Games like Fortnite and the new Apex Legends seem to foretell the direction of the games industry. Seriously, if a game can be free and still manage to make millions and millions of dollars, there must be something there, and it stands to reason that publishers are going to want in on it. What games like these have in common is they’re all about you versus the world. Dive into combat with a ton of strangers and prove you’re top dog. Or team up with friends and show your squad is better than the rest. Battle Royale is what we’re calling it, and what game publisher will be able to resist?
I started thinking about battle royale games and the role they playing in the gaming landscape today. That also got me thinking about the sorts of games I prefer, all largely single-player experiences that are focused on storytelling, gameplay, and systems, not multiplayer combat. Why can’t I get into battle royale games? For that matter, what is it about battle royale games that is so appealing? And does the prevalence of games like Fortnite mean single-player games are on their way out?
I’m going to do my best not to sound like a Grumpy Old Man, rambling about the Good Old Days when games were, at best, two players, and the most fun to be had was in beating your own high score or saving the world from pixelated alien invasion. Instead, I want to show how single-player games, with their focus on story and gameplay systems, are a completely different animal from battle royale games. They’re both played on a screen with a controller, but the similarities end there. And both can coexist without harming the other.
First, let me tell you why I love single-player games.
Growing up with Nintendo and Super Nintendo, I quickly discovered my niche genre: RPGs. In the early days, the stories were simple. Kill dragon, save princess. Even the complicated stories were barebones in comparison to today — the original Final Fantasy had a twist involving time travel, which would surprise no one now. Still, there were stories. Stories beyond “save the Mushroom Kingdom from evil turtles.” Even as an elementary schooler, that resonated with me. I found myself completely lost in Cecil’s quest through Final Fantasy II on Super NES, and even more so by Terra’s plight in Final Fantasy III. The Lufia games, the Breath of Fire games, Illusion of Gaia. All leading up to the 16-bit magnum opus: Chrono Trigger. To say these games were life-changing sounds a bit overblown, but they were. I can guarantee I wouldn’t be a writer today if it weren’t for them.
As technology progressed, storytelling in games became more elaborate. Characters weren’t restricted to a few expressions animated with simplistic pixel art. Now they were fully 3D and capable of portraying real emotion. Eventually, voice actors got involved, adding yet another tool to games’ emotional toolbox. All the while, the gameplay systems that kept me engaged continued to evolve. Final Fantasy II introduced the Active Time Battle System, which inspired turn-based RPGs to mimic action-oriented combat while still revolving around the use of menus to select attacks. On the Action RPG side, games took the tight combat that found its start in games like The Legend of Zelda and Ys and further refined it, creating games that straddle the line between straight action and straight role-playing.
As life has gone on, it’s become increasingly difficult to find the time to delve into as many single-player games as I might like. As stories have gotten more complex, RPGs have gotten longer and longer. The recent hit Persona 5 clocks in at more than 100 hours. Even more modest games regularly break the 40-hour mark. That’s why I’ve been loving the indie game scene so much. I can take in a full, story-driven experience like Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice in around a dozen hours. Games such as What Remains of Edith Finch tell compelling tales in a short time and still leave you feeling completely satisfied.
So, if I mostly love a good story, why don’t I just watch a movie or read a book? Good question. I do love movies and books, but the video game medium provides an additional layer that those media don’t: interactivity. Taking in a story that I feel actively engaged in, a willing participant, creates added layers of meaning for me. Rather than observing a character overcoming adversity, I get to become that character and lead him or her through their trials. That’s why I’ve come away more personally affected by a comparatively primitive game like Chrono Trigger than many moving works of art in other media. It may have been created by a team somewhere far away, but it’s my story.
Now, let’s talk about what battle royale games like Fortnite are, and why they’re so fundamentally different than single-player experiences.
If you’re not a battle royale player, try to find someone who is, and observe them. I’ve done this with my nephew, who’s in elementary school, and loves all things Fortnite. Chances are, you’ll see lots of goofing around, building structures, chatting with friends, and occasional eruptions of firefights against opposing players. I’m far from the first person to point this out, but it bears repeating: battle royale games are often social experiences. They are the new “kids hanging out at the park.” Unwinding, blowing off steam with friends, it’s a ritual we’ve all performed countless times through the generations. Nowadays, it just happens online.
Even for those who play purely competitively, the experience is still far removed from single-player games. The goal is to win. Most kills, last survivor, whatever the case may be, competitive players of Apex Legends or Fortnite or Call of Duty are in it for the thrill of victory. And that’s good! Personally, I’ve never been competitive. Not a sports guy, uninterested in being top of the class. A lot of people like me (say, those of the more nerdy persuasion) may have grown up lacking the good-at-sports gene. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t have competitive impulses. As video games have matured and given us these new genres and ways of playing, people like that have found an outlet that works for them.
To argue that single-player, story-driven games are on the way out because battle royale games are so popular is like saying scripted television shows are done for because the NFL is so huge. There was fear of that happening, in fact, when reality TV became so popular. Media critics began lamenting the inevitable death of the scripted drama. But somehow, drama survived, with seminal pieces like “Lost” and “Breaking Bad” proving there was still massive appeal for well-told stories.
There’s space for both of these drastically different entertainment options to coexist. And just like there are tons of people who get a lot of enjoyment watching college basketball as well as Oscar-winning films, there are many gamers who don’t restrict themselves to a single genre of game. I may have missed the battle royale boat, but I’m glad it exists, and I’m glad people are playing.