Fortnite’s experimental story is an attempt to create ‘the entertainment experience of the future’

Why does Fortnite have a narrative? It’s a game where 100 players drop onto a cartoonish island, dress up as bananas or Star Wars heroes, gather up guns and other gear, and attempt to eliminate each other until only one remains. When that’s done, you queue up and try again.

But within this multiplayer shooter framework, Fortnite has steadily turned into one of the biggest and boldest storytelling experiments in history. From live events experienced by millions to cinematics created with the help of Hollywood directors, the team at Epic has continuously tested new ideas, injecting narrative elements in a way that feels natural and meaningful. Fortnite is among the biggest games in the world and arguably the most culturally impactful. And for Donald Mustard, chief creative officer at Epic Games, it was a chance he couldn’t ignore.

“For me, it was an opportunity to almost create a new medium,” Mustard tells The Verge.

That focus on storytelling is particularly obvious now, after the launch of the game’s most recent season. For the first time, players were able to play through a single-player mission — a brief, action-filled sequence in which they were guided by a glowing butterfly to help restore reality. It featured more traditional hallmarks of video game narrative, like dialogue and cutscenes. And for Mustard, it’s something he’s been working toward for a while.

“We’re three and a half years in essentially, and now is when it’s finally okay to be like, ‘There’s this guy named Agent Jones. Here’s what’s going on a little bit. Oh look, they’re actually talking.’ But for so much of it, it was very, very subtle. But it’ll become less subtle moving forward,” he explains.

The Game Awards 2018 - Arrivals

Donald Mustard at the 2018 Game Awards.
Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez / Getty Images

The idea of telling a story in Fortnite isn’t new. Mustard says it was part of the plan from the beginning, ever since Fortnite’s battle royale mode first launched in September 2017. And it wasn’t just an afterthought — it was a key element of the experience. “Our approach since the start, or our goal, has been how do we create truly mass-scale, broad-based entertainment. And I always think that the way to do that is through narrative conceit,” Mustard explains. “It might not necessarily be story in the traditional character-driven, three-act structure. But the conceits, and the why of what’s going on and what’s happening, are critical for people to be emotionally attached to an entertainment experience. That’s our guiding principle and philosophy,” he says. “Fortnite has a story because all great entertainment has a good story.”

The challenge has been how to tell that story. Since Fortnite is a multiplayer game where players are mostly concerned with surviving and shooting, storytelling, by design, cannot be as straightforward. For one, outside of the live spectacles, players typically aren’t seeing events unfold. Instead, they’re seeing the effects of events that have already taken place, maybe in the form of a new location or item. “That story is happening, but you’re only seeing some of it,” says Mustard. “You’re only seeing the results of it happening around you, rather than seeing everything that Agent Jones is doing or The Seven are doing. There’s all this stuff that’s been happening and is progressing. And a lot of times, you’re out in the world seeing the results of some of those things, but not necessarily the moments that led to that.”

And while there are important characters in the Fortnite universe, the narrative isn’t told from any one particular perspective. There isn’t an actual protagonist — or at least, not an obvious one. “Most linear stories are told through the lens of a character,” explains Mustard. “Star Wars is an awesome universe, but really it’s about the journey of Luke and these characters. You care so much about these characters and their journey, and it happens to take place in this fantastical, awesome backdrop that you care about as well. But it’s really that lens. And most stories are told in that direction.”

In Fortnite, that main character isn’t Peely or Agent Jones or any of the other now-iconic faces from the game. Instead, it’s the island itself. “The world of Fortnite is the main character,” says Mustard. “I will give that an arc, I will give that a journey, and if we do it right, what would happen? Would you become invested in that character? That’s why when stuff happened, like a comet came, I wanted it to affect the character. It’s going to leave a permanent mark. The comet’s going to leave a huge hole.”

One of the most powerful narrative tools used in Fortnite is environmental storytelling. It’s a game of big events — a rocket launch, a battle between towering monsters, a black hole — and each leaves a permanent impression on the island. After the rocket launched in 2018, there was a visible crack in the sky. Following the mech versus kaiju battle, a monstrous skeleton became a new location to visit. And the black hole essentially introduced a new lead character in the form of a new island. This island is a place where players come together to hang out and shoot at each other, but it’s also a virtual world brimming with its own strange history.

Mustard says the game does have a plot with a beginning and end, and that he knows exactly where everything’s headed. But because of the nature of Fortnite, the path to those big story beats can change dramatically depending on what players do or say. He likens it to telling a campfire story, where you might adjust the trajectory of the narrative based on the reactions of your audience.

“We’re trying as much as possible to tell you a story that feels like it’s being told in a moment,” Mustard explains. “You and I are sitting around a campfire at night, and I’m like ‘So we were out in the woods, and I heard a noise…’ The story feels like it’s being shaped in the moment, and it’s being shaped by the way you’re reacting to the story as it’s being told to you. I can tell ‘Oh, that joke didn’t land right.’ It’s a little more improv.”

As an example, he notes the big comet crash in 2018. Many players predicted the space rock would wipe out Tilted Towers, one of the game’s most iconic locations. That was never the actual plan — but after seeing this reaction from players, artists from Epic created a handful of handheld signs about the impending devastation, which were placed on a rooftop in Tilted. “That was us changing the story, or changing the experience, based on how we saw everyone reacting,” Mustard says. “And we do that a lot, as much as we can.”

More recently, starting with the Marvel-themed season last year, Fortnite’s narrative has also increasingly involved other entertainment properties. In season 5, a mysterious phenomenon called the Zero Point created rifts in reality where characters from different fictional universes could come together on the Fortnite island. It’s a great way to sell skins for everything from The Mandalorian to Terminator to God of War to The Walking Dead. But Mustard says that it’s also a critical part of the storyline, nodding to something he and others at Epic have eagerly talked about creating — the Metaverse, comprised of characters and storylines from countless films, shows, and games all in one place.

“I knew, ultimately, that a big part of the story we would tell is these overlapping realities,” he explains. “It’s about the Zero Point and what that is and why that is and how it tethers reality together. I knew the only way to do that right was to somehow convince all these other people to come play with us, to come play in our fictional universe.” As for how those licensed tie-ins come about? “It’s pretty much me going to Kevin Feige and Dan Buckley and Jim Lee, all these amazing creators, and saying: ‘Here’s the story of what we’re trying to tell in Fortnite, the vision of what it is. Do you want to be part of it with us?’ And a lot of people have said yes.”

Between live events, single-player missions, environmental storytelling, and more traditional techniques like cinematics, audio logs, and nonplayer characters you can chat with, Epic is trying all kinds of ways to get this story across. There’s even an upcoming Batman comic series that will provide even more detail on the island. That said, more than three years into this experiment, Mustard says the team is still figuring out what works best. But he believes Fortnite could well be a harbinger of things to come.

“Our lofty goal is to create the entertainment experience of the future. I think some of that is feeling our way into what feels like it’s going to be a new medium, where it’s this blended entertainment experience that has interactive elements. It has linear elements to it. It has things that would look more like a concert,” Mustard explains. “We’ve discovered some of the ways to do that in a cool way, but I think there’s a lot more for us to discover and experiment with and try. I remain committed to just trying crazy stuff.

“Other people will experiment, too, and we can learn from that. I’m just excited for the medium. Fortnite is an indicator of what could be.”

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