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
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