Over the last few years, Fortnite has been a phenomenon. Epic Games’s battle royale stole the crown of popularity from Minecraft and has maintained its place in the centre of gaming culture with constant updates that coerces players back time and again. It is the kind of game that seemingly every AAA developer is aiming to make right now—a game-as-a-service that is not derided for being such.
This past week, Epic stepped up its efforts, capturing and enrapturing the gaming world (and beyond) by hitting the self-destruct button. After a season of special events with crossovers to other IPs and various miscellaneous weirdness, the island—home to millions of conflicts over the past two years—vanished.
The move was bold and ballsy, and it worked. Reports say that some six million gamers tuned in to livestreams to watch The End. The impact is undeniable.
But what has any of this to do with single-player gaming? Fortnite is a multiplayer game, and streaming is a fundamentally social activity—the very antithesis of single-player gaming (though that, of course, is not to revert to the ridiculous, harmful trope of all single-player gamers being shut-ins living off their parents’ good graces). What The End, the black hole, the six millions viewers represents is a challenge to the creators of single-player games to match and exceed it.
We live in an age of early access, episodic games, and live services, initiatives intended to enable developers to factor in player feedback and keep fingers on keyboards and controllers for as long as possible. However, those systems are not being taken full advantage of.
For episodic games, the hype dies over time (where is the excitement for the upcoming final part of Life is Strange 2?). Live services are derided for detracting from the quality of the initial launch, never to recapture the pre-release spark (Rage 2 and Anthem say hello). Early access games flop into their final existence with minimal fanfare (Green Hell, anyone?).
These games trundle along the course of their existence, adding pieces and events, largely expecting the press and social media to do the work of selling the new content, much as is possible in TV. Engagement in traditional media is interactive, but engagement in games is embodied interactivity, and that is why the black hole was so successful. Epic tapped into the players’ active involvement in Fortnite to shock everyone out of their torpor. It was surprising and bold in a way that almost no game has dared to be since, perhaps, Final Fantasy XIV became A Realm Reborn.
A cataclysmic, world-shaking event makes little sense in a single-player game, but nor is it necessary to tap into the kind of effect generated by the black hole.
The single-player experience is at a strange point in its history. Strictly linear games are becoming ever rarer as the domination of endlessly engaging open worlds continues. As a result, the format has fallen into a rut. Worlds are built up for years, then embedded with stuff—fetch quests, kill missions, and occasionally a Radiant Story or Nemesis System to make things seem alive. Meanwhile, the central storylines plod along, following the well-worn tropes of the Hero’s Journey.
They lack for that systemic, evolutionary something that enables true surprise—that will make players the world over sit up and take notice.
What that something is, I don’t know. Twirlbound created an evolving world for Pine, but it does not surprise in the same way that the black hole did. The same goes for Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor and its sequel. Simply adding the possibility of emergence to a traditional game structure is not enough. The storytelling capability of games needs a fundamental rethink. Perhaps Ken Levine’s new immersive sim will do it. Perhaps not.
All I know is that Fortnite’s black hole has left me with a sentiment that I never thought I would express:
Single-player developers, be like Fortnite. Be bold.