I got to "play" the Fortnite x Ariana Grande Rift Tour experience a little early, and I sort of didn't know how to react. I'm very much a casual fan of Ms. Grande's work. I appreciate it, but I am not an Arianator (all respect to them). That said, I went into the experience with a mind loaded with thoughts about virtual musical experiences, and came out thinking about how they could be a lot better.
Right now, the Ariana Grande Rift Tour feels like the world's greatest visualizer layer. Your avatar can move around the virtual representative of the superstar at hand, and there's slight interactivity. But it just needs more.
Just that morning, I opted to not buy concert tickets for the upcoming Tyler The Creator tour (for a variety of reasons, related to and not related to Covid's Delta variant), and it left me thinking about all things music. Tyler seems like a natural fit, as do a bunch of other musicians I follow (Charli XCX, The Weeknd and — of course — Gorillaz). So I've started to think about how these Fortnite events could be improved. Here's how I'd do it.
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1. Give us something new, we're desperate
There is value in the familiarity of a song everyone knows and has listened to hundreds of times over. That said, fans of a musician can hear that same song without going into Fortnite — and even as someone who plays video games, I'm of the opinion that the Fortnite interface is too complicated for first timers to fully know where things are. The buttons to press for doing a dance emote are not displayed on screen, so first-timers may be sitting there wondering why everyone but them can dance. I certainly had that issue.
So you've got to reward folks who made the effort to log in at a certain time, and figure things out, with something new from the artist. Yes, I'm sure Ariana Grande contributed to many aspects of the video. It was great that Fortnite Ariana's got a bag that's created in the name of Piggy Smallz (her pet pig and emotional support animal), and the video has tons of references to her songs and career. But it clearly lacked anything that we haven't heard or seen IRL yet.
Maybe Ariana Grande's music release schedule has been set a long ways into the future, so we couldn't get a new song. But why (aside from money) couldn't the version of 7 Rings we heard be a new recording?
2. Get your Fortnite out of my fandom
Since I'm not an Arianator, I was a bit confused when songs that didn't sound like hers started the experience. "Oh, these must be collaborations she's done with someone else," I thought to myself, as "Come & Go" by Juice WRLD and Marshmello, "Audio" by Sia, Diplo and Labrinth / LSD and "Victorious" by Wolfmother blared. I later learned (again, thank you Alyssa), that they are not Ariana's.
There was also the matter of a bunch of stuff that didn't feel exactly related. You traverse an inky slide of blues and purples, and pick up power-ups to move, and later, you ride tiny llama unicorns — and it all screams "Fortnite!" more than it does feel like "an Ariana Grande Joint."
I get it that Epic Games is not going to throw away their whole brand identity and make a white-label experience for musicians, but it definitely felt like there was a lot in there that new audiences wouldn't identify with as authentic to their fandom. And if the Fortnite events are meant to grow the brand — we're betting Grande's legion of supporters are going to practically break Fortnite's servers this weekend — they should feel more welcoming.
3. Please, Fortnite, may I have some more?
At this point, you're probably shocked to hear that, with all my complaints, that I wanted more. Well, that's a part of the problem. At around 10 minutes or so (it felt as long as the Travis Scott x Fortnite collaboration), the Ariana Grande Rift Tour feels more like a pit-stop than an event. I've had longer Instagram Story binge-watches.
Again, I know that this isn't meant to replace concerts. It's free and all. But I could imagine a situation where you get to the end of the set we saw, and get an offer to unlock a whole new series of songs and events.
For a price, of course. These events take a lot of time and effort, with artists wearing motion-capture suits and both parties (Epic Games & Ariana's team) hammering out details. We already know they're willing to charge — the Ariana Grande skin costs $20 — so why not let them have us pay for a better overall experience?
4. Let us fight with our faves
The Ariana Grande Rift Tour has some baddies, namely a giant horned beast that was seemingly made out of crystals and Monster energy drinks, but the experience of battling them felt detached from Ms. Grande's part of the game. As far as I can tell, it has zero connection to her or her songs, and even though she has a giant sledgehammer (her 'pick-axe' to borrow the Fortnite terminology), she doesn't join in the fight.
Instead, you just stand on the wings of a by-plane, shooting at the crystals and face of the beast, doing damage. I racked up the second-most points of my group (out of three, LOL), but found this to be odd and unrelated. That kind of boss battle would have meant more, say, to a Rob Zombie x Fortnite collaboration (please, Epic), but for Ms. Grande, it felt incongruous.
Grande's sledgehammer, for example, could have been made interactive, as players could chain their attacks with her, or attack the back of the sledgehammer to increase its attack velocity.
5. Give us an actual narrative
The Ariana Grande x Fortnite Rift Tour experience leans on references in lieu of a story. She shatters the Rift with her sledgehammer as a nod to how she broke the glass ceiling in the "God Is A Woman" video — and as I noted earlier, the Piggy Smallz backpack is nice. It certainly got the fans reacting.
But references are just a puff pastry when compared to an actual story, which could make this whole thing feel like a meal. Even though you can play it over a few times, it's definitely the kind of ephemeral art that comes and goes and you move on. If there was a story to it, I probably would have come out with a better vibe.
I know I'm not a part of the target demo for the Fortnite Ariana Grande event. But it's not hard to see that the Rift Tour format may leave first timers going "that it?" This thing has gotten seriously hyped, but there's no indicator of its length in Epic's blog post.
In fact, Epic advises people to boot up Fortnite "60 minutes before your selected showtime," and then the experience you get is about a sixth of that? That's one way to possibly aggravate Arianators.
But I'm not here to dunk on Epic. I just want the Rift Tour to be cooler for when I get excited that one of my favorite musicians or artists is getting in on the fun.
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