It’s hard to overstate just how weird Fortnite is. At one point, while I was waiting for the game’s virtual Ariana Grande concert this weekend, three identical versions of Rick from Rick and Morty surrounded me and started dancing. Later, I walked by a pair of Marshmellos lounging in identical yellow beanbag chairs. The first show I went to I dressed as Travis Scott; later, I wore a Toronto Raptors jersey and had a dancing baby Groot strapped to my back.
Fortnite’s crash commercialism, where seemingly every fictional world collides with real-world celebrities in a battle royale game, can definitely be off-putting at times. But it also leads to some extremely cool moments, particularly when it comes to live events. And the Ariana Grande concert wasn’t just another exciting live music experience — it also built on Fortnite’s history in fascinating ways.
For a game about dropping onto a colorful island with the intent of killing people, Fortnite has a surprising amount of history, due largely to the fact that developer Epic is constantly experimenting. Players who have stuck around for a while will remember key, game-shaping moments like when a mysterious cube rolled around the island, or when a rocket launched and cracked the sky, or that time a black hole birthed an entirely new map. These moments can even make all of the heavy-handed licensed aspects of the game feel strangely natural, like when the island was inundated with iconic Marvel locations.
The Ariana Grande tour felt like the culmination of this kind of integrated storytelling. Whereas previous concerts, like Marshmello and Travis Scott, were one-off experiences, the Grande event tied into multiple aspects of Fortnite. Right now, the game is in the midst of an alien invasion. There are new sci-fi weapons to play with, flying saucers that suck up players, and an imposing mothership that floats above the island. Before players even knew a concert was happening, one of those saucers parked right above the center of the map and projected a holographic countdown clock teasing something big on August 6th.
“It was an opportunity to almost create a new medium.” — Donald Mustard on Fortnite’s narrative ambitions
Once things started, the event was different from past Fortnite concerts, as it was about more than just music. Before Ariana Grande even appeared, players were ushered through a portal, where they saw glimpses of some of those big in-game events, like the erupting volcano. What followed was a series of mini-game-style experiences: players slid along a paint-covered slide, bounced around a fluffy world straight out of The Lorax, and piloted a plane to take down former Fortnite raid boss the Storm King.
Finally, in a black room lit by stars, a towering Grande appeared, taking players through an extremely surreal world. There were giant floating bubbles in the sky, a ride on a glittering llama, an M.C. Escher-style castle, and finally the pop star emerging from a crack in the ground to smash all of her fans with a bejeweled hammer.
It was a lot of fun. But more importantly, it felt intrinsically Fortnite. From the way the tour was announced, to the tie-ins with aliens and iconic Fortnite moments and imagery, it was another part of the game’s ever-growing mythos. Only this time with a pop star involved. Grande even looked like a Fortnite character, with glowing white eyes and a dress made of shimmering shards of glass. (You can, of course, buy a skin so you can play as her in-game.) And now that the tour is over, there are still a series of in-game quests for players to dig through.
Earlier this year, Epic’s chief creative officer Donald Mustard described Fortnite as “an opportunity to almost create a new medium.” He meant that the game and its scale offered a chance to tell stories in a novel way; Fortnite doesn’t have a traditional plot or characters, but instead uses live events and its ever-changing world as tools to create a long-running narrative. Steadily, nearly every aspect of the game has been pulled into this focus on storytelling, even the copious licensed tie-ins. In Fortnite, there’s little difference between Galactus attacking the island and Ariana Grande showing up to perform. In this game, a concert is no longer just a concert: it’s lore.