Last December, I wrote a post on this blog about the little-used literary device of “second person POV”. The second person is a form of writing in which the main character is referred to as “you,” effectively making you, the reader, the main character of the story. In a medium with minimal interactivity, like books, you can see how this is a device of limited use. However, in an interactive medium, like games… it struck me while playing Portal 2 and Breath of the Wild that second person POV is the ideal form in which to construct a video game narrative: create an intriguing world, and then step back and allow the player to react to it as they will.
While I was having this amazing revelation, Epic Games had already figured it out and was well into the process of busting the mold wide open with Fortnite Battle Royale.
In my original post, I wrote the following: “… environmental storytelling, storytelling that presents you, the player, with a world and then steps back to allow you to react to it… (developers) are asking you to react to the game… with your OWN thoughts, feelings, and responses, not with pre-scripted ones voice-acted for you in cut scenes.”
I’m pretty unfamiliar with the culture and in-depth mechanics of online gaming, but I’m fairly keyed into gaming news in general. Fortnite Battle Royale‘s presentation is something that’s new to me, though perhaps not so much to longtime online gamers. FBR is divided up into “Seasons”, which implies segments of full narrative continuity, as consumers of media have long since been trained to expect from television. I picked up Fortnite right as Season 4 was ending, so I was only sort of aware of the event that took place near the end of that season: the timed rocket launch viewable to anyone who happened to be playing the game at that moment, the one that ripped open the rifts in the world that have become such a big part of both the game’s mechanics and of its narrative.
Fortnite Battle Royale, though, is not delivering a narrative in any sort of cinematic way… except, perhaps, to the ironic nod to the sort of storytelling the game’s developers are NOT using, in the way of a short film depicting the events of Season 4 that’s playing on the drive-in movie screen of map location Risky Reels. What FBR IS doing, though, is revolutionizing the concept of storytelling in interactive online gaming.
The player avatars of FBR are purely cosmetic in nature, chock-full of personality, and complete blank slates. Everyone on the roster, from Tomato-Head to superhero to biker chick to pink furry, is equal in both ability and character. In the tradition of many of gaming’s greatest protagonists (Link from Zelda, Steve from Minecraft, Chell from Portal, and Gordon Freeman from Half-Life) the FBR avatars are silent mannequins upon which the player can project their own personalities through style of dress, back bling, and by choosing which emotive expressions to include on the in-game executable wheel o’ emotions. The developer has provided the player with sick duds, true… but it’s the PLAYER who provides the character.
What the developer HAS done, though, is create a gaming narrative that’s second-to-none in a world of characters that are beyond its control, and it has done so in Season 5 simply by inserting onto the map a giant purple cube.
As of this writing (September 1st, 2018) the Giant Purple Cube has been on the Fortnite map for nine days… or so, I’m bad at math, shut up. It appeared not long after explosive lightning blasts had begun striking the map at regular intervals. The strikes came to a head in the game’s new desert region (created in the aftermath of Season 4) as a massive bolt struck a plateau and left in its wake the now-infamous Giant Purple Cube. (The appearance of the Cube was fittingly documented on the live-stream of Ninja, the world’s most famous Fortnite streamer, in a bit of coincidence that one assumes was helped along by Epic PR suggesting to Ninja the time and place he should be hanging out if he wanted to see something cool. If they didn’t? They should have.)
Since it’s appearance, the Cube has been poked at, jumped on, and shot at by probably thousands, if not millions, of Fortnite players, many of whom quickly discovered the Cube does not LIKE to be poked at, jumped on, and shot at. Gamers have screen-capped the Cube, sent the game’s camera inside the Cube (it appears to be a four-dimensional cube, in actuality, which is messed up and also awesome), made reddit threads about the runes that are glowing on and inside the Cube, and followed the Cube across the map as it began to tumble and slide and move, leaving in some places behind it an anti-gravity energy field and more mysterious runes burnt into the ground.
In other words? Epic Games have turned Fortnite Season 5 into a LOST-level mystery event, with theories about what the Cube is, where it’s going, what the runes mean, and what’s going to happen next flooding the Internet. In fact, LOST is probably exactly the model Epic was going for. I assume nobody missed the none-too-subtle inclusion on the Season 5 map of a sealed hatch in the ground of Wailing Woods? Will the hatch ever open? Who knows? Does it have to? Not really. Epic Games was presumably just telling us in advance that Season 5 was going to be LOST-like in its level of mystery and speculation. Just look at what googling “Fortnite purple cube” brings up:
And that’s just a tiny sampling of the online ink being spilled about Fortnite Battle Royale‘s newest mystery.
Whether or not Epic Games realizes it (and I’m going to bet they realize it; they couldn’t be this good at what they’re doing without knowing what they’re doing) they are revolutionizing storytelling in gaming. There are no scripted-dialogue events in the lives of FBR‘s silent online avatars. No, all of the intrigue going on right now in Fortnite Battle Royale is derived entirely from what is going on AROUND the players, what’s going on in the world in which the game happens to be taking place. None of this would be possible, of course, if the base video game at the core of FBR wasn’t so good and if Fortnite hadn’t caught on with seemingly every gamer in the world. If you’re playing FBR, and literally millions of us are, you can completely ignore the Cube and just play Battle Royale… just as you can completely ignore the battle royale and poke and prod at the Cube. In the grand tradition of the greatest works of second person literature of all time, Choose Your Own Adventure books, Epic Games has simply built an intriguing, mysterious world. It is entirely up to each player to decide what they’re going to do in it.
So, as stated: all Epic has done here is completely revolutionize how storytelling in online games will best be presented from here on out. That old gag. No big deal.