Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.
Fortnite is about building and destroying. Like some kind of childish god with the weirdest set of Lego bricks, you take your powerful shotguns and inaccurate assault rifles and set off across an island that asks you to break it apart and put it back together again. Your ability to master throwing up walls, ramps, and bounce pads directly correlates to your survival potential, and this is the thing that has made Fortnite so intriguing in the now-crowded market of battle royale games. As a player, you are transforming the world around you. Why is that transformation so different from its competitors and, even better, why does it matter?
Maybe I’m a little out of line, so let me take a step back. It’s my contention that Fortnite-the-game has become Fortnite-the-phenomenon precisely because of its building mechanic. The lineage of battle royale games goes something like “ H1Z1’s arcade fun -> PUBG’s military simulation realism -> Fortnite’s zany building,” and we can now add another dozen threads of other developers trying to figure out what you can staple onto these formats to make a game stand out ( Realm Royale, for example, has chickens). This is the strong dividing line among them.
Now, I know that there are dozens and dozens of reasons that these games, particularly PUBG and Fortnite, are distinct from one another. But the constant call when Fortnite launched was not about how the shotguns worked differently or about the way the strong aesthetic differences between a plane and a flying bus. Instead, people were talking about the building and how hard it was. They claimed the virtues of those who could build better than the rest of us, and I distinctly remember seeing streamers being recommended precisely because they could build very quickly.
The meme of “just build lol” doubles down on the idea, working only because the true solution to many situations in Fortnite is simply hammering on the build button and running in a random direction, peppering the ground like some of of carpenter Johnny Appleseed.
Notably, this is something that is fundamentally missing from PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, and it’s because the two games are after different power fantasies. In PUBG, you are demonstrating mastery over the conditions that are in front of you, and in that way the game proudly wears its lineage of ARMA and the like on its sleeve. Your squad can be caught between a rock and a village, and it is only through intimate knowledge of your guns, proper scouting and calling by your team, and expert reading of the situation that you will get out of it.
PUBG is fundamentally a reactive game. You are reacting to the situation that the loot table, the area you are in, and other players have put you in, and your ability to properly react is what divides the skilled from the unskilled.
Fortnite, on the other hand, is proactive. It is a game that asks you to shape huge parts of the world into its optimal form for your gameplay experience. While huge rocks and the general landscape cannot be carved up into materials with your large material harvesting device, most things can, and basically all human-made objects can be hit so hard that they are reduced to the wood, metal, and bricks from which they were originally formed.
“Just build lol” might be the meme, but the other side is something like “just destroy lmao.” After all, you need to reduce a lot of stuff into generalized materials if you plan on building any structure of substance, and if you want your floppy brick tower to stand up against a rocket launcher barrage, you’re going to have to spam the button. Fortnite demands that you be proactive in altering the game world to fit your needs at any given moment.
If PUBG delivers the power fantasy of the super soldier, able to react and respond to anything, then Fortnite delivers the power fantasy of the super engineer, who can repurpose the materials of the world into something that will save their lives. PUBG makes us all into Josh Duhamel in the Transformers franchise so that we can have the fantasy of shooting our way out of any bad situation; Fortnite turns us all into Elon Musk, asking us to turn this stuff into that stuff, knowing that knocking all kinds of shit apart in our trudging path forward into the future will probably be worth it.
So why does it matter that these two games are different, or that Fortnite is ultimately about the transformative destruction and re-creation of the game world?
Fortnite has turned its mechanical system of breaking and making into a longform narrative method. After all, Season five of the game just started, and it has continued the trend of fundamentally altering a part of the Fortnite map. At the end of Season four, a rocket launched, a huge rift appeared in the sky, and time seemed to get all weird. Now a portion of the map has turned into an arid desert, a stark contrast to the lush green of the past, but things seem to still be continuing as they were before.
You can transform nature, smashing it into red bricks, but things keep on trucking in Fortnite. The battle royale format means that things can never really change. Just like in PUBG, that mountain is always going to be there, and that small city with its weird mansion is always going to be available to jump to. It’s a game about transforming the world, but the fundamental structure of that world never changes. The world is one big ball pit, and even if the positions of each ball change, it’s still a ball pit.
The proactive power fantasy of Fortnite is as ineffectual as any others are, and it’s because it cannot truly alter its format. You can have an outsized effect on the world. You can build to your heart’s content. But your ability to alter this world is just an illusion, bound up in simple alchemy that turns tractors into ramps through player skill. The airport shuttle is now a hyperloop; is there any meaningful change?
Sometimes differences make a difference, though, and I wonder about the next battle royale game, perhaps not even in development yet, that could add something truly new and exciting that alters the standard relationship between game and player fantasy. Or maybe there’s only so much you can do with a hundred people, some guns, and a shrinking arena.
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