The Greek philosopher Heraclitus famously said: “No man steps into the same river twice, because it is not the same river and he is not the same man.” This is how I feel about Fortnite.
This weekend, I started playing Battle Royale from Epic Games again. Since the last time I played, Epic added:
- The Daily Bugle, complete with huge spider web trampolines that dangle from the mountains surrounding the building.
- Zero Build, a mode that allows me to play the game like the third person shooter I always wanted it to be without having to worry about late game builds that I will always lose.
- Rift-To-Go, a portable rip in the fabric of reality that looks like a snowball opening to escape a dangerous situation.
- A current of wind that works like a lazy river in the sky that you can jump into to quickly travel around the map.
- Ships that can fire missiles
- Mantling and sliding, which sound like small things but make the game feel incredibly smooth to play
Outside of a brief jaunt back into the game for Travis Scott’s virtual concert in 2020, the last time I played the global battle royale was in 2018, when Epic added fighter jets. It was very good then. I spent most of my time running straight to the hangars so I could catch a plane and fight until I inevitably bit the dust. I also remember there was a big snow castle. Looking through the skins I have available, I also see a Viking woman, which reminds me again of checking in for a few weeks, earlier that year, when Epic added rifts, the glowing purple black holes you can jump to get shot up into the sky, and a Viking ship stranded on top of a waterfall.
Obviously, four years is a long time to walk away from a game. But it amazes me how far Fortnite is and It is not recognizably the same game I was playing back in 2018. That year was early in Fortnite’s cultural domain, before Christopher Nolan and JJ Abrams screened trailers for the game, before Marshmello held a virtual concert, before the game had Zendaya masks from two separate movies. In my opinion, as I spent years away from Fortnite, it became easy to write off the game as a cultural detritus dump, a place where all IPs were welcomed like sticky dowels in a Katamari Damacy-esque corporate branding ball.
But then I went back to Fortnite and you know what? It is very fun to play.
That is truer now than ever before. While the shooting feels the same as it did the last time I played, Epic’s additions have made this a viscerally exhilarating game. The ability to cover ledges has made the game more fluid than before, and the ability to slide if you crouch while running gives the game an excitingly fast pace. If I go into a slide at the top of a hill, I can slide to the bottom and beyond, gaining more and more momentum as I go. The boats, complete with missile launchers, are great for piloting around rivers and can get far enough up the coast that opponents trying to escape my wrath end up coming face to face with the trading end of my pontoons.
When the game first released, I was living with three of my high school friends in a house in southern Michigan and working full time at my hometown newspaper. Fortnite was most notable (at least to me) as a game that launched, failed, and then pivoted to Battle Royale quickly enough to beat PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds on console, and became a significantly larger cultural phenomenon as a result. . When I went back to that the following year it was shortly after I got married, freelanced full-time, and moved to Illinois. Fortnite had become notable for telling an ongoing story. That story culminated in the game briefly going offline in October 2019, when a black hole swallowed it. I periodically checked in on that event from the library I drove to every day to do my freelance work. I had gotten used to it when I first started self-employment and didn’t have the money to pay for Wi-Fi at home.
When I checked in for the Travis Scott concert, it had been about a month since I stopped going to the library because the pandemic forced me to start working from home every day. At the time, there were no events in my real life, at least no events that required leaving the house, so the virtual events in Fortnite became even more notable. Fortnite’s quick turns and lightning-fast innovation made it a game to watch during the pandemic. It’s a game that provided us with milestones, with huge community events in the midst of a crisis that kept most people away from events.
Going back to Fortnite now, with two years and a pandemic separating me from the last time I loaded it, I’m amazed at how comforting it is. Fortnite feels better to play. It appeals to me as a game, not just an ongoing story that strangely fascinates me. Despite its steady push towards a metaversal IP singularity where there are no complete stories, just chapters that exist to set up future products, merchandising opportunities, and cinematic universes, I continue to love Fortnite. It’s a game that has gotten better while I wasn’t paying attention. As I sat on the bank, not paying attention, the river kept flowing.
NEXT: Modern Gaming Is A Creatively Bankrupt Nightmare