Spectating Fortnite: How Battle Royale really comes to life once you die
And a bit about a guy who robbed a lot of McDonald's.
Jeffrey Manchester typically robbed McDonald's. He typically robbed McDonald's because in America, McDonald's restaurants, wherever you go, are typically the same kind of building. Manchester's genius - and it was genius, albeit of a scrappy, low-key nature - was to realise that in these near-identical McDonald's buildings, near-identical rituals were often unfolding. If you found the right moment in the day to rob one McDonald's - and the right access point to utilise - you had stumbled on a crime you could export across the country. McDonald's has developed a easily replicable system for selling burgers. Because of this, Manchester had developed an easily replicable system for robbing McDonald's.
I read about Manchester in A Burglar's Guide to the City, an absolutely incredible book that examines the intersection of urban planning and crime. It's written by Geoff Manaugh, who also writes BLDGBLOG. I don't have my copy to hand at the moment, but I think I remember that Manaugh is using Manchester as a way of exploring what some architects refer to as sequences. Buildings have their own sequences - patterns of behaviour that they encourage and sometimes generate. If you go into a church to pray - this is one of Manaugh's examples - you are fulfilling that building's sequence. As for Manchester? Was Manchester breaking the sequence of a McDonald's, or was he revealing another?
At the time I read A Burglar's Guide to the City, Manchester made me think about Hitman. Of course! A game about discovering the sequence of a space and working out how to turn it to your end. But I now see that Hitman's not the richest example of what Manaugh's talking about. In Hitman, most of the sequences the player develops have been foreseen by the designers. That's why they allow you to leave the taps running in that backstage bathroom, for example, or why the guy you're after always stops at the same point for a cigarette on his way to his meeting with the arms dealer. Recently I've been playing a game that has revealed a sequence buried within it that seems to have evolved organically. I can't be sure, but I reckon the developers didn't have this sequence in mind when they put the thing together. Part of the reason, in this case, is that the developers weren't constructing a template from scratch - they were 'borrowing' someone else's. The game is Fornite's Battle Royale mode. The more I've played, the more I've realised that an awful lot of Battle Royale matches end pretty much the same way.
This is probably true of many multiplayer games, but this is the first one I have ever paid real attention to in this way. I would love to talk about entropy here, and that brilliant line from Tom Stoppard: "You cannot stir things apart." But it is too early in the morning and I've already fried my own brain with sequence-breaking. Suffice to say, Fortnite's closed system does not degenerate into chaos. Order emerges as time progresses, and because of the game's brilliant spectator mode, you get to watch that order emerging.
Man, the spectator mode is brilliant. As you probably know by now, Battle Royale drops you into a match with 100 other players and the goal is to be the last person standing. As with PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds, which Fortnite Battle Royale has ripped off, the landscape you're dropped into remains the same, but the weapons and ammo scattered around the place spawn in different locations. Once you die in Fortnite's game, however, once another player offs you with a rifle or a shotgun or an axe if you're particularly unfortunate, you then get to watch the person who killed you going about their business. When they get killed, you get to watch the person who killed them. Onwards and upwards until you're standing behind the winner. And I can now pretty much predict how the winner will have done it.
What's staggering about this is that there are so many variables seemingly in play at the start of a match. You choose when to jump out of the battle bus, which is itself making a randomised trip over the island. As you float to the ground you may have picked something to aim for, but your plans may change at the last minute as you see other players moving in too. Nobody lands on the ground with weapons - and those weapons spawn in different spots each time, remember? And then you're off to explore a huge map, with a shrinking circle of safety that is itself unpredictable. Oh yes, and you can build stuff. You aren't just exploring this landscape - you're edited it as you go. So many variables!
And yet despite this freedom, forces are already bringing the game into alignment. Die early in Battle Royale and spectator mode will let you in on the mad skirmishes of the early game. People are dying swiftly here: groups who have aimed for the big landmarks thinning themselves out in brisk, if clumsy, gun battles. The landmarks themselves - and the promises of the weapons they hold - are helping to bring people together, and offering players something to aim for when it's time to move on.
And then - I would never have really thought about this until I got serious about spectating - while the usable landscape contracts as the game's shifting circle gets smaller and smaller, the weapons pool becomes richer at the same time. Early on, people are grabbing whatever they can find. As people get killed, the people looting them - who are probably more experienced players - know what they are looking for in amongst the stuff that gets dropped. When they get killed, they then leave better stuff to pick through - and more discerning killers to loot them. And on and on it goes, the flavours intensifying until final act, as the iris contracts and brings all these most potent of weapons into an increasingly snug patch of real estate.
And so you get to the end-game, which almost always - almost almost always - plays out like this: rocket launcher, sniper rifle, and a four-walled tower with a staircase up the middle.
An inveterate bush-hider, I sometimes get quite close to this period myself. I can bide my time and pick my battles, but inevitably the skill gap kills me off somewhere between number 12 and number 7. I have never gotten higher than 4. But because of spectator mode, I know what happens. And what happens is this: once the bush-hiders have been done away with, once the lucky-streak people have pushed their luck too far, two players are left, and they generally end up using long-range weaponry on each other - one with splash damage, one with greater precision - to make the most of the distance between them.
This is where most of the game's sustained building takes place, and it is electrifying to watch. It's always great, on Twitch or Youtube, to study the way really good players move in a multiplayer shooter, but when you throw crafting into the mix, something special happens. Fortnite's construction animations are particularly strange and charming, all those bricks and slats and tiles flying together around you, and more often than not the core building is a tower - four walls and that ramp up the middle - to give players a bit of height and a bit of cover.
When that breaks down of course who knows what people build? My favourite thing to witness is a sort of panicky annulus of staircases going off in every direction - hard to shoot into, hard to make sense of through a sniper scope. But by the time someone's panicking, the game is seconds away from ending anyway. And when it ends, any spectators like me are often left with an odd feeling, that this isn't just two players facing off, but that it is the coming together of two dynasties - one dynasty, or lineage, for each player, composed not of the people they are descended from, but from the sum total of people they have killed and looted, many of whom may still be watching.
This end-game is a beautiful, spooky thing to witness, because it feels like something that is carried within the game's design. The tools and the rules of the game have this endlessly-replayed moment buried within them, a bit like the messages carried in DNA, a bit like the sequences encoded in a church or a McDonald's.
Speaking of spooky, in Manaugh's book you also get to learn what happened to Manchester in the end. He went to prison and then escaped fairly quickly - not hard when you are good at learning the sequences of a building and inserting yourself into them - and then he ended up living in a Toys R Us - literally inside the building's wall spaces. He had a little apartment set up in there, and he was keeping an eye on the store using baby monitors he'd stolen and set up around the place. I think I remember reading that he was even changing the building's sequences in subtle ways, altering rotas and getting the staff to synchronise, unwittingly, with Manchester-time. I imagine he's back in jail now. I wonder what he'd make of Battle Royale.