Fortnite would not be the phenomenon that it is today without the one-versus-one-hundred concept: conflict is the lifeblood of a battle royale game. While the pastel-colored shooter has arguably put its own spin on the genre through lighthearted additions like shopping carts, the other big draw is the world-building and status of the island. But Fortnite’s win condition is starting to feel at odds with what keeps me coming back to play the game.
Earlier this week, Fortnite captured the attention of players through a mysterious desert occurrence — every so often, a lightning strike emerged from the in-game rifts. Players predicted that it was leading up to something, as the timing of the strikes didn’t seem to be random. Good luck to anyone who went there and tried to figure it out at the time, though. For stuff like this, it’s pretty easy to just die right away. While the lightning rift has turned into a cube now, the axiom remains true.
This week, Fortnite also added an in-game movie that’s viewable at a drive-in to celebrate the winner of a filmmaking contest. Players who have tried to watch it, however, keep getting murdered. You’re probably better off watching it online on YouTube.
Infamously, the start of the season opened with a huge event where an alien visitor descended from the skies and opened up teleportation rifts around the map — but many fans left frustrated, because plenty of players went into matches with the intention of killing anyone naive enough to actually enjoy the proceedings.
Notice a pattern here?
Now, arguably much of what makes these experiences exciting is that you don’t know if you can participate in them, so whenever you manage to have an in-game moment that doesn’t require shooting a gun, it feels extra special. If there’s no danger, there’s no thrill. But my growing dissatisfaction with Fortnite goes beyond wishing that players would just chill and let me enjoy the scenery — after all, I could just boot up the game in creative mode and explore at my own discretion. But increasingly, any event of note inside the game just feels like a new hotspot of potential death, and that’s a repeating reality that kind of flattens the overall experience.
One of the most fascinating additions this week was the Tomato Temple, an area that seems to be dedicated to the freakishly happy Tomatoman costume. Anyone with the costume can wear a crown now, and there’s also a new “praise the tomato” emote where you pay your respects to the fruit. This, combined with the disturbing key art Epic Games recently released, makes it feel like the developer is creating some low-key lore. Is this a religion? What’s going on? In a way, it doesn’t matter, because the only thing I really get to do with any of this is kill people with the costume, or kill people who want to check the temple out. It’s not satisfying.
Nowadays when I load Fortnite up, I’m blown away by all the gorgeous costumes and props that are so evocative, it feels like I’m standing in a gathering of characters that all belong to different games. I wonder where they come from, what they do, who they are. I practically make up different games in my mind where I could be these characters outside of the perpetual murder island. I wish I could engage with them beyond killing them upon sight.
Leaving the costumes and such open to interpretation is a great way to let the characters be defined by players, but I’m also left wishing there was some authorship to sink my teeth into. Overwatch is a great example here: the characters are empty enough that players can concoct elaborate romances between characters, or backstories, but it’s only possible because Blizzard makes them feel like actual people. Small lines of dialogue suggest personalities, maps are stocked with details that point at a larger world, sprays tell us more about heroes, but most crucially, Blizzard puts out cinematics every so often that outright tell us who these characters are supposed to be. Better yet, Overwatch characters feel like a group project, because Blizzard ends up incorporating player-created ideas into the actual lore. When D.va the pilot was deemed to be a trashy Dorito-eating gremlin by players, Blizzard went ahead and made it official in the game and the story. Fortnite characters, by contrast, largely feel like cardboard cutouts.
It is a testament to Epic Games’ design sensibilities that I wish I could engage with Fortnite in more complex ways than “can I aim at this person’s head real good.” But as the battle royale game continues to grow, my hope is that they’ll expand in more ambitious ways than letting the players fill in all the blanks — that is, when they’re not getting murdered.