Five Years on the Island
In the past five years, I have killed over 11,000 people, suffering no legal repercussions whatsoever. I plan to kill more. It begins in an armoured bus suspended by a hot air balloon above a large island. Leaping out of the bus, I glide to a point of my choosing. There I gather resources, making strategic choices about weapons and shields. And then I set out on a simple quest – to kill everyone I meet, before they kill me.
If you have not played Fortnite, you have missed a cultural behemoth that may be the most lucrative entertainment product in history. Released in 2017 by Epic Games, the Battle Royale game mode has generated billions of dollars in profit. In this mode, 100 players are dropped onto the island, but only one can survive. Over the course of 15 minutes or so, they are shepherded into closer proximity by a circular storm. Eventually, there are only two players remaining, and only one will survive to be the winner.
Fortnite, like gaming generally, has been subject to the moral panics routinely generated by successful new media. In the face of billions in revenue, however, complainants sound like some crank warning about the immoral effects of the kinematograph. Concerns that the game teaches children to kill are discharged by the cartoonish graphics. Players who are killed simply evaporate, unlike the Sniper Elite series, which uses a ‘kill-cam’ to illustrate in slow-motion anatomical detail the impacts of bullets on human organs. The cartoonish schema of Fortnite has warded off censorship concerns, and complainants have had to turn their attention to its undeniably addictive qualities.
It might be tempting to read Fortnite as a popular text striking some chord in society – perhaps as a parodic representation of late capitalism, where the 99% scramble around for resources but ultimately fail so that the 1% may thrive. Apart from the puerility of such a reading, it fails to consider the two-person and four-person squad game variations of the Battle Royale format, and the various Creative modes that are enabled. Co-operation is key to many modes – not everything boils down to vicious individualism.
It is far more productive to consider gaming, and Fortnite in particular, through the lens of a community of practice. It is a democratic community, and the game Fortnite is free to join and available on multiple platforms. There are no age restrictions, and because you are encased in a ‘skin’ of your own choice, nobody knows your age. Grand007Pa, at 77, is the oldest known player who streams his content. Nor does anyone have to know your gender, skin colour, class, political leaning or religious beliefs. In an age where identity politics has such a presence, escaping all of these defining features may carry a particular liberatory element.
The Fortnite community has its own language practices. ‘Battle passes’, V-Bucks’, ‘loot chests’, ‘skins’ and other terms develop a sense of a coherent community. But it is not a hermetic community and interacts with screen and performing cultures in numerous ways. In 2018 the Marvel character Thanos made an appearance to cross-promote the movies. Darth Vader has likewise been a fixture, as has John Wick. Ariana Grande and Travis Scott have appeared in special events, attracting millions of participants.
Epic’s keynote has been renewal – the island is reworked frequently and replaced in each new ‘chapter’ of which there have been three so far. Tools, weapons and vehicles change with updates, so strategies must also adapt. The greatest recent change has been both controversial and well received. The name Fortnite signifies that one of the game’s skills has been building forts that deflect gunfire. The first four years of the game were a balance between building and shooting. However, the game has recently offered a ‘no build’ option which has proved popular, particularly with newcomers who have been intimidated by having to develop skills in both shooting and building.
As Fortnite is an active and protean community, the word ‘game’ can hardly be said to be an adequate descriptor. And yet the community is built on a product that has to have successful game-like rewards and pleasures. The pleasures of Fortnite are many and surprising. For a game using cartoon-like graphics, the landscape can be breathtaking – the Unreal graphics engine produces fields of waving grass, precipitous mountains of snow, running waters and mystical forests of large purple mushrooms. Yet the pleasures Fortnite elicits are not just aesthetic.
Famously, there is a division within gaming studies between ludology and narrative approaches. Ludology is interested in what makes a game a game – balancing resources, risks and rewards, optimal strategies and so on. Some ludologists have been hostile to the idea that games can tell a story at all, given that players make the choices that determine what happens next. And it is obvious that narrative theories have little purchase on pure strategy games such as Candy Crush. But it is equally clear that Red Dead Redemption, for example, has as complex and overarching a narrative as any novel or movie.
I said above that I don’t think treating Fortnite as a text really provides a coherent response. But treating each instance of gameplay as a text makes some sense. Each particular game is a story that begins the same way – you drop out of a floating bus. But each element of the game from then on develops differently. In one game, you are unexpectedly killed before collecting any weapons. In the next game, you are caught in the storm, your health diminishing as you try to get into the clear – unsuccessfully. In the next game, you win without killing anyone as your final opponent falls off a cliff. Each game has a different and unpredictable plot, and despite what some ludologists might say, it is no less of a plot just because you determine part of the action.
In most games you are killed. There are, after all, 99 people trying to kill you. If most games end in disaster (at least for me) there must be pleasures other than victory. There are indeed conventional narrative rewards and competencies at play as there are in a novel or movie – hypothesising how things will go, enjoying revenge, developing insights into human cognition. These are not opposed to gaming strategy but are complicit with it. If you appear incompetent, an opponent will approach you with confidence. By the time you reveal your true shooting accuracy, it is too late for them. This is both a gaming and a narrative strategy – we expect the story to unfold in a particular way, and we are rewarded when it does so.
But we are also rewarded when stories don’t develop as we expect. In a game where the logic is to kill before being killed, there are rare moments of grace. In one game, an enemy offered me a health pack instead of killing me. We looked at each other for a long time, two weary competitors spending an unexpected moment of solidarity and solace in an implacably hostile world. And then I killed him.