My dad is better than your dad at Fortnite. So good, in fact, that he's been posting his Victory Royale's to Twitter as of late, tagging in pro players like Ninja and Sypher and showing them up at the grand age of 58. He knows the map inside out and attains his victories by playing like an ancient turtle – hiding in the bushes, setting up traps and conjuring last-minute wins from the shadows. His interest in the game has been spurred by the ostensibly Fortnite-savvy grandkids who visit him on a weekly basis. Their frenzy reaching fever pitch with the launch of Fortnite Chapter 2 Season 2 in late February, which brought with it a whole new interface, a secret agent civil war meta-narrative, Deadpool, and remote explosives (great for my clandestine father's win rate!)
The problem with all of this is that I have long been apathetic about Fortnite. Epic's cartoon battle royale behemoth has always been at the bottom of the pile when it comes to islands that I'd like to base jump out of a moving plane for. I'm old enough to remember receiving a review code for the game when it was a mediocre base-building wave shooter where you had to fend off legions of zombies. It was pants then and I was naively convinced that it would never recover, sticking to PUBG out of zealous fealty to Brendan Greene, the underdog who I felt had his debatably novel concept ripped off and turned into marketing sludge.
That was until my dad gifted me a battle pass last week. Bending to the whim of my younger relatives, I'd often play a few rounds of Fortnite at my dad's with the family, holding the team back with my all too apparent inability to build. At 24 years old, I had stopped being Bart Simpson and became his nemesis Principal Skinner, asserting that I wasn't out of touch and that "it's the children who are wrong." At the end of the weekend, I'd swear it off, take a cold shower, and return to my comfort zone. Last weekend was different.
Into the shadows
I found myself glued to my iPad screen, playing for most of the night and then, to my shame, a lot more on my own, even when the kids left the picture. It was almost macabre. Suddenly, I had to know what was going to happen to my Shadow operative once I reached level 20 on the Battle Pass. What was behind that vault in The Agency headquarters that I glimpsed before some 12-year-old filled my spine with buckshot? Much to my dismay, Fortnite's meta-narrative designers have been living rent-free in my head for a week now, a crack team of psychic operatives keeping me trapped in the samsara cycle of the battle royale. The catch was that I wasn't out for blood or glory, I just wanted to know what the hell was going on.
You see, there's so many plates spinning at once in Season 2 that it could be deemed disorienting, but the joy is that none of them come crashing to the ground as you play. You're given an underground base to explore with the battle pass which includes, among other things, a lab to craft your own personal secret agent to play as. Completing weekly challenges lets you pick what kind of hairstyle or tattoo she boasts, but your choices are locked in and permanent, making each account's Maya unique. There's also a series of agents that unlock over time, introducing themselves via Team Fortress 2 "Meet the Spy" type videos that dish the dirt on their personality.
Almost like you're playing a Western RPG with recruitment mechanics, the agents at your disposal have loyalty quests to be fulfilled once you complete a chain of smaller missions, with few of them focused on PvP combat. At the moment it's all about Brutus, who demands you search ammo boxes in specific locations, shakedown guards and open crates with ID harvested from NPCs. Some ask you to disguise yourself as a Shadow or a Ghost henchman, hiding from or blending into agency headquarters.
The genius is that these missions are staggered per week to stop the obsessed from having all the fun by hammering their way through the ranks. It rewards weekly returns over daily penance, which as a perpetually busy person is something I can throw my weight behind. That said, this is firmly within my nature. I'm a sucker for an ARG or anything that probes the boundaries of what a game world is supposed to be, which is why I'm so delighted by this novel endeavour from Epic.
Many Battle Royale titles embitter their audience by keeping the definitions of their world far too strict. PUBG and Apex Legends provide an admirable feedback loop, but I have no desire to hang around in the worlds Bluehole and Respawn have built. To my memory, 2018's Call of Duty: Blackout is the only battle royale that has truly tried to emulate Fortnite's secret sauce with a meta-narrative, but even then it relied on already established absurdity – like its popular Nazi Zombie lore – to create exciting secrets and missions that made you want to engage with its world beyond killing your opponents.
Admirable, but ultimately shallow; it certainly kept me interested for a week or two whilst I bounced off the lifeless loot and ruins of other battle royales. I've found that the fact that you can only quantify Fortnite's map for so long is the true key to its appeal. In the infancy of every battle royale lies its finest hours, something that many developers overlook. By dangling a new set of meaningful carrots in front of their players on a quarterly basis, Epic has figured out how to build a ravenous following, and inducted me all-too-easily into its cult.
This pivot to stealth and exploration that I've found such joy in has also been enabled by my platform of choice – I play on my iPad Pro which means that the player pool is often replaced by bots and other unenterprising drones relying on a gyroscope and a touch screen to survive. I, on the other hand, have my Xbox One controller in hand and I'm playing at a silky 120 FPS, mopping up the competition and protecting my precious single-player playspace.
The underground bases where I'd shake and scan ID cards from the slumped bodies of the NPC henchman became my kingdom to protect, and I'd lay explosive traps to catch punters as the real competition – humanity – shot through tubes via non-description portaloos in an attempt to scupper my fun. Truly, I am my father's son...
Upon achieving my first solo win, I shouted and fist-pumped the air, my excitement disturbing the once-peaceful air of the late night living room. As the shame rose and my heart thumped in my chest, my dad turned and looked at me with a knowing smile. I looked back, grimacing, rifling with my past remarks about a game I am now dearly betrothed to.
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