Last night, I spent six hours staring at a black hole. The anomaly appeared on multiple screens surrounding me: it was on a TV playing a Twitch stream, on my Switch as I logged into Fortnite, and in countless images and GIFs that popped up in my Twitter feed as I tracked theories about just what the black hole was.
From the outside, it probably looked a bit silly, all of this attention focused on a virtual anomaly that wasn’t even doing much. But this latest event from the team behind Fortnite is something they’ve been building toward for quite some time, as the battle royale game’s ever-evolving island has steadily become an effective storytelling tool.
Now they’ve pulled off their most ambitious project yet — and left fans with no real clue as to what comes next.
To start, here’s what happened on Sunday evening. First, a rocket launched from Dusty Depot, a collection of buildings located near the center of the Fortnite island. The rocket shot directly into the sky, and created a giant rift, which then seemed to connect the various other rifts that were already littered across the island. Then the rocket began traveling between the rifts, creating complete mayhem, with multiple rockets sailing through the sky simultaneously. The rockets then converged, creating a new rift which allowed a meteor — which had been quietly suspended in animation for months — to crash, ultimately destroying the island.
It was incredibly cool, but what’s even more interesting is what happened after the event. Normally after an event like this, Fortnite will experience some downtime, and then a new season will start with all kinds of changes, like the addition of a volcano or a futuristic city. But that’s not what happened here. Instead, the game has remained unplayable for hours; even now, nearly a day after the black hole event kicked off, you still can’t play Fortnite.
Instead, you’re only able to view the black hole, which doesn’t do much aside from occasionally spew out seemingly random numbers. Hardcore fans are of course dutifully trying to figure out what those numbers mean, hoping to discern a clue about when the game might resume and confirm, once and for all, whether an all-new map is indeed on the way.
To make things even more intriguing, developer Epic Games hasn’t said anything about the event. In fact, the company has gone about as silent as it can be. All of the official Fortnite tweets have been deleted, save one that has a stream of the black hole embedded. The developer’s public Trello page, used to track in-game problems, is now empty except for a photo of the anomaly. And if you check out the game’s status, all it says is “anomaly detected.” It’s a completely unprecedented kind of blackout, one that has only heightened the mystery.
It’s hard to imagine something of this scale happening in any other game. And considering the financial implications — Epic is no doubt losing millions of dollars while the game remains down — it’s also a risky bit of marketing, even if there’s a technical reason underpinning the decision. Yet it’s something that Epic has been building toward narratively for more than a year.
In May, just ahead of the game’s fourth season, a meteor appeared in the sky, leading players to start speculating over what was going to happen. Days later it crashed, leaving huge craters across the island. Then came the game’s first one-time-only event, when a rocket launched from a supervillain lair, creating a dimensional rift in the sky. It was a bit of a messy situation, as players were still able to die during the event, and miss the launch entirely. Others weren’t able to get into the game for the event at all. But it was also just the start of Fortnite’s unprecedented brand of live entertainment.
Since then, Epic has steadily improved its in-game events, while also increasing their scale. There was the arrival of a mysterious cube, which slowly rolled across the island before disappearing into a lake. This somehow led to players being temporarily transported to a different dimension. There have been erupting volcanos, massive snowstorms, devastating earthquakes, and floating alien runes.
At one point, a massive robot was slowly assembled inside of a dormant volcano, which eventually led to a thrilling battle between a giant pink mech and a Godzilla-style kaiju. Each moment steadily added to the ever-growing — and increasingly convoluted — Fortnite lore. The island itself became a place full of history. You learned the story simply by being there and experiencing these moments.
Which brings us back to the black hole. Prior to the event, all signs pointed toward a massive change in Fortnite, which could well include an entirely new map. For a game as massive as Fortnite, this is a huge undertaking, one that requires lots of downtime. But instead of simply taking the game offline for a bit, Epic has used this as another chance to build the game’s narrative, creating a sense of mystery where there otherwise would likely be little more than disappointment. Millions of people are watching a mostly static black hole, debating about what happens next, instead of complaining that their favorite battle royale is down for maintenance.
The real question is what happens next. Epic has steadily improved its ability to tell a story within the curious confines of a multiplayer shooter, and it’s easy to imagine that trend continuing. Except now, it’s able to start over with a mostly fresh slate, in what leaks have pointed to being Fortnite: chapter 2, a near-complete reboot of the game. I’m sure the new map will feature interesting new gameplay mechanics, alongside new vehicles and weapons to play around with. For me, though, the most interesting part will be how the new location will facilitate world-building and in-game events.
How do you follow up a black hole that destroyed the entire game? I have absolutely no idea. But I can’t wait to find out.