When Lost was televised from 2004 to 2010, everyone in the world seemed to be watching it. Or at least my small town was. I even went to a crowded theater on the night of its finale to watch the the series' conclusion with a crowd of people I knew from school, donut shops, and other typical small town places. There wasn't a dry eye or non-sniffling nose in the house.
When Lost first started, people loved it for the mystery. What the heck was going on with this island? Polar bears, hatches, time travel, and more confounded viewers, but over time, the mysteries began to fall away in importance. The character study of its unlikely survivors became the center of it.
Epic Games' incessant tugging and pulling at the island of Fortnite reminds me a lot of Lost, and what it was like to watch it when the show was at its peak—before the naysayers in recent years have chimed in to say, "Um, actually Lost wasn't even good!" Lost was an inescapable force for its time, ripe for endless discussion and debate. With Fortnite, its constantly changing map births new mysteries on a monthly basis like episodes of the drama once did, and it doesn't even have a narrative to carry it by.
In the wee hours of August 23, Fortnite's map saw yet another change: a new location. Erected in the place of Tomato Town, Tomato Temple is a lot more drab in decoration. It's littered with crumbling ruins now, almost like an ancient archaeological site. It's surrounded by a jungle. The temple's overcome the familiar suburban pitstop space of Tomato Town, the only thing remaining is the classic Tomatohead mascot—only now it's in a little rougher shape than we're used to.
It's a unique approach to keeping Fortnite feeling fresh. Where other battle royale games are adding new maps and tweaking them for the sake of gameplay and Reddit whiners, Fortnite is sticking with one single map, and shifting it more with the purpose of drumming up intrigue and fan theories. Ahead of new seasons for Battle Pass, Epic Games have inserted unexplained happenings like a giant crack in the sky and craters appearing all across the world as a result of comets. Other ongoing multiplayer games play up special events and story breakthroughs to keep fans engaged, but Epic Games narrows its own approach. The island is all that matters.
The latest change is a big one, happening where Tomato Town used to be. I have a lot of fond memories of Tomato Town. Most of them involved hiding out in its diner's basement, hearing all the chaos around me at the start of a match. Then I'd emerge and die. (I'm not very good at Fortnite.) Tomato Temple scrubs away that hide-and-die loop I'm familiar with: It's now very open with a lot of already-built stairs, so constructing your own isn't quite a necessity. I'm already curious about why Tomatohead has had a temple constructed in its honor. Even the Tomatohead skin got an update, with it attaining the ability to change its style after completing challenges so it can become more similar to Tomato Temple's mascot, much like some of the Battle Pass-exclusive skins.
Season 6, by all accounts, is rapidly approaching, but it's still at least a few weeks away. (Typically, Fortnite seasons run for around 10 weeks; Season 5 concludes on September 25.) This might mean that it's a tad too early to already be making such drastic changes to tease the new season. It could signal a different sort of change though, like an event, new skins, or other unexpected update. And that's what makes Epic Games' constant tinkering with Fortnite's island so endearing: no one really knows what's up its sleeve.
It's a similar approach to what some MMOs do to work up hype for updates and expansions. Perhaps most notably, World of Warcraft has a reputation for returning to its homeland of Azeroth and improving it for players. When flying mounts flew into the MMORPG, environments had to be reconsidered from a new perspective. When the Cataclysm expansion revisited the launch continent, the team went from only fixing some of it to updating the majority of it. Whole areas, such as Thousand Needles, were completely changed with the update.
Overwatch, too, has a habit of revisiting its maps for the sake of keeping its world consistent with the story outside of it. When Numbani-based 24th hero Orisa was to be announced, Blizzard teased it out by alluding more to the Doomfist side of the friendly robot's arc. After some external teases, including a tweet with art of the Numbani airport destroyed, the map itself drastically changed. The starting area of the airport was destroyed, with a Doomfist-shaped punch smashed into the wall. The payload itself was suddenly missing Doomfist's "fist" too. All signs pointed to Doomfist being the upcoming hero, but it ended up being Orisa, an OR-15 that was originally destroyed by Doomfist until 11-year-old genius Efi Oladele patched her up.
Even to this day though, Numbani's airport is littered in wreckage. Blizzard's dropped other casual references to its animated shorts, comics, and other lore expanding storytelling over the years into Overwatch itself, but the Numbani incident is the biggest example of all.
Meanwhile, Epic Games isn't letting its map changes stagnate like Numbani's Doomfist-wreaked chaos. Every month, it seems, there's some new thing to discover or some mystery to solve. For some Battle Pass seasons, the map even changes to coincide with the theme. For Season 4's superheroes, entire areas were cratered with new super jump-enabling items scattered aplenty in turn. For Season 5's inconsistent theme, a desert area suddenly appeared on the island like nothing the map had ever seen before. When surprises pop up beyond that though, such as this week's Tomato Town wreckage, the likes of social media, Reddit, and other corners of the internet cook up theories as a response. Chin-stroking articles are written predicting what may or probably will happen based on the evidence laid out upon Fortnite's characteristically bright green fields. It's not just the internet though.
Wherever the hell I am, I feel like I'm eavesdropping on someone talking about Fortnite—whether it's a kid or a grown adult that pays bills. Fortnite is inescapable. It's a commonality between North Americans; a water cooler talking point for the ages thanks to its free-to-play accessibility. Epic Games messing with its own map isn't a fruitless venture; it's giving fans something to talk about outside of the emergent matches they play. And it's proof that multiplayer games don't necessarily need a well of lore to boast a lively, hungry audience of players.
As a multiplayer first-and-foremost game, all Epic Games needed to do was make the island a character itself. A character that's endlessly malleable, something that players have a connection to because it's what they play on every day. Just as Lost once did, it's successfully captured the water cooler talk of offices and cafeterias far and wide. Fortnite is everywhere for the time being, and it has its mystery-shrouded map to thank for that.