I woke up at 3AM this morning so I could help a glowing butterfly save all of reality. At least I think that’s what happened during the most recent mind-bending Fortnite event, which kicked off the game’s new season and served as a showcase for its narrative ambitions.
Epic’s battle royale has become defined in part by its massive in-game events. There was the original rocket launch in 2018, the sprawling mech vs. kaiju battle, and a black hole that erased the original Fortnite island and took the game down for several days. Last season ended with Marvel villain Galactus fighting millions of players, creating a rift that caused multiple realities to converge. These events have been exciting in part because they were shared, something that Fortnite players could experience together. But the most recent was different: an attempt to squeeze a more traditional single-player narrative into one of the world’s biggest multiplayer games.
[This story contains light spoilers for Fortnite’s latest story event.]
It started out, as most video games do, with a cutscene. Players watched as Agent Jones, who is steadily becoming the game’s main character, made his way through a raging battle in an attempt to reach a giant, glowing orb at the center of the island. After getting past terminators and xenomorphs, he’s finally greeted by a mysterious character named The Foundation, who agrees to help him. That’s where you came in.
Once the game resumed, it wasn’t the regular battle royale. Instead, it was a single-player experience where you had to help Jones — who, at one point, is transformed into a glowing butterfly — close dimensional rifts that are opening up across the island. Gameplay-wise, the sequence was relatively simple. You followed the instructions of butterfly Jones while using a high-tech gun to close dimensional rifts as if you were squeezing a Zip-Loc bag shut.
Waves of energy pulsed out, changing reality itself; at various points, my character was transformed into a walking chicken and, later, Lara Croft. You couldn’t die or fail, but there was still a sense of urgency. Battles flicked in and out of existence around you, blockbuster action movie music blared in the background, Jones yelled things like “reality is breaking down,” and the whole thing ended with a strange, mysterious spire rising out of the earth.
Despite its single-player nature, the season 6 event built off of narrative techniques Epic has been refining for years now. There’s the environmental storytelling aspect, for starters. In the days leading up to season 6, Fortnite players could see giant ribbons of energy spread across the island, pulsating as if something was about to happen. Meanwhile, that giant orb has been an impossible-to-miss presence the entire season. And now that the event is over, the spire is the island’s new focal point, with a completely changed landscape all around it. The event also made small but notable references to Fortnite’s past; longtime players will recognize that butterfly from the 2018 event in which a giant cube exploded, for instance.
It was also heavy on the mystery. I’d be hard-pressed to give you a complete rundown of Fortnite lore, or explain exactly what the “zero point” is, but that doesn’t make hunting down scraps of info any less fascinating. And like its predecessors, the season 6 kickoff was also just a great spectacle. It was short, thrilling, and full of some incredible eye candy, like when the orb blossomed into a stunning flower made of light.
There’s a cynical take on all of this. The idea of multiple realities converging also happens to be ideal for a developer that makes money by selling licensed skins, which were almost overwhelming in number during season 5. While this season’s battle pass features brand-new characters tied directly to the new storyline, like an assassin obsessed with the spire, there are also skins from Tomb Raider and Teen Titans and an upcoming virtual rendition of soccer star Neymar.
But it’s also clear that storytelling is becoming an increasingly important part of the Fortnite experience, and Epic has shown that it’s not afraid to try new things. In the past, tools like audio logs and chatty non-playable characters have been crammed into the frantic battle royale action. Now we have a single-player event. It doesn’t always work smoothly, but this experimental approach shows no signs of letting up. And as today’s explosive sequence shows, it’s also making the game more interesting as a result.