Lama piñatas are appearing across Europe. The Durr Burger showed up in a California desert. Epic’s “Fortnite” is bleeding into the real world, and the mystery of their dimensional warp has players scrambling both online and in that dusty thing we call the real world to figure just what’s happening next.
Car-sized burger restaurant mascots and piñatas aside, it was on June 30 that “Fortnite” actually broke a barrier. The megapopular battle royale game did a remarkable thing. Without changing the rules of its world, they got players to stand still and stare up into the sky together, and watch an event that would happen just once. The game stopped, a story began, and “Fortnite” is likely to be caught in the momentum of this narrative breakthrough for more than the foreseeable future.
In their short history, video games have most often accomplished the deliverance of awe unto their players by means of technological innovation. Their worlds became crisper, their characters more lifelike or more expressive, and thusly, player actions became more tangible, and so on.
Increasingly, though, exemplified perhaps by the success of Nintendo’s underpowered Switch console, such an awe has been harder to fabricate, instead leaving a sort of gap in the industry. This gap is further exacerbated by, or a repercussion of, the gaming industry’s dependence on a narrative style sloppily excavated from film and television and spattered onto gameplay with the elegance of a freight train on a speedway. And in the many attempts to smooth the edges between the player and the story, as in “The Breath of the Wild’s” quieter open world, or “Dark Souls’” and “Inside’s” ephemeral smattering of theming through world detail, the solution thus far has appeared a deliberate silencing of the script in favor of emergent and accidental discovery. Those methods are intriguing, and their games better as a result, but there remains a yearning for narrative punch. For awe. And only recently did I find it once again, in perhaps the least serious game demanding all of our attention.
Back in 1902, the short film “A Trip to the Moon” depicted a group of wizards coming together to accomplish an impossible goal. They sought to fire a rocket into the sky and land it on the moon, men in tow. They accomplished this goal, as halfway through the famed first science fiction short film, that rocket landed on said moon and provided us a most iconic image.
Director Georges Méliès drew inspiration from Jules Verne, and through sheer force of will, imagination, and technology lurched film-making into the realm of speculative fiction as literature had done before it. There’s a natural awe to seeing a rocket boost off into the sky, a touch of the unbelievable, which in its creative visualization was necessary to prove film’s potential, that it’s not about showing what is, but what could be.
Another rocket launch, this time in 2018, has performed a similar function for a medium which is only now finding ways to prove its uniqueness in the grand history of human narrative achievement. Video games have long chased the wrong aesthetic dragon, that of “A Trip to The Moon’s” accomplishment, or the depiction of fiction as a linear progression of events, by which we as watchers create meaning in the unfolding of its narrative. This method for fiction, then, was sculpted into an expectation which game designers have long leaned on to promote a video game’s value. A fiction, a thing to watch, a narrative to discover and evaluate, is something we’ve all been taught to implicitly understand by pre-existing media. We can call what happened in “Fortnite” a narrative, but I’m not sure we can actually call it fiction.
In 1969, a new type of wizard–many of them, in fact–collaborated on the greatest manned mission in human history. Scientists, engineers, and every assorted member of NASA sought to fire the Apollo 11 spacecraft into the sky and land it on the moon, men in tow. Neil Armstrong placed his foot upon the surface of that alien body and provided us a most iconic image.
Though we landed on the moon many times after, Apollo 11 happened only once, and for the people watching, it was an event to define a generation and lifetime. Neil Armstrong’s words were shared across airwaves and screens, and over 530 million people witnessed, in real time, an awe speculated at 67 years previously in Méliès’ film.
“Fortnite’s” rocket launch was not a real life moon landing, of course, and the people at Epic are not on the edge of human technological profundity. But the event wasn’t quite fiction either. There’s a strand of DNA pulling together Neil Armstrong’s words and Georges Méliès’ moving pictures across the decades. The awe of the launch that pushes us forward, provides a door into the future.
That in-game rocket launch happened just once, but people were there. They shared in the experience. They weren’t quite spectators, they weren’t artists, they weren’t actors nor wizards nor scientists, they were simply us, both there and in their homes, witness to a scripted event yet playing a role in its unfolding.
A rocket launched into the sky, first ejecting a booster into Anarchy Acres, then plummeting back down and nearly striking Tilted Towers, just before it disappeared into some interdimensional warp field, to zip around “Fortnite’s” world like a thing possessed. Finally, it catapulted into the sky again and cracked a dimensional warp the length of the large map’s radius, in a wonderfully weird, imaginative, and surprising sci-fi display. This did happen. It didn’t happen. “Fortnite” players watched in awe as Epic wrote a new type of story right before their eyes. That it happened only once, and that it could change the world of “Fortnite” permanently, and that people bore witness together, side-by-side in-game, created an unavoidable urge to report what had happened, and to share their stories.
Epic inherently placed the presentation of its unfolding in the hands of players worldwide. Platforms like Twitch and Youtube allowed non-participants to engage in real time, but not through the typical static engagement as narrative art mostly depends on. “A Trip to The Moon” is a critical object in the classical sense, and thus can be poured over in its original construction time and time again until we’re confident in its meaning, and to depict a speculative fiction in this way was at the time enormously innovative. The innovation of “Fortnite,” instead, is the placement of the camera in the hands of not one single player, but all players, everywhere. They were spectators, then reporters. “Fortnite’s” rocket was not a film, nor a film placed in a game. There was no fixed perspective, and there will never again be a method of watching it that is as pure and sincere as the first and only time it happened.
This, I think we can call it, reported fiction, is what “Fortnite’s” construction of its world and events within it allows. It might have taken a rocket launch to produce that necessary awe to show “Fortnite’s” narrative potential, but Epic had already been engaging in small-scale reported fiction before the rocket launch.
At the end of season 3, instead of a rocket launch, Epic floated a meteor way up in the sky, bringing it ever closer to the ground as the season wrapped up, finally culminating in a meteor strike which changed the map dramatically. In the run-up, small meteors would crash into the map in-game, and players thirstily investigated the potential fallout of the final impact. The excitement was palpable, but the climactic impact was decidedly not. Not a shared event, but a static cutscene, was delivered to players on the turnover to season 4, and the map had simply changed.
A flip to a cutscene in a video game is the equivalent of a film cutting to its script when the technology can’t quite keep up with the aesthetic demands of the plot. This exact thing occurs, in fact, when silent films simply had to show the dialogue on screen in lieu of audio technology. Games are not equipped to be films. They can only show them.
The turnover to season 5 is proving much more dynamic. The rocket launch, it turns out, was only a starting gun in an ongoing campaign by Epic to promote player reportage which, of course, feeds into the excitement that feeds into purchases of season 5’s battlepass. First, popular objects like Tomato Town’s giant Tomatohead and the Greasy Grove’s Durrburger were disappearing into similar dimensional warps. And what takes this bizarre “realness” of these reportable events to an even more surreal level, Epic’s got this ongoing augmented-reality game, in which those very same objects are re-appearing in the real world.
If Epic’s shared rocket event was a play to give the game a sense of reportable consequence, then the Durrburger’s emergence into reality is an effort to even further blur the line between “Fortnite’s” gaming purpose and its narrative one. Augmented-reality games have been done aplenty, especially to promote ongoing games (“Overwatch” did this for a character announcement), and these types of campaigns are played less for narrative punch and more for the ongoing mystery that bleeds into a natural marketing campaign for the game’s microtransactions.
As such, being a gamified story of sorts in which the discovery of new objects and clues out in the world feels like progress toward the game’s update, the traditional augmented-reality game doesn’t blast off in the way the rocket did. It simmers and feeds as a sort of rising action to what players are undoubtedly expecting in a large map-change climax. Effectively, this is one long cutscene with its script cut up into tiny pieces for players to find and announce slowly over time, turning them back into actors in a game rather than reporters of it, even if that game is out in the world. The difference between the shared event of the rocket and the ongoing mystery of the augmented-reality game, then, is the radical, momentarily infinite inclusivity of everyone. The event, for most, must be viewed together.
For my money, it’s when we all get to sit by the TV together, or gather at the rocket’s base, or have an apocalyptic dance off in Tilted Towers, that “Fortnite” becomes a story worth telling, or better yet, reporting. Méliès knew it when he decided the best use of 1902’s newest tech was to show something very similar. President Kennedy knew it when he urged his country to awe its citizens and gather them together in the shared mission of the moon itself. And perhaps gaming isn’t so serious as a presidential decree, or so obviously artful as a science-fiction film, but it’s here, and millions of players are right there, together, for exactly one moment in time.