The first half of the Fortnite Ariana Grande Rift Tour concert doesn't include Ariana Grande's music.
The Rift Tour begins with you getting sucked into a massive rift and seeing what looks like the sleeping body of Grande. From there, you're transported into a series of minigames set to pop hits from other artists like Sia, Juice WRLD, and DJ Marshmello. What does any of this have to do with Ariana Grande, you ask? The answer is: nothing. While you eventually get to a production featuring Ms. Grande and six of her biggest hits, it's a bizarre journey getting there.
As an Arianator I expected the Ariana Grande Fortnite Rift Tour concert to be the pinnacle of in-game musical performances; a moment where a global superstar steps into a game world and takes it over entirely. And while Grande's personal touch is peppered throughout the Rift Tour - with a moment that speaks to global unity and a touching tribute to the late Mac Miller - I was still left wanting.
Perhaps my stan status skewed my experience, which is undoubtedly a spectacle combining the power of Epic Game's Unreal Engine, the legacy of Fortnite, and the star status of Ariana Grande. The Arianators who were hanging out during our livestream felt slighted: some though Grande would be singing live, others felt it was too short, while still others were confused by the Grande-less intro. But maybe Fortnite fans will leave the experience wanting more experiences like this, which Epic Games' head of brand Phil Rampulla promises me during a Zoom call is in Fortnite's future.
That Grande touch
After several minutes of pop hits that aren't Ariana Grande's, the screen fades to black. Dozens, maybe hundreds of Fortnite players stand or kneel in this void - a random player (or NPC, it's unclear), helps my downed character up. I'm given a chance to help up the person next to me. After a few moments, stars burst forth from each of us and float up into the sky in a message of camaraderie and inclusivity - two things Grande frequently preaches from social media, the stage, and beyond. "That was a starting point for us," Rampulla tells me when I ask about the touching moment. "Especially in the past year, we know that we've provided so much time and you know, escapism or connection for people around the world...it was an homage to our fans and our communities."
After the moment of togetherness, Ariana's voice bursts forth in the opening notes of 'raindrops (an angel cried)', which fans will know is how she opened her 2019 Sweetener tour. The sound of dogs barking echoes for a moment - clearly a nod to her 10 rescue animals - before the avatar Ariana launches into '7 Rings'. Like Travis Scott's Astronomical performance, the Rift Tour simply plays the album versions of Grande's hits; there are no live vocals or new recordings. Despite that, these songs are all still bops, so I'm bouncing along to the music with reckless abandon.
Then suddenly, I'm in a bubble, floating alongside a winged Grande as 'be alright' (an uplifting song about overcoming challenges) plays. Prompts allow me to focus on Grande as she swoops through the pastel sky, but before long my bubble pops and I'm astride a sparking loot unicorn, trying to navigate my character through rainbow rings as one of Grande's newer love songs, 'R.E.M.' plays. A giantess Grande appears among the clouds, lazily swinging on a crystal swing like an ethereal Midsommmar queen.
All of this is quite relaxing, but it's the moment the notes of 'The Way' begin that I feel a lump in my throat. The song famously features the late Mac Miller, whom Grande used to date, and the inclusion of one of his songs seems very much a choice made specifically by her. As soon as Grande starts ascending up a giant Greek-inspired staircase, it's clear that this is meant to represent a stairway to heaven. Players can trail Ariana's ascent by climbing up staircases that flank her, with the occasional portal door spitting you out on an Escher-esque upside-down staircase. The beautiful moments during the Rift Tour are just like this - it feels as if Ariana is reaching out to you and letting you in for a little while.
By the time the last song begins (the eponymous hit from her latest album, Positions), it's clear that there are myriad attempts to combine Grande's pop star personality and more approachable personal moments with the power of Fortnite. But for some reason, it just doesn't click for me as an Ariana fan.
A rift appears
I hate to be one to take a piece of media and say "it would be better if it were [blank] way". But with rumors suggesting Lady Gaga is meant to make an appearance in Fortnite, I can't help but feel like the Rift Tour - with its alien themes and "Storm King" boss battle - feels more apt for the eccentric and occasionally esoteric Gaga rather than the angelic and sweet Grande.
Whereas Travis Scott's Astronomical event felt like Scott kicked in the Fortnite door and made the entire game world about him for nearly nine minutes, Ariana Grande's Rift Tour feels like the two media goliaths existing simultaneously - sometimes in harmony and other times in discord. While Ariana Grande's ethereal, angelic qualities are captured in her performance, too much of the experience feels like Epic is trying to make the Rift Tour more like the interactive Galactus event, and therefore less about Grande.
The entire first half of the event doesn't include her music (Rampulla tells me the team was "looking for a little bit of medley there") and focuses on a series of disparate minigames that only feel tangentially related to the current Fortnite season. According to Rampulla, the team had 10 or 12 of those mini-worlds imagined, "so there's still a lot more on the table that we'll try to bring back in the future". But it's hard to find a connective thread between the initial part of the Tour and Grande's performance - she doesn't fight the Storm King alongside you with her giant hammer, or bounce up and down in Cuddle World with one of her dogs in tow.
Maybe Grande didn't want to take over Fortnite like Travis Scott did, and instead wanted her moment to feel more like a duet than a solo. If she did want a solo, however, it seems Epic would have allowed it. "We are definitely an open door when it comes to the partners' IP and brand and what they stand for...this is your creation. You have total license to dictate how it shows up and manifests in the world of Fortnite," Rampulla says. "It was a highly iterative, highly collaborative process of just stepping up each idea. We throw something over the fence and they say 'that's cool, add this to it'...it was just this back and forth like a ping pong match that was just really super fun." Perhaps the Fortnite/Ariana Grande collaboration is an example of a time when too much iteration leads to confusion - or perhaps I'm being too hard on the Rift Tour.
The Epic future
Stan status aside, the Rift Tour could very well be more a sign of what Epic and Fortnite are capable of rather than a spectacle centered around Grande. While it seems like the Rift Tour's interactive moments are a natural progression from the more passive Astronomical event, Rampulla says that the former isn't necessarily going to be the blueprint for Fortnite in-game events going forward. Despite that, he assures me that "interactivity and connection is something we're always going to try and push for."
Epic Games has talked a lot about Fortnite becoming a metaverse - where Fortnite evolves into something beyond a game, to a platform capable of offering connective social experiences. In fact, the blog post announcing Ariana's debut in the Rift Tour literally states that "Ariana Grande steps into the Metaverse as the headliner" for the event. With a superstar like Ariana being just a part of an event like this, it becomes something much bigger, a blend of platform and popular culture, which is clearly a sign of what to expect from Epic's service.
I ask if music - such an easy form of media to fold into Fortnite - is the way forward, or if the team plans to go bigger and bolder with more events tied to other forms of entertainment. "From the world of sports, to film, to music, stand-up comedy, poetry - you name it, I think Fortnite should exist in concert with those things and enhance and extend them," Rampulla says excitedly. "We won't be replacing concerts anytime soon, we will never replace movies. That's not what we're here to do. We're here to bring those things to life in ways that you can't do anywhere else. We're hoping that everyone starts to look at Fortnite as a place like, 'yes I'm going to go on tour' or 'I'm going to do this movie premiere, I'm gonna go do it wherever I want to do it, how I want to do it.' But I also have the opportunity to do something in Fortnite that I can't do in the real world." He issues an "open invitation for creators and thinkers around the world" before promising that Epic and Fortnite continue to push boundaries.
So, Kanye's new album in Fortnite, when?