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Ariana Grande performs in concert in ‘Fortnite’

(Washington Post illustration; Epic Games)
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I’ve seen Ariana Grande in concert twice now. Once in person, at Barclays Center in 2019, before the pandemic. And a second time virtually, within the video game “Fortnite.”

The next big event in “Fortnite” begins Friday, with the pop star as the headlining act. She has been added to “Fortnite” as a cosmetic skin that players can purchase and use to dress up their character, and as a larger-than-life performer enhanced by angelic imagery, fluffy clouds, heart emotes and more. The surreal and fantastical elements that parent company Epic Games brings to Ariana Grande’s concert help differentiate each song and elevate the show into — even partially — what one might call the metaverse.

The new event, called “Rift Tour,” comes with five showtimes where players can hop into the game and watch Ariana perform her top songs like “positions” and “raindrops (an angel cried)” while interacting with unique environments. In one sequence, players can walk on stairs that float vertically as a massive version of Ariana Grande walks up her own proportionately large set of stairs while singing and holding onto a crystallized mallet. In another, gamers can bounce on large, pink trees, performing pirouettes and tumbles as they leap in the air.

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Compared to an in-person concert experience, Ariana Grande isn’t performing live in “Fortnite.” The songs are prerecorded, and they’re the clean versions, omitting profanity. But her avatar is actively transforming and changing outfits throughout the roughly 20-minute event. The set changes and new scenery keep things interesting for the audience, helping to differentiate some of Ariana Grande’s pop repertoire.

The game also gives players plenty to do while Ariana is singing. While at a real-life venue, you might only be able to stand up or sit down and dance in your seat; in Rift Tour, there’s a way to emote, shoot guns and keep riding through space and time to follow Ariana Grande’s next song and other players. In the preview, my character, dressed as Ariana, watched a bigger version of Ariana. At one point, Rift Tour shifts from a musical experience to a boss battle when players are pulled on a rollercoaster-like ride and made to shoot at one of “Fortnite’s” largest monsters — Storm King, who first appeared in a holiday 2018 event — to attempt a high score.

“The first question we always ask every partner is: What have you not been able to do in real life that you’ve always wanted to do?" said Phil Rampulla, head of brand at Epic Games, “Fortnite’s” developer. "Because you know ‘Fortnite’ is that place that allows for the impossible to become real. We don’t have the constraints of gravity and budgets.”

Epic developers worked on making the concert different from the ones that “Fortnite” has put on in the past, from the game’s more traditional-looking first concert featuring Marshmello in 2019 to Travis Scott’s event in April of 2020, where the rapper grew to tremendous proportions while harnessing the powers of space. More than 10 million concurrent players tuned in for Marshmello in 2019, and Scott topped that record in April last year when he brought in more than 12 million concurrent players.

Each concert is of a different musical genre, and Epic hopes they might attract a new audience of players unfamiliar with “Fortnite.”

“We know that these events bring in new users, they bring users back and then it becomes a big cultural moment of social interactivity,” said Adam Sussman, president of Epic Games.

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