Fortnite and Networked Narratives

Fortnite is utterly now– its an absurdist dystopia constructed around watching the world’s destruction by “natural” disaster (along with an entire networked community) while competing for the scraps of resources on the dying earth with faceless strangers. Ok we get it, blah blah techno-libertarian, climate-change-induced dystopia– what else can we learn from it?

Innumerable words have been devoted to the rise of Fortnite as the networked game of our time. Considerably less have been devoted to examining it through the lense of Network Aesthetics. Here I consider how the hyper-networked quality of Fortnite contributes to its unfolding narrative and other forms of meaning-making in the game.

When I say hyper-networked, I’m referring to extreme online-ness of the game. Not only is gameplay itself dependent on an internet connection and the presence of ninety-nine other people (at least at the beginning), but all of the culture surrounding the game is produced and experienced through the internet. From fostering online communities spanning social networks, to dominating YouTube uploads (not to mention beating cable television in viewership), to owing its initial popularity to streamers of the game, Fortnite is embedded in online culture in a way that few games can match (help me: What would those games be? Are any as rich narratively as Fortnite?). So when a game with such an enormous community contructs a surreal, absurd environmentally-mediated narrative, it provides a glimpse into the possibilities of networked story-telling.

Fortnite possesses a complex lore which continuously unfolds live on the battle-island.

From crashing meteors, to slowly expanding rifts, to a mysterious cube, a rocket launch and spaceship crash, Fortnite’s developers are carefully crafting an extended narrative that transcends traditional modes of story-telling to create a kind of networked narrative experience. Without the explanatory mechanics of typical game narrative, often provided by cut-scenes or dialogue with non-player characters (both absent in Fortnite Battle Royale), players are forced to turn to each other to make sense of the bizarre events that take place in Fortnite’s virtual world.

Television networks have used contrived mystery as a technique to foster social media “buzz”, but Fortnite employs the technique differently. In such a show, the producers are simply pressing play/pause on a story once a week and cutting the narrative flow off at strategic points designed to get the most viewers to come back for the next episode. But in Fortnite, the narrative is not so episodic, and information is not revealed or withheld through a script and dialogue, but is inherent to the system. That is, the narrative information is the environment; to create narrative mystery and foster emergent online story-telling, Fortnite does not need to use the contrived episodic mystery of television. Instead it simply creates in-game events which unfold on the island simultaneously for every player, leaving it to the players themselves to divine the meanings of the ongoing super-natural events. Though I’m not going to do the work of digging through Fortnite community archives to find all the evidence of this collective process of meaning-making (just for this blog post), it is at the very least mentioned in several of the articles linked throughout.

So, Fortnite has produced a form of networked environmental story-telling and allowed it to animate a collective networked imagination. The narrative is more explicit than Journey’s stories that emerge from silent one-on-one collaborative gameplay or those that came out of Between’s “impenetrable barrier” to communication. It produces an affective experience that feels uniquely now both in its content (climate-wrecked, resource-scarce, fight-to-the-death hellscape) and mode of consumption (mediated by both the online network of Fortnite itself and the communities through which the narrative is reproduced and understood). Though it is certainly not the first to do so, Fortnite positions networks as spaces for not only play, but collaborative story-telling/world-building. A possible evolution for this form of story-telling could be democratization of the environmental phenomena that comprise in-game narrative not just the communal meaning-making present now. (But maybe that’d just be Minecraft plus fan fiction).

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