF2’s story. The comics, one of the bigger parts of TF2’s lore, certainly seem to suggest that death is a real and pretty permanent thing. It makes more sense that way too.
If only it wasn’t all so inconsistent.