Fortnite, Ariana Grande, and gaming’s new musical revolution

The ‘Thank U, Next’ singer-songwriter is performing interactive gigs within Epic Games’ hit battle royale game this weekend. Louis Chilton takes a look at the wider implications of gaming’s ever-evolving love affair with music

Saturday 07 August 2021 08:02
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First theatre. Then film. Then video games. Like grains of sand at a tourist beach, music finds a way of inserting itself into just about everything. Music has been used to embellish, deepen and vivify great works of cinema – the genius of composers like John Williams or Ennio Morricone needs no explanation.

But music has always been an integral part of gaming, too, from the sweeping scores of Final Fantasy to the soulful twangs of The Last of Us. What would Super Mario be without its iconic seven-note introduction – a motif as widely recognisable as pretty much any written in the past 100 years? The boundaries here are also fuzzy – in games like Guitar Hero, Rock Band or (more recently) PS4’s Dreams, the world of music bleeds seamlessly into games. In the past few years, however, the gaming world has started to colonise a whole new musical frontier. It’s online. It’s communal. It’s not quite a gig – but it might be the next best thing.

This weekend, Ariana Grande is appearing in Epic Games’s hit battle royale game Fortnite, delivering an interactive in-game performance as part of the game’s Rift Tour event. She’s not the first to do so: previous artists to have lent their likeness and music to the game include Diplo, Deadmau5 and Travis Scott, whose event last year attracted a record number of concurrent players to the game (12.3 million). It’s all part of Fortnite’s foray into creating a so-called “metaverse” – a virtual online three-dimensional space outside of the traditional gaming parameters. Grande, however, gives the endeavour a whole new sheen of legitimacy. Ten or 20 years ago, it’d be impossible to imagine someone of her buzzy pop cultural standing lending their time and likeness to such a project. The shift attests to gaming’s ever-evolving place in our culture. As both an artistic and commercial entity, gaming is as big and mainstream as it gets.

“It’s been a really fun, wild ride,” Phil Rampulla, Epic’s head of brand, tells me, when I ask about Grande’s interactive event. “It’s a mutual respect for each other’s worlds. [Grande] was at the top of the list, and so we created this whole journey, roughly, and started painting it out months ago, and approached Ariana, wanting to see what the reaction was. And she was all in.

“As we do this more and more, you might start to see musicians and filmmakers start to consider these spaces when they create their content from the very beginning. ‘If I’m going to write a song, how would it show up in a space like Fortnite?’ might be something that musicians in the future are really going to start to think about.”

In these virtual gigs, there are perhaps some similarities with the uncanny world of hologram performances – digitally resurrected facsimiles of artists such as Tupac Shakur or Michael Jackson, which have beguiled and bemused live crowds. But such a comparison would be unfair. Hologram gigs are held up as a shameless extreme of corporate cashing-in. Grande’s Rift Tour performances, however, are free to attend to anyone who has downloaded Fortnite (also for free). There are multiple performances scheduled throughout the weekend, giving fans across all time zones the opportunity to feasibly take part. It may not have the atmosphere or verisimilitude of a real, in-person gig, but there’s still something potent about its sense of spectacle. It is undeniably a communal experience, and it’s unprecedentedly accessible.

Now, of course, this isn’t to say that Fortnite and Grande aren’t getting something out of it themselves: the Rift Tour is a deft, direct piece of consumer marketing. Forbes estimates that Grande will receive tens of millions of dollars in merchandise sales. The details of the star’s contract have not been made public, but the publication speculates that Grande likely received “some sort of up-front payment for their appearance to begin with”, which is then bolstered by a cut of the digital in-game cosmetic sales – characters skins bearing the artist’s likeness, which players can purchase and use. Ludicrous as it may seem to say that Grande – who has more than 250 million Instagram followers – could use the exposure, it’s hard to deny Fortnite’s reach as a platform, especially when it comes to young, spend-happy teenagers.

Thank U, nexus: Ariana Grande as depicted the advertising for the ‘Fortnite’ Rift Tour event

“There’s still a lot more opportunities and spaces to explore in terms of increasing the accessibility, increasing the social connection inside the space, continuing to push on the levels of interactivity,” says Rampulla. “When we talk about Fortnite, specifically for these kinds of entertainment experiences, we always start asking: ‘What would you want to do in this space that we can’t do in the real world?’ You know, we can turn off gravity, we can change the weather... It’s going to get us to some pretty crazy places.”

Grande’s performances may be the highest profile event of its kind to date, but Fortnite is far from the only game to cotton onto the possibilities of a musical tie-in. Last year saw grime superstar Stormzy premiere a single (“Rainfall”) in collaboration with Watch Dogs: Legion. The music video was created within the game’s engine using motion capture, and Stormzy even featured as a minor character in the Watch Dogs game itself. US rap duo Run the Jewels partnered with Cyberpunk 2077 – one of several artists to contribute music to the game’s thumping electronic soundtrack. Even The Sims has got in on the action, roping in artists such as Japanese Breakfast to record versions of their songs translated into the game’s “Simlish” language, and hosting its own in-game concert earlier this year.

Stormzy used motion-capture and voice-over techniques to appear in the latest 'Watch Dogs' game

Alan Walker is one of the artists who is experimenting with the boundaries between music and gaming. A British-Norwegian DJ and producer who has supported Rihanna and Justin Bieber on tour, Walker has amassed over 50 billion streams – and more than eight million followers on Instagram – by embracing the gaming community at every turn. “The connection between the music industry and the gaming industry goes way back, to around the first video games that were ever released,” he tells me.

Walker has produced music in collaboration with games as diverse as Hideo Kojima’s Death Stranding and hit battle royale shooter PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG), and has performed at the world championship of League of Legends. He’s also global ambassador for the gaming hardware brand Asus Republic of Gamers. Asked about music’s intrusion into the world of gaming, Walker says: “I think we’re in the beginning of it.

“We’ve seen big examples in recent years. Fortnite were among the first to do major collaborations with different artists and DJs: it’s been quite spectacular. I think the Fortnite live events have been an eye-opener for the potential gaming and music really has. It’s just the same [as playing a live gig] in a way. The audience are just music lovers at the end of the day.”

Alan Walker has built his reputation on the intersection between music and video games

When talking about music and gaming, it would be remiss to ignore Grand Theft Auto. Rockstar’s open-world franchise – once demonised as the epicentre of crass, corrupting video game violence, now part of the wallpaper of the gaming mainstream – has long been at the forefront of the medium’s ever-evolving relationship with music. Grand Theft Auto soundtracks have been minor phenomena in themselves, with curated track lists appearing in the games via genre-specific radio stations. Iggy Pop hosts a radio station in Grand Theft Auto IV; GTA V saw Frank Ocean DJ his own station, Blonded.

It’s been eight years since GTA V first came out, but the game’s relationship to music has continued to evolve. GTA has hosted its own in-game music events, spotlighting rising artists and recently hosting fully motion-captured DJ sets in its in-game nightclub venue, The Music Locker.

Compared to some of Fortnite’s elaborate musical events, GTA Online’s musical sensibility could almost be called minimalist. Travis Scott performed in a blizzard of digital effects, his humongous in-game avatar strobing and dancing over the game’s map like Godzilla on E. By contrast, some of the sets in GTA’s Music Locker are more like what you’d get in reality: a DJ, a dark room, and some beats. It’s worth mentioning, however, that Scott’s full Fortnite set was only around 10 minutes long. The more ambitious the production, the more work and money that needs to be poured into every minute of it.

We are, as Walker says, only at the beginning. Grande’s Fortnite appearance may be gaming’s biggest musical showpiece to date, but it will not be the last. The next decade is likely to see a sharp rise in the quantity and ambition of virtual gigs – with technical advancements swinging open yet more doors. If VR technology manages to finally cross over into the mainstream – as some have long predicted – the possibility of fully immersive simulated concerts is in our sights. For many, the blue-light glare of a TV monitor could never hope to replace the spontaneous chill and awe of a real live gig. But replacing it is never the aim. At the end of the day, it’s all an experiment, an exercise in technical innovation and breaking boundaries. Maybe that old country music adage is right. All you really need is three chords and the truth – just make sure one of them’s an HDMI.

The Rift Tour event can be accessed on ‘Fortnite’ at 7pm BST on Saturday, 7 August, or at 5am, 2pm and 11pm BST on Sunday 8 August

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