Fort­nite: Battle Royale

Epic has forged one of the most in­ter­est­ing and ar­rest­ing nar­ra­tives we’ve seen in the in­dus­try in years, so let’s talk about why that is

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The battle royale has proven it­self to be one of the strong­est ve­hi­cles for emer­gent sto­ry­telling that this in­dus­try has ever seen. Even in its rel­a­tive in­fancy, the genre found im­me­di­ate suc­cess in let­ting play­ers forge and share their own sto­ries in the face of shift­ing com­bat pa­ram­e­ters; feats of hero­ism and tales laced with tragedy cast out across a can­vas that gladly re­sets it­self be­tween rounds. It’s these emer­gent mo­ments that have helped keep the likes of Fort­nite: Battle Royale and Playerun­k­nown’s Bat­tle­grounds within the sphere of pub­lic in­ter­est for so long. But de­vel­oper Epic Games knew that the battle royale bub­ble could burst at any time; that the games within it could only stay rel­e­vant if play­ers felt as if they were in­vested in more than mere ac­tion alone. The play­ers had to in­vest in the game be­yond a de­sire to win or un­lock new items through a laun­dry list of chal­lenges.

Fort­nite has shifted to meet this chal­lenge head on. It has made play­ers care about a story out­side of their own ac­tions; qui­etly in­vest­ing them in the in­ter­sec­tion be­tween a shift­ing nar­ra­tive and the evo­lu­tion of the core game­play. What’s truly in­trigu­ing to see is how Epic has con­tin­ued to it­er­ate and build upon this idea of over the past eight months. Battle Royale now fea­tures one of the most in­ge­nious game nar­ra­tives that we have seen ex­e­cuted in years, lever­ag­ing the game’s lack of tra­di­tional arc, named char­ac­ters or en­trenched lore to tell an ever-evolv­ing story that casts the map as the cen­tral char­ac­ter in a story that feels as wildly un­pre­dictable as it does trans­for­ma­tive.

As any consumer of MMO worlds will at­test to, live-ser­vice sto­ry­telling is cer­tainly noth­ing new in this in­dus­try. The wave of shared-world shoot­ers that ar­rived at the turn of the gen­er­a­tion have too been toy­ing with this con­cept, de­liv­er­ing mixed re­sults, while Bioware has prac­ti­cally en­shrined it as a tent­pole for quest and mis­sion de­sign in 2019’s An­them. So why cel­e­brate Fort­nite for some­thing that the in­dus­try has been ex­per­i­ment­ing with for over a decade, let alone some­thing that is at the fore­front of the think­ing of some of the big­gest triple-a stu­dios in the world?

Per­haps it’s be­cause we’re see­ing live-ser­vice sto­ry­telling im­ple­mented in a game that re­sets it­self ev­ery 20 min­utes. That in and of it­self feels fresh and ex­cit­ing. Epic has crafted a nar­ra­tive through lit­tle more than sub­tle en­vi­ron­men­tal sto­ry­telling, con­tex­tual hints and in-game mark­ers, and it has done so with­out di­lut­ing or dis­tract­ing from the core al­lure of the game – it’s still fun­da­men­tally fo­cused around the idea of leav­ing 100 play­ers on a de­serted is­land to shoot, loot and build their way to hard­earned vic­tory. The core balance of play re­mains un­con­tested, and Epic has sim­ply con­structed some­thing around all of this that the play­ers can be­come in­vested in should they so de­sire to.

Fort­nite is find­ing so much suc­cess be­cause it has been able to take some­thing as rudi­men­tary as a map up­date and turn it into a huge world event. The map is per­sis­tent, even if your progress through it isn’t. It can now change in­stan­ta­neously for tens of mil­lions of play­ers around the world – cre­at­ing ‘blink or you'll miss it’ mo­ments that light up the In­ter­net and keep mil­lions glued to the screen for ev­ery tease and ev­ery devel­op­ment as it emerges slowly over a sea­son of con­tent.

The re­sult is a game that feels richer and deeper than any of its com­peti­tors, if not any other liveser­vice game cur­rently on the mar­ket. In push­ing a con­stantly up­dat­ing nar­ra­tive along­side a ro­bust and ex­pres­sive avatar up­grade sys­tem – not to men­tion a mon­eti­sa­tion sys­tem that of­fers lit­tle more than cos­metic up­dates – Epic has cre­ated an en­vi­ron­ment that feels wel­com­ing to play­ers new and old, the game balance as strong as it was the day Battle Royale launched, but the world far more ex­pres­sive than we could ever have imag­ined it would be.

Where Des­tiny and its kin has strug­gled to pin its plots around barely vis­i­ble alien threats, while World Of War­craft trudges ahead un­der the weight of its 14-year old plot, and while Over­watch con­tin­ues to build out back story while fail­ing to pull fo­cus onto its present-day time­line, Fort­nite has glee­fully made the map the cen­tre of its story and had one hell of a lot of fun with it. Be­tween the comets threat­en­ing to wipe out ar­eas of the maps, the sky rip­ping it­self apart at the seams and items mys­te­ri­ously van­ish­ing out of the game world only to reap­pear in our own, this is sto­ry­telling that celebrates the chaos and in­ge­nu­ity of videogames in a way we’ve seen only teased by other de­vel­op­ers in the past.

We have no idea where Epic will take Battle Royale next, and that’s what makes it so damned ex­cit­ing. We have a feel­ing that what­ever should hap­pen in the next sea­son of con­tent, it will be yet an­other glimpse into the fu­ture of nar­ra­tive de­sign, world build­ing and sto­ry­telling in the games in­dus­try.

BATTLE Royale is tech­ni­cally still in Early Ac­cess. The of­fi­cial re­lease date will even­tu­ally be re­vealed here: epicgames.com/fort­nite

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