You notice something amiss: The Scout is stuck halfway up the wall.
This is problematic. Normally, it’d only be problematic for the Scout. But the wall in which he’s stuck is the doorway to the room where the rest of his team are. He’s jammed himself in such a way that the door is equally stuck, with a gap that’s just too small for the team to escape.
Someone speaks up: “Is he glitched, or is he just being a douchebag?”
There’s a notable pause before a voice answers: “I think it’s a little of column ‘A,’ a little of column ‘B.'”
At which point the Scout starts asking general knowledge questions, promising to move if they get them right. Can you remember the capital of Egypt? Where is bile manufactured? You manage to get an answer and … you’re free. The game continues, and you wonder what the hell that was about. The next thing you know, you’re taking a cameo role in one of Team Roomba’s griefing videos.
In the same way that the sort of hugs-and-kisses type of gamer has found new ways to express his enthusiasm with easily available Internet video, so has the more negative one. Arriving at the initial crest of enthusiasm toward Valve’s Team Fortress 2, Team Roomba’s video showing an array of petty, hilarious and oft imaginative cruelty was an immediate memetic sensation. Griefing is usually little more than plain sadism; but with the right soundtrack and frame-perfect editing, Team Roomba’s videos have turned it into – whisper it – a kind of comedy performance. Or, at least, something other than just being a douchebag.
Chatting to the actually charming Team Roomba in a series of emails, Roomba mainstays Jer (aka Jeremy) and FLOOR_MASTER (aka Ryan) are amused. “It’s kind of weird to hear us characterized as doing ‘performance comedy’ but I think it’s fair to say,” says Ryan. “I do think there is a difference between griefing to make people miserable and the sort of tongue-in-cheek griefing that was most prominent in our second TF2 video.” Just over a year since their first primitive steps into online moviemaking, they now dominate the front page Google search for “griefing video.” And they’ve learned a lot on the way.
As one might expect, the Roomba experience wasn’t exactly planned. “ROOMBA as some sort of griefing organization or comedy troupe – however you want to see it – is really a new thing for us. I’m not sure we consider it to exist at that level yet,” says Ryan. “To us, ROOMBA is still just a group of Internet Friends who play games together and record said games when we find something funny about them.” The group found their origins in the diaspora of culture around goon-central, Something Awful, specifically the Kentucky Fried Server, where they all played Battlefield 1942. They continued, moving onto new games as they arrived. It only became a group in name when they found themselves with the desire to enter a Battlefield 2142 tournament for kicks and had to name their clan. Hence: Team Roomba. “The tournament experience was a fiasco and remains TR’s first and last venture into competitive gaming,” says Ryan.
The move to griefing videos was prompted by the most dangerous of influences: plain boredom. “You run out of things to do and start looking for unconventional ways to have fun with a game,” says Ryan, “There was a long dead time between BF2142 being released and the next big FPS.” So, as they waited impatiently while Enemy Territories: Quake Wars, Crysis and Team Fortress 2 inched closer, they looked for other distractions. It was Roomba-ite penifSMASH who made the leap, with a glitch he discovered in Battlefield 2142‘s Titan Mode.
The aim of Titan Mode is to destroy the opposing team’s Titan airship, a complicated and laborious process in which you blow up the enemy’s reactor consoles to lower the warship’s shields before focusing fire on its exposed hull. You can’t damage your own team’s consoles, but penifSMASH discovered that if you kill yourself, any mines you’ve laid remain. If your kit is then taken by the enemy, the mines switch side and can be detonated at a safe distance. “So by doing this, we confused the hell out of a lot of people by bringing the enemy Titan’s shields down a few minutes into the round when it normally takes about half an hour,” says Ryan. They started thinking of other amusing ideas, before penifSMASH began to record and score them. The first was actually inspired by other players’ unsportsmanlike behavior in Battlefield 2142, where they flipped on friendly fire and alternately killed and revived players from the offending clan, effectively holding them hostage. To the tune of Bobby Darin’s “Beyond the Sea.” From small, cruel acorns grow great, monstrous oaks.
Well, not really that monstrous at all. In the time between then and now, they’ve moved from these basic examples to griefs as sophisticated as the TF2 quiz. “That move was, I think, motivated by a desire to stand out,” says Ryan. “A lot of the griefing videos out there involve someone playing annoying sounds over VOIP, which could be funny given the right reactions but are at the core … uninspired?” This progression made them hesitant to release an earlier recorded video based around Insurgency because it was employed similar tricks; they opted to quietly leak it out instead. “Now we try to focus on unusual uses of game mechanics or plain glitches/exploits,” says Ryan.
They’re constantly brainstorming. Case in point, the TF2 hostage situation. It started with the discovery that the door-blocking bug existed, leading Jeremy to examine all the standard maps to discover which would be most vulnerable. It turns out there are only two spawn points in the “Well” map. They started by just blocking the exit and spamming the Scout’s “We need a dispenser here” emote, as web memes dictate. From there, they thought of funnier stuff to do with their captive audience. Jeremy started out getting people to pledge their allegiance to Ron Paul and the gold standard. This lead to the trivia … and finding which questions would get the most extreme and funny responses from different groups of people.
Nevertheless, the bulk of the work lies in just getting the footage. No rest for the wicked. “Most of the time, nobody would react, those who did react didn’t use a microphone to do so or we were simply kicked or banned from the server,” says Ryan. The editing itself is equally important; they need to make sure to show the whole trick and explain what is happening rather than offer four minutes of people getting inexplicably angry. Quality control is considerable. “To put the editing work into more concrete terms,” says Ryan, “we had about 800MB of demos taken for the second video. This roughly translates to 13 hours of footage that was whittled down to nine minutes.”
Which leads to a few ethical questions. Thirteen hours of footage is a lot to inflict upon their unwitting subjects for nine minutes of laughs, though they deny that their preference for more imaginative griefing techniques has anything to do with them being more ethically defensible – they’re simply funnier. “Personally, I don’t think about the past videos we made and think that we should have done things differently,” says Jeremy. “It’s been part of the learning process in finding a harmonious mix of schadenfreude and humor. The second video had wide appeal due to the fact that it wasn’t sadistic to the point where viewers would feel sorry for the players; instead, they reacted with amusement and wished that it was them instead. I think that’s a positive reaction, and doesn’t result in the divisive attitude that comes with most publicized griefing.”
Educated adults are far from a bunch of kids; it’s clear they’ve at least thought about the issues. They argue the griefs are short lived, and the players are in control of whether they play or not. “I recognize that I’m ruining someone’s fun, albeit temporarily, but jerks in an online videogame are just part of the package – ‘Game Experience May Change During Online Play.’ I’d like to think that everyone recognizes this by now, and I don’t feel particularly bad about it,” says Ryan.
Which isn’t to say they treat their unknowing collaborators as mere prey. When the two Team Fortesss 2 videos were released, they tried to make contact via Steam usernames with anyone who – er – contributed. “All but one reacted positively,” says Ryan. “They found it hilarious, and that erases any sense of non-existent guilt that lingered.” Even during the game, they describe some surprising reactions, with people getting into the trivia especially. Ryan attributes this to their use of VOIP: “I think when there’s back and forth with the players rather than a one way ‘I’m ruining your game,’ several things happen: 1) Players gain a sense of hope that they can negotiate their way out of the grief; 2) players realize that we aren’t children; and 3) the interaction promotes some kind of curiosity about the grief that diminishes the annoying/irritating part of the grief. In some twisted way, perhaps some variant of the Stockholm syndrome comes into play, too.”
Their work continues – their last big release was a Prodigy “Firestarter” parody video featuring TF2’s Pyro – but a third planned griefing video is probably doomed since they lost hours of footage to one of Valve’s TF2 updates, which rendered old demo files unreadable. They suspect that TF2 griefing possibilities may have run dry, unless updates cram something delightfully abuse-able. But their eyes are always on the future, looking expectantly towards Battlefield Heroes. They certainly feel the pressure of expectations. “I think we set a very high bar with the second video, and we are very conscious about maintaining that level of quality and humor,” says Ryan. “Some of the stuff we have recorded is worth seeing, but fails to meet the ‘TF2 trivia’ standard.”
Which isn’t to say that they’re actively looking for fresh blood or – heaven forbid – going professional. They’re bombarded with requests to join, but they deny all of them. “People who ask to join have this idea that all we do is churn out videos,” says Ryan, “but really the videos are an afterthought, with having fun playing random games together being ROOMBA’s primary reason for existing.” And whether something funny enough to match their exacting standards will emerge from their fun, we’ll have to wait and see … and perhaps even contemplate whether a griefer is actually funny before we kick him from the server.
Kieron Gillen has been writing about videogames for far too long now. His rock and roll dream is to form an Electro-band with Miss Kittin and SHODAN pairing up on vocals.