The day before the island died I dropped into Fortnite to search for a trace of Wailing Woods. This was the area where I first landed, in my first ever game of Fortnite – a game that took place the week the team announced and then released their Battle Royale mode.
I can remember only the basics of that initial visit: I chose the woods because I was late and indecisive in jumping. Once there I’m not sure I even picked up a weapon. I think I wandered amongst the trees, waving my axe at things and jumping, trying to find out if I could go prone, and then being killed, no doubt, by someone I didn’t even see. If you’d told me at that point that over the next few years I would come to know this landscape so well that the whole place would cross over that strange icicle bridge separating waking life from sleep – if you’d told me I would eventually dream about these woods and this island – I would probably not have believed you.
Wailing Woods are gone now. Even before the island was swallowed by a black hole they were gone. They were replaced by a volcano, I think, and then the volcano was hollowed out to form a sort of hydroelectric dam that brings to mind GoldenEye, the game as much as the movie. Behind the dam, where I landed on the day before the island died, there was a sort of central American stepped temple, its exterior a brash orange and its insides wildly painted. Beyond that there were trees, where I wandered for a little while. Was this the remains of the Wailing Wood? I tried, unsuccessfully, to orient myself. Where had the hedge maze been? Where was the spot where you could often find a good mushroom or two? I’m not sure I even picked up a weapon. I wandered among the trees for a few odd minutes, and then I was killed by someone I didn’t even see. I would miss this place!
Fortnite increasingly makes me think of a book – Nan Shepherd’s classic study of the Cairngorms, The Living Mountain. Shepherd knows the Cairngorms well, and in this short, transporting work, she approaches the mountains from every angle. More than that, she puts her finger on something that lies at the heart of my understanding of nature. The natural world is marked by this paradoxical thing about change and stasis. The natural world retains this never-changing feel, and yet it is constantly changing, constantly transforming itself.
For a few years Fortnite has been my own Living Island, if you fancy, as well as the Living Island for god knows how many other million players who drop from the battle bus every day. What are these people playing? A death match, essentially. But it rarely feels like that’s what’s actually going on. Fortnite’s greatness is multifaceted, but a big part of its success is down to the fact that you can play any number of unofficial sorts of games when you drop onto the island: nameless, wordless games that blend and shift and fragment around you as you move.
My favourite game has always been exploration. When I first dropped into the game, I was comparing everything I saw to PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. The war-torn environment had been ditched, clearly, replaced with a place whose named areas seemed rather theme-park-like with their cheerful alliteration: Dusty Divot, Wailing Woods. Fortnite has this cartoonish, slightly stretchy art style that translates to a sense of material reality as much as anything: the whole thing seems ready to bounce, as if made from rubber. On my first trip around the place, the game seemed much more artificial, somehow, than the rubble-strewn wilderness of Battlegrounds, as if the entire landscape was sculpted from puppeteer foam.
But that feeling has faded. And it’s exploration that has made it fade. Over time, I learned to appreciate the spaces between Fortnite’s named locations as much as the locations themselves. The game quickly came alive in these in-between spots, a hill where the wind would ruffle the grass, a circle of stones where someone had set up a plaque. I spent hours between actual locations in part because the locations always felt like player hot-spots, but ultimately because this was where the game felt natural and wild, even if the trees were really just crafting resources and the wild flowers had been scattered to create colour and movement that would trick the hunter’s eye. Even if the bushes I liked to crouch in back then were designed and placed precisely in order to let you crouch in them.
Fortnite’s art style is often mocked, but in its Saturday Morning Cartoon blandness, it allows you to put absolutely anything into the game and it will fit. By comparison, look at how weird and jarring the themed unlocks and skins in PUBG and COD seem.
Exploration was enhanced by the fact that the island changed over time. Big things changed for sure. I remember going to Haunted Hills for the first time and feeling like the Disneyland side of Fortnite had been completed, and I remember waiting for the excitement to die down around Lucky Landing so that I could go in and snoop about in peace once the crowds has lost interest and moved on. But, more evocatively, the little things changed, too. When the first really big event was gearing up – I’m talking about the superhero season, I think, when so many of the rules of Fortnite’s seasonal cycle were codified – loads of little things prepared players for the sense that something magical was on the way. A comet appeared in the sky. The ground would vibrate in certain places and you felt it through the pad. Something weird happened to the TVs in houses. Then, on a hill high over the grasslands – this is one of my favourite Fortnite memories – I found a whole load of telescopes pointed at the sky.
Those telescopes! This is a crucial part of the Living Island. Things move around when you aren’t looking. Things are uploaded and updated overnight, in downtime, when nobody’s playing. Fortnite’s island is curated by Epic, right, but Epic’s teams work like a bunch of cobbler elves, sneaking around the masses unseen and leaving things to be discovered that will surprise and delight. This is storytelling of a kind I had never encountered before – environmental storytelling that used props and sets but was nothing like film or theatre. It’s theme-park storytelling, and it takes its sweet time.
It takes its sweet time when you’re playing constantly, anyway. Back at the start I was playing a few games a day, and the rate of change on the island seemed very, very slow. Maybe a wander across the fields would uncover something I hadn’t seen before. Maybe a store in Tilted Tower would have something new in it. But then, as I played a bit less, the ebb and flow of my interest moving Fortnite away from an island I visited to an island I often just thought about, everything seemed to pick up speed. Huge chunks of the island would be rewritten in swathes, one corner becoming a desert and then another became a winter mountain range. It was beautifully done, but it had the rhythm of work to it – I am reminded, I think, of those legendary painters forever going over the Severn Bridge in sections, heading back to the start once they’ve finally reached the end and doing it all over again. At times, there was something a little joyless about the island’s reinventions.
Fortnite’s relationship with its players is pretty astonishing at times, offering the sort of back-and-forth dialogue between both sides that series like Lost sometimes achieved. Is the cube called Kevin? It is now. Truly a Nikki and Paulo moment for the ages.
And the thing is, the island was already constantly changing anyway, because the player base was learning new things, trying new things, forgetting old things. This was written in the landscape, more often than not. I used to hate Tilted Towers, because it meant instant death, but over time I learned to love sneaking about the place because I had learned to arrive late once the first battles had died down and the whole place had been intriguingly stripped. I learned that there was something tidal about Tilted. Equally, I used to think the house on Loot Lake – my favourite place in the game, and I was heartbroken when it went – was the place where the same story would play out again and again: two people would land on the little island and one would live in the attic while the other got the rest of the house. Sure: true for about five minutes. But what would unfold after that? How would the stalemate be settled? There were a hundred different ways at least.
Play a game long enough and you have memories of every place in it – as it was with Fortnite’s island. Name a location and I can remember a time I lurked there, found something great there, got killed there. I remember the time I harvested the bottom of the viking ship even as I was standing on the bottom of the viking ship, so I fell to my death. I remember rattling around Happy Hamlet in a baller like I was a huge Christmas ornament. I remember a time I rigged one of the tumbledown houses in the grasslands with explosives, waiting for a distant team to approach and start looting. But then I got the buttons confused and simply blew the front of the house off while that team was about fifty meters away, revealing myself to them startled and skulking in the remains of an upstairs bathroom. All great memories, but also complex memories, complicated by time and the way that Fortnite’s island would redraw itself, building the new over the old, replacing the new with the even newer, squeezing David Bowie’s decades of personas into a few months of quick changes – truly a Lady Gaga video game.
Even by the end of the island, though, after a leap into the future that replaced many of the areas I knew best with strange Jetsons riffs on them, I still had moments of beautiful lonely wandering, where the calm and the emptiness made me feel… what exactly?
This feeling, it is the island’s single greatest gift, and it’s taken me a while to put my finger on it. But I get it now, just as the whole place has been swallowed, soon to be replaced. It’s the feeling of going to a deserted prt of the map, knowing that battles are raging elsewhere, and getting that peculiar feeling I remember from childhood. The feeling of being off sick from school, pootling around the house and looking out at the empty weekday street, feeling that briefly I was out of sync with the normal world.
Thanks to Tom Phillips for the screenshots.