In front of the Sweaty Sands resort in the online shooter fortnite, a mysterious black scene appeared on the water. The frenzied combat continued all around, bullets whizzing past the strange new landmarks dotting the hills: the giant golden busts of rapper Travis Scott, anticipating the most extravagant musical performance ever in a video game.
Last Friday afternoon, I arrived early for the concert, standing on a nearby hill with a group of other players, lazily dragging each other to pass the time. All eyes were on the scene, which turned out to be a bluff: when the time came for Scott to appear, he descended on his own planet, his Godzilla-sized digital avatar, shattering the scene. puny in crumbs.
What followed was brief, just a 10 minute medley of hits, but the visual pyrotechnics were extraordinary. The world of fortnite kaleidoscopically transformed around Scott. For a moment fire poured from his body; the next day, his face melted away to reveal a robotic skull. According to developer Epic Games, over 28 million people watched the show.
It is far from being the first time that a musician is embodied in pixel form. In the early days, when game soundtracks just blew out synth loops, artists as diverse as Journey, Prince, and Bob Dylan endorsed games based on their music. You could control Michael Jackson in the 1990s moon walker, eschewing villains to muzak renditions of the King of Pop’s classics (“Smooth Criminal” never sounded more sexless). The game’s central mechanic seemed strange then – Jackson rescues children from closets, who gratefully shout “Michael!” before walking away – and developed uncomfortable associations in retrospect.
The first musicians to fully grasp the marketing potential of video games were rappers. Wu-Tang: Shaolin Style (1999) played on the rap group’s martial arts obsession, bundled with a limited-edition controller shaped like the Clan’s “W” symbol (which proved sneakily unergonomic and nearly impossible to play). In the Def Jam wrestling games, you could have rappers like Ludacris and Lil’ Kim fight Method Man and, oddly enough, actress Carmen Electra. 50 Cent released blood on the sanda shooter where a concert in an “unnamed Middle Eastern country” precipitates a bloody hunt for terrorists, with clumsy helicopter footage included at the insistence of the rapper’s seven-year-old son.
Grand Theft Auto was the series that first realized the potential of licensed music in a game, allowing players to tune into impeccably curated radio stations while cruising the beaches of Miami (or crossing pedestrians in a mall). GTA 5: after normal business hours featured DJ Solomun and The Black Madonna, while in Vice City Stories you save Phil Collins from an assassination attempt. Your reward: the opportunity to pay $6,000 to see him perform “In the Air Tonight” in its entirety, filled with pixelated widow’s peak.
It’s only recently that musicians have attempted full-fledged gigs in the game. ecstasy of getting lost in the crowd, no inimitable feeling of breathing the same air as a beloved artist.
Yet there is also something earned in a video game performance. Artists come to the listener: I was close enough to jump on Travis Scott’s huge shoe. He sang to us in our familiar fortnite favorite grounds, an intimate tour of our digital home. Players attended as personalized avatars, embodied extensions of ourselves more meaningful than a nickname in a chat box or a pixelated 2D face in a Zoom square. Then there’s the magic you can’t achieve in reality: listeners catapulted into the air, submerged underwater, and teleported into deep space to elevate the drama of each song.
That weekend I also attended Square Garden, a music festival hosted by pop experimenters 100 Gecs in the online block-building game Minecraft, with Charli XCX headliner. While Minecraft’s textureless squares can’t compete with fortnitethere was a refreshing simplicity to this show, like leaving a shiny arena gig for a friend’s band to play in the back room of a bar.
titles such as Minecraft and fortnite are selected for these events as they gradually evolve into something beyond games. They are transformed into platforms where children will meet and socialize, a virtual house that takes on even more meaning during confinement.
As Charli played messy remixes of her Sugar Rush hits, attendees pogoed and took screenshots with the artists’ avatars, sharing them on Twitter as prized behind-the-scenes selfies. When the show ended at 3 a.m., I was relatively sober, my clothes didn’t smell of cigarettes or alcohol, and most wonderfully, I was already in bed.