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an image of five fortnite characters standing against a topographical map for Zero Build mode. the image is treated with an orange color.

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Fortnite’s Zero Build mode finally pulled me in, and now I can’t escape

Get in losers, we’re playing Fortnite

Image: Epic Games
Ana Diaz (she/her) is a culture writer at Polygon, covering internet culture, fandom, and video games. Her work has previously appeared at NPR, Wired, and The Verge.

It’s 2022, and Epic Games has dared to ask the deepest philosophical question a development team could ever ponder: What is Fortnite without forts?

Is it just “Nite”?

Stupid joke aside, the image of Fortnite without its trademark building mechanic may seem surprising for the popular battle royale game. Harvesting materials and building elaborate structures to help protect against enemies or create the perfect vantage point from which to snipe a target forms such a fundamental part of the game, it’s even in the title.

But in March, developer Epic Games axed building mechanics, and then eventually added a separate “Zero Build” mode where you could play without any of the construction elements. The introduction of the new mode shocked some longtime fans, but also brought new life to the scene. As it turns out, building the improvised structures could be intimidating for anyone who hadn’t gotten tons of practice. And now with Zero Build, I’m ready to say: I get the hype. And yes, Fortnite is one of the best games you can play right now.

I finally have a game where I can make Gaara from Naruto take a selfie.
Image: Epic Games via Polygon

In Fortnite, you can play solo or in teams of up to four and compete in an arena of 100 players in a battle royale scenario where the last combatant (or giant banana) standing wins. Without the building mechanic, Fortnite just becomes a “regular” shooter. I use quotes because the game is as cartoony as ever, and it doesn’t feel generic at all. The game is garish and absolutely delirious, and it presents an unrelenting fever dream of playful scenarios.

Let me just set one of many possible Zero Build scenes. You hop into a car that appears to be modeled on a Toyota Prius. You’re next to a giant shirtless banana (whose shirtlessness is represented by a peeled top) wearing swim trunks, pop icon Ariana Grande, and Itachi Uchiha, a mass murderer from Naruto. You turn on the radio. “Wait a Minute!” by Willow plays (not a cover, mind you, but the actual song). You enjoy the tune, but it’s interrupted as you pull up on a quaint town filled with enemies. Ariana Grande and the banana (named Peely) bust through the glass of the car windows in order to mow down Street Fighter’s Ryu and Sakura Kasugano with machine guns.

It’s the perfect game.

Zero Build’s zaniness belies an elegant simplicity, and it’s all the more approachable for it. Somehow (and hear me out on this), logging on only to be completely smashed to smithereens by some 10-year-old who is absolutely cracked at building in Fortnite wasn’t the most fun experience in the world. There’s too little room to learn — you need to juggle collecting enough construction resources with actually building and killing other players, not to mention finding a weapon, collecting ammo, and hoarding healing items.

Darth Vader wields a lightsaber in Fortnite Image: Epic Games

Zero Build, on the other hand, frees up more time to learn the combat fundamentals. You also just get a lot more time to mess around in the world, since you don’t need to collect materials or build a sniper’s nest. While playing, my friends and I employed the very scientific method of “fuck around, find out” and delighted in just how much there was to do in between spars. We rode a roller coaster, did donuts in a souped-up speedboat, and then hosted a mini contest to see just how far inland we could take said speedboat.

I covered this before with the introduction of Ariana Grande and the Naruto characters, but Fortnite’s strength lies in its general whimsy and visual approachability. The game eschews blood and gore for a bright and cartoony look. The gritty, militaristic visuals of Warzone and PUBG are tired at this point. Even when compared to a more welcoming game like Apex Legends, Fortnite’s look and approach come across as low-key.

Fortnite doesn’t take itself seriously at all. This doesn’t mean I don’t have matches where I get a little sweaty and try too hard. But it is a game where you can have an amazing kill streak, and also listen to Willow before filling up your Prius at a gas station. It’s a game that’s as thrilling as it is absurd, and now, Zero Build has turned me into its biggest fan.