Every Friday, A.V. Club staffers kick off our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans and recent gaming glories, but of course, the real action is down in the comments, where we invite you to answer our eternal question: What Are You Playing This Weekend?
The frustrating thing about Fortnite—a video game that actively works to devour as much of human culture as it can get its brightly colored tentacles on, rendering all aspects of our shared existence as just so much grist for its never-ending content mill, thus that it may feed it back to us (and our children) in the most simplistic of digitized forms—is that it’s actually very good.
This thought occurred to me recently, as a round I was playing ended abruptly when my sole surviving enemy—dressed, obviously, like Tom Holland’s Spider-Man—destroyed the garage I was hiding in with a dragon ball z Kamehameha, and then shot me in the head. “This is a good fucking video game,” I thought to myself as Tom Holland danced on my corpse. “It’s so cool that this happened.”
Reader, I was not being sarcastic.
It’s easy to make fun of Fortniteof course: For its Weezer integration. For its attempts at political self-seriousness. For its bizarre position as a canonical Star Wars plot delivery mechanism. For its complete domination of gaming culture, especially via the codification of so many elements of the free-to-play ecosystem. For its obsessive, screech-volume memeishness. For all the banana shit. Etc.!
And yet, for all that: Fortnite is actually very good!
I take no relish in revealing this; it’s the gaming writer equivalent of praising the McDonald’s cheeseburger as a model of cheap flavor and efficiency. But it is, unfortunately, true.
And it’s true for a couple of reasons, the first and foremost being that the game it originally ripped off, lo these many years ago—PlayerUnknown’s Battlegroundsthe patriarch of the battle royale genre—was just such a good damn idea. Throwing 100 players onto a shrinking island and tasking them with killing each other, besides being an apt metaphor for about a thousand different real-world nightmares, is still just an incredible hook, a mix of high highs and humiliating lows that can make the hands shake in anticipation as that next sweet Victory Royale looms closer, even now. (Or: Spider-Man laser murder, see above.) Hell, Fortnite has even made its ties to the base design even clearer of late, by offering a mode that gets rid of the whole fort-building bit, which was always a bar to entry for those of us intimidated by children capable of whipping up impenetrable plywood palaces in 10 seconds or less. It doesn’t hurt that Epic, the studio that makes Fortnite, has been in the shooter biz for longer than most of their competitors have even been in business, period; the guns in Fortnite might be goofy, but the shooting is incredibly solid, the weapon design shockingly smart.
Take, for instance, that Kamehameha, which is still floating around the game after a recent DBZ event: It really is a fascinating display of the game’s philosophy toward new weapons. Sure, it’s a meme item, carrying all the excitement of firing off Goku’s big blue beam—but it’s also a fascinating risk-reward, allowing players to do an immense amount of damage to enemies or destroy their cover, at the cost of making the user float up in the air while yelling and generating a very bright “Shoot me before I laser you!” light. The genius of Fortnite is in crafting an item that is clearly a blatant dragon ball z cash grab and a tactically fascinating addition to the game’s combat mechanics—both trash and treasure all at once.
Which brings us to the more fundamental reason that Fortnite is actually very good, an explanation that is, unfortunately, going to involve the word “palimpsest.” Because like those ancient writing slates, Fortnite is messy. It’s weird in a way that none of its competitors have ever grasped, and that weirdness is what keeps it fascinating even as more technically impressive rivals crop up. The amazing thing about Fortnite is that it still contains traces of every blatantly dopey decision or content tie-in it’s offered up in its five years of operation. That’s present in the player skins, of course—so many player skins, from so many licensed properties—but also in the game’s base mechanics. All of the things that now make the game such an expansively weird product—it is, as far as I know, the only battle royale shooter where you can fish for food before solving an IndianaJones puzzle or doing a full automotive racing track to pick up some fancy new guns—have been added to it piecemeal over the years, and have just sort of been … left intact, through multiple wipes of its scattershot “lore.” The result is a sort of chaos that would have been extremely difficult for the development team to make all at once, but which has become a natural outgrowth of years of constant updates, an evolution of design that transcends any single given design document. Or, to put it another way: Even as Fortnite has striven to devour all of modern pop culture, it has also moved to devour itself. And that’s kind of beautiful, in an awful sort of way.
Also: It’s a video game where you can kill Darth Vader by hitting him with a grenade that makes him dance, and then use his lightsaber to murder Goku. So that’s fun, too.