It's hard to say how Fortnite evolves because it keeps changing into something else. Skins and storylines come and go. Landmarks appear and disappear. Weapons are added and removed. A mysterious archaeological site recently appeared, but was excavated and abandoned when I got there the next day.
As I write this, players are angry about a gameplay change that is likely to be replaced with something new in a month they may hate. There is never a perfect time to say what Fortnite is.
But here's what it is:
My colleague Paul took this photo last week in New York City where we live. Fortnite has nothing to do with New York, and New York has nothing to do with Fortnite. However, this can change when we face the game's $ 30 million World Cup in July. I laughed at this photo for a long time. "Yes, OK," I said. "That makes sense."
Fortnite: Battle Royale was launched early on September 26, 2017, a spin-off from the co-build game Fortnite: Save the World by developer Epic. More than a year and a half later, it's an unfinished game that still won 250 million players and earned an estimated billion dollars. It can be played for free on consoles, PCs and mobile devices so that practically everyone can access them. It is an unfinished game that is ubiquitous, not only for those of us who play video games, but also for parents and teachers as well as athletes and musicians. It has invaded our lives through Halloween costumes and controversial dances. It may have inspired more games to add Battle Passes, a monetization strategy that is increasingly overtaking loot boxes. His success contributed to the launch of the Epic Games Store and challenged Valve's longstanding dominance in the PC market. It means so many things, is in so many places that it ended up on this nonsensical sweatshirt.
There are tourists who see this sweatshirt as a good gift for someone at home who mentioned Fortnite at some point because someone probably has it. Millions of people could get this sweatshirt and it would mean something, be it as an ironic "look at how ridiculous it is" or as a seriously special gift.
Both irony and seriousness are at home in Fortnite. Almost anyone who plays it can find something they like, be it a cute skin, a cool thing they built, or a free way to hang out with their friends. You can also find a lot of things they don't like: annoying or hateful teammates, an overpowering sword, or an ever-changing competitive scene. The game is crammed with things that are as ridiculous as real moments of victory, excitement and connection.
In some ways, Fortnite is like any other Battle Royale. One hundred players – alone, in duos or in groups of four – jump from a flying bus to an island. The usable area of the map becomes smaller when a colorful storm that damages the players comes closer. The players search for weapons, ammunition, explosives and shield potions with which they can destroy each other or survive the destruction. Only one team can win.
Weapons are divided into rarities, which are represented by color and determine their strength. There are no attachments from PUBG or Apex Legends. The weapon you picked up is as good as it gets. This absence makes the preparation for the fight tighter than in other Battle Royales, although the actual shooting game can feel floating and inaccurate. Aside from weapons, there are ridiculous weapons that come and go regularly: grenades that make enemies dance or turn their feet into blocks of ice, launchers that can fire missiles, boom boxes that destroy buildings. Your favorite strategy in one week could be useless the next. But for players like me who don't like to form an opinion about the best weapon of a game, Fortnite's numerous items offer me fun or silly things that can still contribute to winning a game. The frivolous stuff when it falls into Fortnite's bright, blood-free world gives the game a lighthearted atmosphere that reports on the worrying brutality of its core dictation, namely ruthlessly murdering everyone you meet.
Sometimes these elements are divided into their own modes, which also change regularly. There are team fights with 50 players, modes in which you have to conquer a dance floor or defend a mascot, and modes in which lava gradually fills the map. Sometimes there are events: a rocket launch, an exploding cube, a concert. These modes and events, as well as the various items, give the players a change. You can encourage them to work together, try new tactics, or just do something absurd.
But what really sets Fortnite apart from other murder-to-win games is the unique construction mechanics. With your starting weapon, a pickaxe, you can harvest almost all functions of the game world for materials. Trees and fences bring wood, walls and rocks bring stone, stairs and cars bring metal. Even if you can't find a weapon, you always have something. You may not be able to overtake another player, but you can outbid them. You can tear down a skyscraper and create your own in its place. You can transform an empty field into a labyrinth of ramps, walls and traps.
In other Battle Royales, you may find that a place has already been looted through open doors or empty chests. In Fortnite, a visited place is a wild wreck of destroyed infrastructure, from ramps that snake on slopes, from zigzag towers littered with loot that a dejected player's murderers didn't want. The architecture of desire, built over the original design of a place, tells a story of what might have happened: the exact path someone took, the ups and downs of a construction struggle. Players take and change the space created by Fortnite developers, making it their own. Then it's destroyed or the match ends and everyone starts over.
I recently jumped into Fortnite playground mode, which allows you to explore the map or practice skills without the pressure of an actual game. I went through the entire map, or at least the current map – places and landscapes are often renamed or replaced. I have never spent a lot of time thinking about how the surveillance cameras on the city's snobby shores make you feel at home for the rich and paranoid, or taken the time to enjoy the charming nostalgia of the 1950s from Paradise Palms admire. The world of Fortnite is beautiful if you are not shot at or desperately looking for prey.
But it didn't feel right. Nothing seemed to be where I thought it was, and it wasn't just map changes. I had imagined Lonely Lodge less to the east and Pleasant Park closer to the center. Much of my sense of the map was created by crossing the battle bus at the beginning of each multiplayer round. Learning the map and choosing the right landing site is part of the game's strategy, but I didn't notice how situational my sense of the Fortnite world was until I crossed it outside of a game. Without the actions of 99 other players who control my movements, the world of the game simply wasn't the same.
In his 1979 article "Space and Place: Humanistic Perspective", the geographer Yi-Fu Tuan writes about the way in which people impart spatial character and qualities by being in them and interacting with them:
A place that evokes affection has personality in the same way that one can say that an old raincoat has character. The character of the raincoat is conveyed by the person who wears it and loves it … People show their sense of place when they apply their moral and aesthetic distinction to places and places.
When I imagine Fortnite, my places are not the landmarks mentioned. It's an empty stretch where I was attacked by another squad, a tree I fell from until I died when I forgot that Epic had removed the glider insert. Tuan calls such random places "nursing fields", places that are created more through personal knowledge than through universal or prescribed meaning. (Think of your local bar compared to Stonehenge.) He writes that "nursing areas … have no visual identity. Outsiders find it difficult to recognize and differentiate them. "
Fortnite's map doesn't really stand out from other Battle Royales. Aside from cute names, it has plenty of empty space that can make parts of the game boring. But the game is characterized by the fact that it gives the players care fields. With the building mechanic, you can make a room your own, if only for a match. Challenges – changing tasks that players do to improve their combat pass – make areas that we never become unforgettable. The block area of the card contains a changing list of player creations that mean something unique to the creator and his friends. The game's massive player base creates a dizzying array of opportunities for its world. Its unique space is created not only by so many people who have their own experiences there, but also by those who forge group experiences, such as the Tilted landing to prove themselves, or to thank the bus driver when you get off the combat bus leap. All of his colorful places would be cemeteries, all his crazy items would be rubbish if not so many people next to you made up the world of the game.
One afternoon a soft voice began to rattle as soon as I loaded into a game. "Guess how old I am!" they kept saying. The third member of our one-sided team finally suspected: "Umm … 13?" in the bright voice of an adult speaking to a child. "Seven!" The boy answered proudly. As we made our way through the castle on Polar Peak, I admired the careful effort my adult teammate made to explain what we were doing to a child who was primarily interested in shooting ammunition and with to drop a hamster ball vehicle from the summit.
When the storm forced us to move, the adult and I strategically positioned ourselves around the child, scanning the horizon, trying to keep them from going too far. We got into a gun battle and barely survived thanks to the adult's abilities and the child's spray-and-spray strategy. Our looting for much-needed equipment was interrupted by the storm that caught up with us. We have had a long, long road to its new size. "I have a campfire, should I drop it?" The boy kept asking, and my teammate patiently explained why the immovable remedy should be better used later. "I think we can do it!" I screamed and the adult chuckled incredulously: "Really?" But it kept our mood going as our health deteriorated. We just made it alive just to be immediately decimated by another team that took advantage of our single-digit health bars. The child was upset, but the adult praised her up and down and told us about our epic run through the storm and all the fun we had. After that, the child sent me a friend request, which I still haven't accepted.
Fortnite, contrary to my expectations, is full of these strange, positive moments with teammates. There were players who wanted Conga and when we split up went to Conga somewhere else until they both fell off a mountain and told the whole thing through their microphones so I could imagine it from a distance. There was the polite boy with a Mediterranean accent who let me die when I was knocked down, only to suddenly shout: "Oh no, I forgot my teammate!" and try in vain to return to me before I die. More than half of my games were played with Spanish speakers, and we tried to communicate with each other largely without success. We wasted precious seconds trying to find the right words, but mostly laughing at everything. I am often compared to children like the young teammate I have seen and who has made it to the last two by hiding with a steel patience that I, as an ex-Zen Buddhist, could not muster. I love the feeling of possibility that I feel when I jump into a match.
Fortnite is populated by many crazy people in the game. Players customize their avatars through the skins and equipment – gliders, backpacks, emotes and pickaxes – that they buy or earn in the store by upgrading their combat pass. Currently my avatar is a girl in a short hoodie carrying a black and white dog in a backpack. When she jumps out of the battle bus, she floats to the ground on a palm-like umbrella that I earned for winning a season 8 match. I don't like the umbrella as much as my previous glider, but I gave it the moment I got it because it told other players that I had won at least one match. It's still the only game I've won this season, but no one needs to know.
The number of ways that players can express themselves in Fortnite makes the game messy and sometimes crowded, but also lively. Your enemies can be a phalanx of ice kings with a black hood climbing a crest to murder you, or a group of pink panda cuddle team leaders shooting at you from cannons. They are a creepy banana. They are malicious soccer players. Over the past few seasons, high-profile players have been wearing the standard skins that everyone started to fool others into saying that they are new. In season 3, a skin by Keanu Reeves as the action film character John Wick (the skin is actually called The Reaper) was the highest reward for the Battle Pass. I would actually get scared if I saw one.
Never knowing who you will encounter cuts in both directions. There were adults who insulted my every decision. There was a boy who shouted into his microphone throughout the game, a teammate who apparently deliberately played his television into his microphone with deafening volume. There were the usual blurs and threats and shitty talks. There were a couple of teams that I left as soon as someone spoke. Due to the size of the player base and the popularity of the game, there is always a new squad to find new people. If I don't like who I am with, I can find someone who is new.
In almost all Fortnite games I've played, at least one person has left their microphone open. Mixed with the explosion sounds and clanking pickaxes of the game, dogs bark, a bird rattles. The rattling of a gunfight is accentuated by the hissing of a pan in a person's kitchen or the sharp sound of a loved one demanding that someone stop playing to eat. This background activity feels at home with all the chaos and things that are going on in the game.
It is this abundance, which is filled to the gills with constantly changing things, that makes the "Fortnite New York" sweatshirt sensible. It's also what makes Fortnite what it is, what makes people come back. We want a new game, a new squad, a new experience. Fortnite players loved Kevin the Cube, but we wanted to know what he would do next. Season 8 volcano is cool, but will it erupt? We want all that stuff, even if we hate it or it doesn't make sense. There are so many people, so many places, so many things that Fortnite runs the risk of falling into futility, the same cacophony that fills my headphones while playing, or the same confusion I felt when Paul gave me the picture of this Sweatshirts. But Fortnite wouldn't be Fortnite without it.