I couldn’t name a single character in Fortnite. I’m not able to tell you anything about the lore or the plot, or even really explain where the game takes place. Yet somehow Epic’s multiplayer shooter has produced the most arresting video game narrative I’ve experienced in some time — and it’s only getting stronger as Fortnite evolves.
This weekend provided the most powerful example of Fortnite’s storytelling potential yet. At exactly 1:30PM ET on Saturday, a rocket launched from a mountain on the far west of the game’s ever-changing map. The launch was not a surprise: Epic had been teasing it for weeks, with a countdown displayed on certain in-game TVs and a loud klaxon alarm blaring from the mountain, which was also home to an supervillain-style lair. Then, a day before the event, the developer told players that they should be around at a specific time or else they’d miss it.
I’m still not entirely sure what happened on Saturday afternoon. I, along with millions of other Fortnite players, logged into the game, to watch the rocket launch. (Luckily no one shot me while I was enjoying the view.) First, the lair lit up with a burst of bright light, so that you couldn’t miss it. Then, the rocket sped through the sky, a trail of smoke behind it. A few moments later some kind of spaceship fell out of the air and, after some explosions and strange noises, a terrifying crack opened up in the sky.
I have no idea what any of it means. But witnessing the event live, with millions of other poeple — both in-game and sharing screenshots, videos, and jokes on Twitter — was unlike anything I’d ever experienced before. It reminded me a bit of watching the season finale of Lost: no one actually understood what was happening, but we were all in it together, sharing the moment.
The event has also changed how I play the game. Over the weekend I jumped into multiple matches, and my main goal wasn’t to win: I just wanted to see what had changed. The first time I jumped out of the battle bus I landed near the mountain, scouring the evil lair for clues. (I didn’t find any.) Later, after hearing that a fragment of the rocket had landed in Anarchy Acres, I immediately headed out to the farm to see it for myself. It didn’t answer any of my burning questions, but it was incredibly cool to see.
What’s amazing about this is that Fortnite is not a story-driven game in the way we typically think about it. There’s no dialogue or moral choices or even anything resembling a plot. Instead, the story is told almost entirely through the world itself, and Epic has become a master of environmental storytelling. The entirety of Fortnite exists on a single map, and it’s one that is constantly evolving. When there’s a small change, players notice; when there’s something big, everyone joins in. Previously, the best example of this was the season four comet. It started as a small dot of light in the sky, before an actual comet descended on the map, leaving a massive crater, new gameplay features, and plenty of big questions.
What made the rocket launch different, and so powerful, was its ephemeral nature. If you weren’t playing during the few minutes that it lasted, you missed it entirely. Everyone else had to settle for watching clips on YouTube. In-game events are nothing new of course, and have been a staple of massively multiplayer games for years. But the live nature of Fortnite’s rocket launch, combined with the sheer scale of the game, have resulted in a perfect storm. Epic is using the most popular game in the world to pioneer new interactive storytelling techniques. And we’re all along for the ride.
There are plenty of games that have emulated the core battle royale aspect that has made Fortnite so popular, and it seems likely we’ll see the same thing happen with its take on storytelling and live events. BioWare, one of the biggest names in single-player, story-driven role-playing games, will be trying similar ideas with next year’s Anthem.
“We thought, what if we have a game where the whole point of the experience is for everyone to talk about what’s going on right now?” BioWare general manager Casey Hudson told me at E3 last month, before providing an example that sounds a lot like Fortnite’s rocket launch. “‘There’s going to be a huge snowstorm that’s gonna hit next Saturday.’ And every day the weather starts getting crazier and crazier, and then on Saturday, everything hits, everyone shows up to see what’s going on, and there’s a whole different set of things you get to do in the game.”
As more games shift to an ongoing, always-online model, this trend will only continue. Bethesda’s upcoming multiplayer take on Fallout, for instance, should provide plenty of opportunities for the developer to experiment with live storytelling. Just think of how cool it could be to be part of the first ever nuclear rocket launch in the game. For now, though, we have Fortnite, and I can’t stop thinking about it. Every time I play I check the crack to see if it’s growing, and some eagle-eyed fans have noticed that parts of the world are actually disappearing, so I’m always on the lookout.
I don’t know what any of it means — and I don’t care. I’m loving every minute of it.