When I booted it up a couple of weeks ago, trying the cultural phenomenon out for the first time ever since it launched in 2017, Fortnite didn’t hold my attention for very long. On first impression, the gunplay and movement felt fine but unremarkable, it seemed like the main thrust of the game was nudging the experience bar forward and ticking boxes, and skimming the prices across the in-game store firsthand was about as shocking as it was hearing about them. None of these points are new or novel insights in 2022, especially that last one, and they’re not really the point of this article anyway.
As a brand new player, what really struck me about Fortnite is how “casual” it all feels. Not in a derogatory “phone games sux” sort of way, but in how it manages tone, atmosphere and the player’s moment-to-moment anxieties. Even playing alone, it feels like such a hangout space. It feels cosy. This was not what I expected.
To quickly recap my own experience, since it might be relevant: I haven’t touched any online multiplayer in years. I link online play with stress and a frustrating internet connection. At least in my memory, online games are not only anxiety-inducing but usually bring out an embarrassing competitiveness in me – and I’m rarely very good at these games, either, which isn’t a great combo.
In those first games of Fortnite, though, I felt practically none of this. Hours of playtime later and I still haven’t. Maybe it’s the years since I’ve played any multiplayer titles, maybe it’s the stability of my new ethernet connection having a bigger impact than I thought, but it was uncanny. The low-key, low-stakes feel of Fortnite — or at least this current incarnation of it (currently in the third season of “Chapter 3”) — was unmistakable and unexpected. It also turns out that all those hours playing Fallout and other scavenging sims translates over pretty much flawlessly to Fortnite: move fast, loot everything and keep your health and shields topped up as best you can, and you’ll probably end up in the Top 10.
(It’s worth noting that, upon recommendation, I’ve only played in the relatively-new Zero Build mode so far. Fortnite’s standard Battle Royale mode might be a different experience.)
As a new player in 2022, Fortnite throws you into the deep end as soon as it can. It doesn’t give you space to learn the ropes by yourself. Instead, following the lengthy opening cutscenes to set the tone, you’re sent to the standard front page with the big yellow “PLAY!” button to join a match with everyone else. During those initial matches, there are floating tooltips that guide you on the basic controls and mechanics. Beyond that, though, Fortnite wants you to learn by doing.
It helps that the game is relatively simple to control and get to grips with (moreso than I expected, anyway), but the scoop here is that a player like me — easily stressed out by multiplayer titles, and also other people in general — isn’t given the opportunity to disconnect the gameplay from the online element. In other words, I don’t get to learn the game on my own and then subsequently stress and grow paralysed about whether I’ll be any good in a proper game, whether I’ll be embarrassed by doing something dumb that everyone else has already figured out. All I can do is try my best and see how it goes, which makes it easy to accept any failures ahead of me. Knowing that I’m also competing against an entire army of people at a time makes it even easier to accept losing, even in a particularly dumb way.
Still, after those first games, I didn’t expect to play Fortnite again. I was pleasantly surprised at how stressless the experience was, but otherwise it felt shallow and not especially gripping. I only returned two days later to test out my PS5’s new wired connection and see if there was a noticeable uptick in comfort or smoothness. Three hours later and I was still playing, fusing with the couch seat under me, working through the recent Dragon Ball crossover quests, and also finding it very easy to reach the final moments of every match I played. Whether that’s due to all the non-player bots that make up any given match, the number of cross-play players using touchscreens to aim, or just the sheer size of the map, I always had ample time and space to work through quests at a comfortable pace without getting kicked back to the lobby too early.
This was when I realised that, for me, Fortnite is less of a multiplayer shooter and more of a collect-a-thon. It scratches the same itch that my annual Spyro replays do, or a particularly straightforward platinum trophy: a smooth and cozy scavenger hunt with very little challenge and minimal stress as I listen to podcasts. That feeling of working through basic, effortless goals one after another, that rhythmic grind — except this one is set during a large-scale multiplayer bout, which adds a novel dimension.
Each match, I choose a quest to chase down — usually as simple as “Go here and press a button” — while surviving everyone else along the way. Quests are typically completed at specific locations on the map, so I’ll choose them depending on where I can land; I also figured out quickly that the further away from the drop-off route I land, the safer I’d be from other players. Just like other collect-a-thons, working through quests as quickly and efficiently as I can only makes it better. It’s not what I expected to get from Fortnite, but it’s welcome.
As both a return to online multiplayer and an introduction to battle royales, meekly watching the genre evolve at the sidelines, it’s obvious that these quests are meant to add variety and objectives to a mode with a lot of downtime. They also help new players learn the game, giving them goals to reach with specific mechanics and items.
What’s most interesting, though, is how these quests shift the player’s perspective away from the core contest it’s built around. If they’re anything like me, following markers and ticking boxes instead of feeling particularly competitive, the threat of other players is undercut by the wider landscape you’ve been dropped into. Quests push you towards new areas of the map you might not have seen yet, to use new weapons and items instead of relying on the tried-and-true favourites you immediately latch onto.
Players not only learn those extra little mechanics very quickly — which items do what, what gives you an advantage when — but these quests encourage a more wide-eyed curiosity. The world changes from a landscape full of potential threats and gear to face those threats, but instead, more of a playground or toolbox to learn at whatever pace they decide. Quests also help with the exhaustion of high-strung competition, keeping players more likely to press that big yellow “PLAY!” button for just one more game because that last firefight wasn’t quite so tense.
It’s almost like an open-world game. The draw of that genre is in not only exploring a large-scale environment but learning how your toolkit interacts with it — in this case, both of which are changing with each new Season — and not necessarily the moment-to-moment action. Every player is different and some would naturally need a more potent competitive drive, but Fortnite fosters a more relaxed mindset.
I spent most of that first weekend decompressing with Fortnite while listening to podcasts, set the game up on my Switch so I could play in bed and at my desk, and even bought the Battle Pass (mostly to give myself more quests to chase and more boxes to tick, which it only sort of did), but after a few days, I’d nearly reached the end of the Battle Pass and basically finished the Dragon Ball event. A full week after that and the well’s totally dried up. I’ve finished all the non-daily quests I have any interest in (those that are left seem like more trouble than they’re worth) and waiting for the next drop of mostly-fetch-quests to drop. All I have left is a couple of outfits in the Battle Pass’s bonus section I sort of want, but grinding the experience to unlock them isn’t much of a draw.
Basically, I’ve found myself close to the “end” of my time with Fortnite, and I’ve barely started playing. I’m at the part of its onboarding experience where I either hop onto the daily-ish treadmill and keep up with the game long term or jump off and spend all of that time elsewhere — and after typing those words out, the choice seems obvious. That Fortnite’s development at Epic Games is apparently fueled by non-stop crunch is an extra unhappy reminder that should make this choice even easier.
I’m also curious about (or dreading) what Fortnite is like without the “Supercharged XP” buff, since fast-forwarding through the Battle Pass probably played a bigger role in my fun than I really know. Without this, will the next Battle Pass just be a slow march towards outfits and other wearable junk I’m not particularly interested in? Probably.
Either way, it’s become clear to me that my time with Fortnite is entirely dependent on having obvious Stuff To Do and Stuff To Chase instead of the moment-to-moment tension of every match. While I like the relaxed pacing and scavenge-heavy loop of the game, and it’s good for a game or two at a time, it turns out that aiming to be the last person standing isn’t enough to draw my competitive side out, for better or worse. There’s no draw to keep me locked in.
Altogether, I’m pretty happy with my time with Fortnite. I appreciate having a “new” type of collect-a-thon to play, though I don’t think Fortnite will scratch this particular itch again anytime soon unless I purposefully wait a few months until the next season is nearly finished and I have a whole new pile of quests to work through (hopefully with the XP buff). Still, I’m glad I’m not suddenly hooked on a game that would really, really like me to be. I also don’t feel compelled to buy any of the in-store outfits, which I’m thankful for — Dragon Ball might be the only thing I’d shell out twenty dollars or so for, and these goofy-looking dorks definitely didn’t do the job. It’s time to move on.
I will admit though, after years of judgmentally side-eying the Fortnite craze and the amount of money players are encouraged to — and do — spend on licensed outfits, seeing Indiana Jones flying on Shenron’s back on his way to a rave is a powerful sort of nonsense I’d like to see more of.