I wanted to start this piece with a little optimism. I wanted to wax about how excited I was to go to my first in-person event since the lockdowns started last year — to be in a crowd again, to be surrounded by colleagues eating delicious snacks and talking about video games together face-to-face. I bought my first train ticket in nearly two years and headed out to New York City to attend a concert … sort of. I was on my way to see the Fortnite Rift Tour, a digital Ariana Grande concert that takes place entirely within the battle royale game.
I don’t need to tell you that things are not back to “normal” yet. Despite what we may think or want to believe. I can’t and won’t say that things are better or if things are going to be worse, all I know is that life is still different. This was very clear to me when I walked into the venue that Epic Games booked for its Fortnite Rift Tour press event. The venue had tall ceilings, loud echoey walls, and wide-open spaces meant to be filled with art, music, food, and about 200 people. There was art and food there, and music too, of course. However, besides the crew that worked tirelessly to get this event off the ground, there were only six members of the press there, myself included.
This was of course done with safety in mind. While New York City has relaxed its lockdown regulations, Epic Games wanted to err on the side of caution. After talking to some folks at the event, I learned that this experience was indeed meant to fill this entire venue. It was only a couple of days before it happened that Epic decided to switch it to be a more socially distant experience.
We sat down, at least one empty desk between us as a buffer, put on our headphones, and entered into the Fortnite Metaverse. During this event, I experienced more than mind-bending music and flair; I was reminded how important the human spirit is in times of adversity.
Into the Metaverse
At the top of the event, I got to deck my Fortnite character out in various bling, including the new Ariana Grande outfit. I chose a knight, as someone else already picked her outfit. Something about Ariana Grande performing in Fortnite to a crowd of Ariana Grandes felt off to me so I am glad we avoided that existential conundrum.
In a few brief moments, the digital stage exploded out from under me, and out came Ariana Grande — larger than God and twice as shiny. As soon as I fell off the floating stage, I landed on a liquid slide filled with multicolored paint. At that moment, I realized that this would be nothing like Fortnite’s Travis Scott experience that made waves last spring right at the beginning of the U.S. lockdowns. This was something completely unique. Instead of just watching a performance in a video game space, we were going on an epic journey with Ariana Grande guiding us through like Charon with butterfly wings.
While the digital Ariana Grande belted out songs, we raced down the technicolor dream coat slide, collecting speed boosts and gold items that would morph the colors. Without warning, the landscape completely changed. We were transported to a windswept forest filled with pink trees that were incredibly easy to bounce on. Soon after, we found ourselves floating aimlessly in large, iridescent bubbles. Next, we were racing each other again in what can only be described as a non-euclidean Mount Olympus.
Ariana Grande is the fourth-dimensional deity of the Metaverse and we are her patrons.
I was never alone during my experience. I was surrounded by Fishstick and Rick Sanchez from Rick and Morty. We danced together and tried to jump up and down to the beat. As I was on the tail of a biplane with Rick shooting a giant demon and its dancing minions, I couldn’t help but be aware that the only reason why I was at this event was that my editor had to travel to Connecticut to attend an in-person concert featuring Limp Bizkit.
I doubt Fred Durst had a giant demon at his show. (Editor’s note: he didn’t.)
The rainbow connection
I soon found myself in a void. Nothing but darkness surrounded me as my knight laid prone on the ground. Suddenly, a hand stretched out and picked me up. My screen filled up with characters, both prone and standing. The game encouraged me to revive a fallen character, similar to how you would in a normal squad match.
With that one moment, it all clicked for me: Underneath the vibrant flamboyance of the event, there was the core of something human that resonated with me. Reaching out to another person, digital or otherwise, is all we can do right now. No matter what the world looks like, we all need to find a way to make that human connection again.
I think I subconsciously knew that throughout the entire concert. While jumping up and down in the rose-colored woodlands, I instinctively sought out other players. During the slide experience, for example, I stuck with the pack instead of trying to outpace them. I wanted to have a shared experience with the people around me. It didn’t matter that we were inside the Metaverse, separated by large metal barriers; we were still together despite all of it.
That made me think of the event itself and its decision to go on even with its limited capacity. We have to endure. People need to find ways to still reach out to each other. Sure, it’s more difficult and confusing than it has been, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t find creative ways to fill those gaps.
No matter what the world looks like, we all need to find a way to make that human connection again.
Many people will question whether the Fortnite Rift Tour will compete with live in-person concerts and I think that’s the wrong question. The Rift Tour does not threaten live concerts in the same way that music videos do not. This is an entirely new platform for artists to experiment and play with. It’s just a modern tool that gives us new ways to reach out to each other again.
The concert itself was only about 20 minutes long. We all stood up and talked to each other about the experience we all shared. Seeing people smile as they talked about Ariana Grande smashing the stage with a giant hammer was a treat to witness again. A couple of minutes later, we were asked to wrap it up so the crew can sanitize and prepare the space for the next group of six.
Just like that, the experience was over. The giant demon was gone and all of the iridescent bubbles popped. The music died out and was taken over by the sounds of disinfectants being scrubbed on surfaces and the scraping of moving desks. We left Ariana Grande’s domain and we are back in the real world with all the baggage that comes with it. All I had left were the memories and the connections I made, despite everything around me.