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I love games that tell stories. I tend towards big titles that contain pre-destined cinematic quests: five acts, good writing, long cutscenes. I play them all. Open worlds or games on rails, I want a ride or a torch to find my own way. I open the cover on smaller stories in between these epics, playing careful independent games that speak in quick whispers; games whose stories feel like a tender heart to heart. Loud or quiet, straightforward, layered, I favour the way it feels to be the player in a story-driven game. It is like the moment a member of the audience is called to the stage: player becomes performer in somebody else’s story. Reality is flattened, fiction is conjured, audience absorbed in a shared dream or shared hallucination. I think stories in games can be a way to play with magic.
So, it follows that when I search for games to play, I go for story-looking things. I rummage through lists of the best RPGs and check out anything tagged under ‘adventure.’ But for the entirety of the past year, my friend has been begging me to download this game he loves, Apex Legends. I knew it was guns and fighting, and while I have enjoyed my fair share of guns and fighting, I wasn’t in a rush to play. After I had gotten to the end of Red Dead Redemption 2, I decided to download it for a change of pace, a little palette cleanser, and as a favour to that friend who had escalated his plea and had started sending voice notes now instead of messages. It’s free anyway, I thought, I might as well.
I… did not expect it to become one of my favourite games of all time. I certainly did not expect to go on to play it as much as I have. I only downloaded Apex on the last day of September, guard completely down, but Playstation’s 2021 wrap up just informed me that I played for 557 hours. Google then informed that 557 hours is 23 days. I spent 23 days of 2021 playing Apex Legends. If I had downloaded it earlier in the year, if only I had listened to my friend, that number could have tripled. And this is mad to me. Apex Legends is an online multiplayer battle royale. It is the wrong genre completely.
Apex involves squads of two to three people flying down into a dystopian wilderness with no weapons and no armour to their name. They must quickly find something to fight with. There are 18 different characters to choose from, each with their own abilities and personalities. Players compete against each other until only one squad is left standing. And while they are trying their best to survive, the perimeter they fight within gets smaller and smaller. This pushes teams together until there is nowhere left to hide and the game is forced to come to an exciting, fighting end as it crowns its champions.
It’s byline could be Fortnite for adults or Warzone for happy people. No, I was not expecting this to happen, and you might not be either based on the outline of the game above. The battle royale format sounds too brutal for any kind of shared dream to be achieved; too militant for an audience member to be coaxed up to the stage; too fast for a story to be written at all.
But the reason I’ve played this game so much is because of the way it tells me stories. And I want to describe what I think is happening here to make a case for narrative value in a game that would never seriously be granted much because it’s just seen as some guns and some fighting, as soulless action with no story to prop it up.
My core reason is this: Apex is designed with enough space, time, freedom, communication and randomness that it is not only possible for the player to generate their own story as they play, but to have that story develop into a different genre every single time they do. Now, the first half of that statement is nothing new — there are plenty of sandbox games that give players enough to be getting on with to create their own fun. It happens in Minecraft but it also happens on playgrounds and in dollhouses too. What I actually care about is the second part of what I said because it is the reason I can’t stop playing.
Apex offers so many variables within a single game that I never know how things are going to turn out. And neither do my teammates. Matchmaking puts me with players of all abilities across Europe, and sometimes American servers when it’s late at night. I can’t predict how my squad is going to act, and they don’t know me either. Soft first date nerves, strange implicit trust. Jumpmaster responsibilities are different game to game so it’s not always my choice where we get to land; because the maps are extensive, with plenty of points of interest, landing can set the mood and intensity of a game right from the start. Similarly, loot is never in the same place as last time, which makes things feel frantic and exciting. And there are diverse abilities attached to characters. People main all kinds of Legends so games can swing offensive, defensive, or into other categories entirely, depending on the makeup of a squad. Anything can happen when the game can last anywhere between 20 seconds and over 20 minutes, especially when the destination of the game’s final ring is always changing too.
This huge number of variables means every game becomes a story of its own. The speed and smoothness with which all of this happens puts storytelling on tap, but it is a magic formula that comes out. With so many factors changing and swapping, Apex allows its own genre to constantly shift. All I have done for the last four months is pull down the arm on the fruit machine to make myself a new combination of drama, like ad libs in the game’s world, landing on different jackpot genres. After 557 hours, it feels like I have played them all.
I have played romance. Trios becoming duos when someone accidentally disconnects. We share what little we have, never leaving the other person behind or alone. Sweet, intense. It might be my favourite style of game: two strangers holding onto each for dear life, just the two of us against the world, against the lobby, and against the odds. I’ve also made friends with strangers on the mic: a lady in America who was soothing her baby on her lap while she flew us into battle, a Norwegian girl who had thousands of kills and gave me compliments, and a German man who kept reviving me while we spoke about childhood nicknames. Hi, Toothpick Joe.
I have also played horrors, so many horrors. I have been the only person left alive, carrying my teammates banners in the hopes of reviving them, but getting chased relentlessly across the map by a full, hungry team. I’ve been jump-scared by players falling out of the sky, ratting in rooms, and climbing over the edges of tall buildings where I didn’t think they could reach.
And then, there was that one time. I was stood with my team and we were running around nervously checking that all of our doors were closed. Nervous because we could see a squad in the building opposite us but something was off. They were standing perfectly still in the windows. It didn’t make any sense. Why weren’t they coming to fight us? Why didn’t we run to fight them? After a few long minutes of faces in windows like ghosts, they left out of the side door and then we watched them jump off the edge of the map. Dead. Dead of their own accord. When we went into the building they’d been staring at us from, it was filled with guns and armour and health because they’d dropped all of their loot on the floor for us before they went. Their final will and testament. I don’t even know if this one counts as horror but we got big shivers at the time.
And then the opposite of horror, I’ve played comedies. Sometimes when the game is slow, or sometimes when the game is going really well, players let loose, get silly. Crouch, stand back up, crouch, stand back up. Emote out in the open, throw down holograms to decorate the floor, click voice lines repeatedly, dance. One time, my squad decided to see how fast we could slide down a big hill and we would run back to the top immediately to race again. Anyone could have killed us, we weren’t paying attention and we didn’t have our guns out. And it’s funny because it’s not like we knew each other — none of us ever came on the mic to say this is a thing we should do. We just got carried away by our own fun, silently and at the same time. We made comedy to offset the tension; we made comedy as a way to play.
Last night, I played with someone who was unmuted and also drunk and at a party that I could hear going on in the background. He was laughing when he became the kill leader, which he announced to his friends who all cheered. I was laughing to myself on the couch. When we got caught between two teams and eventually lost, he told us he had had a really nice time and I came off mute to agree. Inside the comedy genre, winning doesn’t really matter anymore because you’ve already had your fun.
The opposite of comedies again, I’ve played tragedies. I have played games where I’ve had everything I needed: good guns, the best armour, a special gold shield that means I can revive myself if I ever get knocked down. I’ve had good teammates who look like they know what they’re doing. But then I’ve gotten complacent, too brave, or maybe it was my teammate who decided to go full Icarus. One of us has pushed another team we assumed weren’t as good as we were, and we’ve lost the game in its final moments because we thought we were the heroes, not them. Fallen from great heights.
There have been westerns, tense shootouts. Mission impossible moments, Bonnie and Clyde. There have been mysteries where an enemy that killed my teammates has disappeared without a trace. Fables, legends, where high level players carry the squad to victory, moving and fighting in this cool, fluid way as though they have more buttons on their controllers than I do (or like they’re playing with a mouse and keyboard instead). And then those mysteries from earlier have been solved. That one enemy that got away appears again at the end of the game. They have become a villain to us now; time apart has put them through a character arc, and their return means this story is now only about revenge.
It’s just always full of drama. I wrote earlier that these games can come off as soulless action with no story to prop it up, and things can still feel soulless at times but it’s because of story, not in spite of it. Even when a game is over as soon as it has begun, there’s still a story there: if I am killed on landing by someone who reached for that one gun before I did — feeling like I’m scrambling to grab cash in a flying money machine on a game show — I’m just an NPC in the story that’s about to continue for them.
But then, the sooner I die, the closer I am to playing again and I don’t resent that. I am so used to picking one game, being delivered one story, and feeling one long aesthetic and mood. There is energy in something like Apex being so unstable, and it’s a kind of energy that I find more stimulating than most other media I try to enjoy. Like, even the fact that it is so changeable, so unknowable, it makes me want to get to a level of familiarity and expertise with the game where I could start to dictate the drama; or at least respond with ease to the story I am in when it is challenged and co-written with other teams.
About a week into playing, I remember saying to my friend that I really want to get good at this. I have never said that about anything else because I’ve either been good at it already or just not interested enough to learn. But I’m so happy with my Apex skills now even though I’m still not reliably a winner.
I main Mirage, my sweet himbo, a guy that can send out multiple projections of himself to make a getaway and bamboozle the enemy. I play him because he is fun and also dumb: one of his intro lines is ‘three words, win and win again.’ I played Rampart for weeks before I fell for Witt. She’s a cool Indian lady with a massive gun and I unlocked her because her massive gun is called Sheila and that’s my Nan’s name — this made sense at the time. And just to speak in specifics for a second for other Apex players: my most kills in one game is still capped at 8 but I just had a 3.3K damage game which I never thought would happen. Got my little hammer badge. I did that with a PK and a Triple Take, but in general I never pass up the opportunity to carry a Bocek and a Flatline.
I think there is a steep learning curve to this game and to getting to a point where stories can be projected on top of mechanics and action, where you can start to romanticise everything like I have. But I have had the best Apex tuition from my friends — from Reiss who was the one harassing me, and from Liccy and Gino who sent me a Playstation voucher in the post so that I could buy Mirage a legendary cowboy skin. I am never taking it off.
557 hours in 2021. I have no idea how much I am going to play in 2022. Posting this review means I have to start playing other games so that I have new things to write about even though I have so little interest in anything other than Apex right now. So, if I just start reviewing everything new I play as being too one note, too steady in its genre, at least you now know why. Apex is a game that never sits still and that’s exactly why I like it.