Cracks in the sky. Rifts on the ground. Fake burger-restaurant mascots in real deserts. All eyes are on Fortnite’s map right now, and with good reason: It’s the main character of a story that could go just about anywhere.
Fortnite’s battle royale mode barely has a story in the traditional sense. Little is known about the broader context of the game’s candy-colored murder purgatory; players drop in, drop each other, drop out. But over the course of the game’s last few seasons, developer Epic has revealed the faintest outline of a plot, and despite the lack of a core cast of characters or easily identifiable arcs, it’s made people care. It’s accomplished this by tying nearly every major beat to the map, meaning that each story event comes with earth-shattering consequences.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this approach to multiplayer storytelling in contrast to that of Overwatch, a game I’ve been addicted to since its release in 2016. Overwatch grafts a much more traditional narrative onto an endless series of battles that aren’t so royale. The game surrounds its 6v6 payload push-offs with vibrant characters, decades-spanning lore, limited-time PVE events, in-game mysteries, CG videos, comics, and more. It’s a lot. Players clearly care about Overwatch’s world, too, as enough fan fiction and fan art to fill hundreds of ancient Grecian libraries will attest.
Unlike Fortnite, though, Overwatch’s story lacks a focal point. If you ask any given Overwatch player what’s happening right now in the game’s present-day timeline, I’m willing to wager that they’d shrug and, at best, be able to offer up the backstories of a few of their favorite heroes. In-game story events, meanwhile, have been focused on building out backstory even more, but in a largely disconnected fashion that’s difficult to tie into a larger arc unless you’re a dyed-in-the-wool lore nerd.
Earlier this year, for example, the Retribution event followed Reaper, McCree, Moira, and Genji through an ordeal in Overwatch’s past that we’ve been told—not shown—is pivotal. Then we jumped back to the present and got a new hero entirely unrelated to that event, Hammond. I’ve spoken to friends who took a break from the game for only a few months, and that was enough to set their heads spinning. Blizzard promises that Overwatch’s storyline will start cohering and moving forward soon, but it’s already been two years.
The aforementioned reams of fan fiction and fan art, while surely a sign of Overwatch’s success, also strike me as an attempt at making sense of it all, deriving order from chaos. Overwatch’s world and story aren’t even that complicated: there’s just a bunch happening, and in-game events ping-pong between timelines, making it difficult for the game’s whole player base to get invested in any one thing.
Fortnite’s story, on the other hand, is all focal point. Events like last season’s meteor and this season’s rift-a-palooza are steeped in mystery. That might result in a similar confusion if that’s all that was happening, but in Fortnite they’re tied to a concrete end result: map changes. Fortnite has just one map, and over the course of thousands of battles royale (the correct plural; don’t @ me), players have become intimately familiar with it. The rift event, especially, has taken advantage of that, sucking up signs, mascots, and other beloved landmarks one by one to the point that players have been holding in-game ceremonies to mourn them.
Without a doubt, this event is more complicated than the last one—there have been super villains, a missile countdown, and an ARG to accompany the map changes—but the map ties it all together. Epic’s approach here is especially notable because while plenty of multiplayer games change their maps, they treat it as a weirdly humdrum thing. Usually, there’s hardly any pomp or circumstance at all—just a quick scribble in the patch notes that an object or path has been moved for balance purposes. That’s so boring! And it underestimates the value of changing a place over time, a failing that’s woefully common in video games. In a game like Fortnite, the map is home. If you mess with somebody’s home, you’d better believe they’ll give a shit about it.
Lastly, there’s the temporal element. Fortnite’s meteor kicked off the previous season, but now it’s in the past. The missile launch signaled the beginning of the current event, but the only way players could see it was if they logged on at a certain time. If the missile just cracked the sky and that was it, you could accuse Epic of manufacturing hype instead of actually trying to do something interesting. But the rifts and ensuing ARG suggest that Epic’s got plenty more cooking. Will the payoff be satisfying? It’s impossible to say. But so far, it’s been a hugely entertaining ride.
At this point, I’m actually still more attached to Overwatch’s world and characters, but I think Fortnite is telling a much more effective video game story, one that seems perfectly crafted around this era of constantly-updating games. In some small ways, like the tiny, varied conversations between characters before matches start, Overwatch leverages the fact that it’s a game people play over and over and over. But it’s mostly been disappointingly clumsy on that front. Put another way, the Bastion and Mei CG videos were ten times more affecting than anything that’s happened in-game. Fortnite, by narrowing its focus and telling a story that leverages constant updates that come part and parcel with multiplayer games in the year 2018, has got a huge chunk of its player base on the edge of their seats. I think everybody can learn from that.