Fortnite (Epic Games 2017) is a sandbox survival game where players (either individually or in teams) fight to stay alive, employing various strategies for movement, hiding, attacks, and defense. The free-to-play game ships with two modes: “Save the World” in which a four-person team cooperate to gather resources and build fortifications against a zombie onslaught, “Battle Royale” where 100 players compete with each other to be the last person standing (which this post focuses on). As an archaeologist, I was curious to see what it looked like to adapt to a space for a brief (10–15 minutes) amount of time, building defensive fortifications that have a planned impermanence. What do structures look like when we literally have seconds to live, when a bad decision leaves you caught out in the storm? How do the “permanent” structures in the field of play behave when interacted with by players, and what portable goods can players collect knowing that they will in all likelihood lose everything in the blink of an eye?
The Battle Royale takes place on an island roughly 5 km on a side with a varied topography including hills, valleys, two rivers, farmland, forests, and a central lake. Nearly two dozen regions split the island into zones with urban areas, rural farmsteads, gated communities, trailer/caravan parks, cemetery, and more, with houses and outbuildings dotting the landscape encouraging players to explore and move. Also encouraging movement: the “storm”, a circle of deadly weather that collapses into a smaller circle every couple of minutes (to mere seconds late in the game).
Permanent structures include typical Americana from fast food restaurants and convenience stores to giant outdoor folk art (e.g., a huge wicker chair, a giant wooden llama) to barns and farmhouses, to suburban residences and urban apartments. Everything is decorated to look like a contemporary, lived-in space, and nearly everything is figuratively nailed to the floor. The only things that players can carry are weapons of various uses, impact, and rarity (common pistol v. legendary rocket launcher). Medical kits, bandages, and “pots” of shield-granting liquid round out what players may choose to keep in their very limited inventory (5 slots). Players also carry a pickaxe with which they can gather resources (wood, stone, and metal) for building ramps and fortifications to protect themselves from other players while providing a vantage point from which to shoot.
Unlike many combat games featuring permanent structures, Fortnite’s can be manipulated by players who can use their pickaxes to knock down walls, floors, ceilings, and roofs. Weapons can also damage these structures, either destroying them outright or removing large portions to expose the contents within (including players who are hiding). In the first video I build a ramp in order to access the roof of a building, which I then destroy in order to get to a treasure chest in the attic. In the second video I destroy that same building with a grenade launcher, leaving only a square footprint for others to find as they scurry past.
These buildings exist only as sets through which players engage others as they try to stay alive. Games last (at most) 15 minutes as dictated by the circumference of the oncoming storm. There isn’t time in a game to get comfortable, although Fortnite does lend itself to a profound understanding of the landscape over repeated plays. The map never changes, although each game allows players to skydive from a flying blue schoolbus to new starting areas.
Over time, players develop favorite places to start gathering resources, and create strategies based on trial-and-error of past games. While a game might last minutes (or seconds for the unlucky player), players accumulate dozens of hours of experience in a place less than 25 km2. It is repeated, temporary dwelling. Think of it as Groundhog Day but for games, experience growing with each round played. This is true of other “battlegrounds”-style games. The only thing that changes is one’s human opponents, and when everyone has a very good understanding of where things are, that makes play particularly challenging. Resource-placement is random, which also keeps things both interesting and fair. I would like to see (and maybe this already exists somewhere) procedurally generated battleground-style maps that challenge players by giving them different terrain, resources, and buildings each time.
One of the other variables in Fortnite that sets it apart from other games is the fact that players can rapidly build fortifications for themselves both in advance of and during combat. These are extremely temporary, ad hoc structures not so much designed than thrown up in a panic during a firefight. Players work with a basic set of schematics to build with walls, ramps, floors/ceilings, and peaked roofs. During surprise combat (players encounter each other in the field of play either by accident or through stalking), walls, ceilings, and ramps can be deployed to slow projectiles and buy time for the defender. Wood is weaker than stone, which is in turn weaker than metal, and players can set defaults to build with the strongest materials first. These ad hoc barriers remain in place during the course of a game, and it is particularly nerve-wracking to encounter these, even if they’re abandoned. On some occasions, players will find lost inventory from a deceased player nearby the structure, picked over by the victor before moving on towards the eye of the storm.
The other type of temporary structure seen in Fortnite’s Battle Royale are sniping towers. Players attempt to predict were the eye of the storm will be, and will then choose a place to build a high tower from which to snipe and enemies. Stealthy players can observe the erection of these towers in the distance and can plan their strategies accordingly. It is not uncommon for the final players to snipe at each other from their respective towers while also picking off stragglers below who attempt to destroy a tower’s foundations in order to bring the player crashing to the ground. On some occasions players will actually build tower fortifications to create the illusion of habitation while they crouch on a nearby hillside or behind shrubbery waiting for someone to assault the structure. This is the temporary architecture of subterfuge.
Over the past few months players have gravitated toward some proven designs, typically metal-clad, thin towers, some of which terminate in a wide platform. This kind of building reflects an economy of need and an efficiency of time needed to construct the tower maximizing time and resources while also astutely observing the landscape for tower-placement for maximum defense while also providing for the best line-of-sight for observing incoming threats.
The system is imperfect, however. I play a nomadic style in which I scavenge for shield potions and first aid kits, plus a protective weapon. I don’t build at all, but instead use the entire landscape as my defense, ultimately finding myself directly under (or in the ground floor) of the final player’s tower, which either forces a 1-on-1 deathmatch, or as has happened twice to me, the player is trapped in their tower as the storm’s eye shrinks, leaving me as the sole survivor. The storm wipes the world clean. The island resets. A new battle commences. New architecture rises and falls in an eye-blink, wildly erratic in the open field, and coldly efficient at the end-game, built to survive for only a minute or two.
Turning a moment to the natural world and away from the synthetic, we do see these kinds of temporary structures frequently, be they lean-tos or plastic shelters, either as protection from a storm, or more commonly after the storm. In urban settings we see pop-up stores, here and gone again after a few days to sell a premium or vanity product, leaving no physical trace once the store shuts. But when you think about it, all construction is purpose-built and temporary. It’s just a matter of scale and time. Outside my Manhattan office window I watch as buildings come down and go up with regularity. The City is always under construction. The towers rise. The towers fall. And the eye of the storm is only time, which has a lasting and visible effect on construction, pushing people into action either to preserve, destroy, or build again. A minute in Fortnite might be a year in actual time as people compete for resources in order to save themselves.
—Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming