Since late 2019 I've been archiving TikToks and working towards a lecture/montage that uncovers its visual language and explores what sets it apart form other social media platforms.
On Square Garden and Astronomical: the possibilities of online multiplayer in-game events
On May second Fortnite took to Twitter to announce its new Party Royale mode that would be premiered with a dj-set by Diplo half an hour later. This is a designated map (environment in the game) where players can’t kill each other (the main goal in its standard Battle Royal mode), but just hang out and chill, as Epic Games, Fortnite’s producer, announced. The map is an island that is sort of set up like festival. There is a screen that looks like it’s made for film screenings, there’s a main stage for musical acts, in the center of the island there’s a small plaza with some sort-of shops. And throughout the island are small mini-games and booths to change your avatars outfit, your so-called skin, without leaving the game, which is unique to Party Royale.
Its opening was celebrated, or actually tested, with Diplo doing a Major Lazer dj-set per livestream. It was spontaneously announced hours before the event would take place. Much online the unlike the highly promoted Astronomical event by/for Travis Scott the weekend before that.
Astronomical was held in Battle Royale mode (resulting in three deaths before the “concert” even started for a Rolling Stone journalist who was reporting). At the same time in a very different place Square Garden was happening. This was a festival on a Minecraft server, initiated by the band 100 gecs in collaboration with Open Pit, a group of artists, designers and developers specialized in Minecraft events.
As the outbreak of the coronavirus has made music events at stadiums, bars and other concert venues impossible many artists have done video live streams on platforms such as Instagram, Twitch and YouTube. In this flood, in-game music events offer a different experience. They are by no means a new phenomenon: Fortnite hosted a Marshmello concert last year and Open Pit organized events like the Mine Gala and Coalchella in Minecraft that already had 100 gecs on the line-up, in 2018 and 2019. Also, more than a decade before all this there were multiple attempts at festivals and concerts in online games like Second Life.
But with little alternatives left for attending music events while stuck at home, it’s interesting to look at the specific possibilities of in-game music events. And as Astronomical and Square Garden took place at the same time, while being completely different experiences it’s interesting to compare the two. By looking at their similarities and differences we might get a sense of what is valuable, useful and interesting for these kind of events.
Disclaimer: I started writing this piece a long time ago in the week right after Square Garden and Astronimical. I know Party Royale has been around for a while at this point — and I did love that picture of someone watching Inception on the virtual screen in Fortnite on their phone — but as I started this piece months ago I mainly want to focus on these two events.
Before we start the comparison let’s get a few similarities, and maybe key functions of these type of events out of the way. First, the way the visitors would attend the “concerts” is by entering a custom made map or area in the game, specifically made for the event. The way this was done at both events actually differs quite a bit, so more on that later. Second, at both events there was no actual live music. Travis Scott was not rapping live. Instead a pre-made mix of 5 of his songs was being played in sync with the choreographed events in the game world. At Square Garden most artists would be doing a dj-set already. And also here those were prerecorded or pre-mixed and played back at the night of the event.
Now first let’s look at Travis Scott, Fortnite and how these two met at Astronomical. For those not in the loop: Travis Scott has found himself in the center of mainstream contemporary hiphop over the past five years or so. He reached the highlight of his career thus far when Sicko Mode, from his most commercially successful album Astroworld that came out the same year, became one of the biggest hits of 2018 and went seven times platinum in the US. His sound consists out of autotune-soaked sing-rapping with extremely well executed staccato ad-libs. The beats he uses often feature somewhat atmospheric synths, fitting his lyrics about doing drugs. As hazy as his studio recordings can be at times, so energetic are his live performances. A clip of Scott that went on to go viral shows him at one of his concerts screaming and heavily shaking a microphone stand above his head while flames are blasting in the background. For Astronomical, Fortnite wittily adapted this to an in-game emote, a dance or movement you can make your character do that usually needs to be unlocked by achievements — there were special Astronomical-themed challenges in the time leading up to the event — or is to be paid for.
Travis Scott: the meme, the emote.
Fortnite is a multiplayer online video game released in July 2017. It got incredibly popular, most notoriously amongst kids and teenagers, but was (it’s real glory days lie in the recent past) popular by adults as well. The day it probably became a serious thing for adults, and rappers as well, was when Drake joined Ninja (the most famous Fortnite streamer) in a stream on Twitch in 2018. That was the year the game quadrupled its user count. It is hard to find statistics on the number of monthly players, but it’s assumed that over the past two years Fortnite’s popularity has declined. Since its beginning Fortnite has new seasons every couple of months that offer changes to the map of the game, new skins, emotes and attributes for your avatar and new challenges. Late 2019 it even started its second chapter, changing to a completely different map. This was probably meant as a way to refresh the game and keep players engaged, though often in comments sections on Fortnite’s social media you see a pushback from players who long for the old map.
Fortnite also probably is game with the biggest sales in merchandise amongst children since Angry Birds.
So that’s Travis Scott and Fortnite, now let’s look at their crossover event. Astronomical started out at a stage in the Battle Royale map. But unlike Marshmello’s performance before him, Travis’ event wouldn’t take place there. At the start a small planet comes drifting towards the crowd. It is covered with a theme park (Travis’ album Astroworld was named after the now-closed theme park in his hometown Houston) and at its core a huge speaker. The screen on the stage dissolves as the planet appears behind it while Drake’s part from Sicko Mode is playing. At the drop a comet that was circling the planet hits the ground, and a giant Travis Scott, wearing the Jordans from his collaboration with the brand, arises from this celestial explosion while the environment shifts and we appear to be in another part of the Fortnite map, or a whole other map altogether. This will happen a few times over the course of Astronomical, later scenes take place under water and in space. These changes happen perfectly orchestrated sync with the way the songs change from one into the next, or when there is some sort of drop or beat switch.
The event is an amazing tour de force of Epic Games’ Unreal Engine. There are impressive light and video effects. And I believe the swimming under water feature was premiered as well. On my twitter feed I saw some people comparing it to Sam Rolfes’ video for Amnesia Scanner from 2016. These perfectly-synced sequences and shifting surroundings come with downside though. How impressive they might have looked, the environments of the scenes were all quite small. And throughout the event you could walk and look around by yourself, but there wasn’t really a point in doing so besides following Travis.
The avatar of Travis was rapping the first couple of songs and had his skin ripping off of his face revealing to be some kind of Terminator. Later he shapeshifted to the Astro Jack avatar, who wears some sort of space helmet hiding its face. Also his movements seemed a bit slowed down or something, making clear this was in no way live or realtime.
There doesn’t seem to be any information on how the event was made, whether Travis himself was motion-captured or not, or how much time it took. One Epic Games employee tweeted that it was made (at least partially) from home because of Covid, which might explain why Travis’ face wasn’t animated throughout the entire event. I do question Travis’ own involvement a bit, as he seemed a bit surprised on his Instagram Live watching the event.
In conclusion the event was aesthetically impressive and a wild ride for its visitors, but the possibilities in the actual game environment itself were quite minimal.
It’s hard to say if Astronomical attracted more Travis fans who made an account to watch the event or (once active) Fortnite players or general gamers looking for a cool event in the game. In the comments at a YouTube stream a significant number of people thought that album track Stargazing off Astroworld was the new single that would premiere at the event. This is not even much of a deep cut, as its the opener of the album and has nearly 400 million streams on Spotify. Fortnite let the event happen five times in an attempt to not overflow their servers and let all of their players have a chance at attending. They registered a record-breaking number of 12.3 million concurrent players who participated in the event, and almost 28 million in total. So as an attempt to win back players who left the game in recent months or years, or gain new ones, it was probably quite successful. To ensure the promotion and impact of the event Epic Games even took care of content creator like streamers and YouTubers. They arranged that video registrations of Astronomical, that include Travis’ music, would not be taken down by copyright claims and would get demonetized only after 30 days.
So as Astronomical went down in the world of Fortnite, on another server somewhere on the internet dozens of Minecraft avatars were dancing to 100 gecs at Square Garden. 100 gecs, consisting of Laura Les and Dylan Brady, released their EP 100 gecs in 2017. Last year it was followed by their debut album 1000 gecs, that was produced mostly over email, with Les residing in Chicago and Brady in LA. The album perfectly resonates with the restless state of being you find yourself in after scrolling through your TikTok For You page (or perhaps meme-filled Instagram feed) for way too long where intense stimuli have been screaming for your attention from the backlit display of your phone. It treats a broad selection of genres with equal respect and effortlessly switches from dubstep to screamo, or from pop-punk to something that sounds like the first song a seven year old would make when discovering GarageBand for the first time. All without any irony or sarcasm, but just joy or perhaps some kind of post-modernist approach (nothing matters anyway, so anything can go and that’s great). The lyrics of the songs are basically about being broke while having a smartphone. And all of this makes for an unparalleled record that claimed the top spots in end-of-year lists from Vice and the New York Times. Since I got into it last October - as for most people, from what I understand, I couldn’t get into it when I listened to it the first time the summer before - I was hooked and now can’t stop listening to it.
For the festival 100 gecs invited a number of other musicians ranging from names of experimental pop label PC Music to SoundCloud producers to indie pop band Kero Kero Bonito to Parry Grip, who plays “geek rock” and writes songs for kids tv-shows. All their pre-recorded sets lasted about ten to thirty minutes, often featuring unreleased material.
Open Pit started when one of its founders threw his birthday party in Minecraft and way more people attended then expected. For each event the group creates a custom surroundings featuring “builds” (buildings, sculptures or objects) they made themselves.
100 gecs performed at earlier Minecraft festivals like Coalchella in 2018 and Fire Festival 2019 by Open Pit before. As revealed on a recent episode of Song Exploder one of these earlier was actually the starting point for 100 gecs to start collaborating (again?) and start making their debut EP.
It is important to note here that there was no collaboration with Minecraft, or its parent company Microsoft, but Open Pit and 100 gecs set up the festival themselves upon the infrastructure of the game that lends itself for that.
On Minecraft players can create their own servers on which they can host a multiplayer environment. So for Square Garden, Open Pit and 100 gecs made their own server where they had built an incredibly detailed world that looked like some sort of fairy tale forest at night, that reminded me somewhat of the Efteling. There were mushrooms everywhere and small houses and boutiques you could visit. In the middle of it there was a giant hollow tree where a bunch of stairs led you to the main stage where avatars of each artist would appear while their set was playing. And, if you were running the right version of Minecraft I believe, the place was beautifully lit with lanterns, chandeliers and a giant moon radiating their light. There were many other things to discover, references to href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OlvF5LH1Kdg" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">obscure non-sensical memes 100 gecs set up before the festival, like the “rat fucker” (a giant rat) or “socks on the chairs” all appeared across Square Garden’s area in custom builds by the Open Pit crew. This all had an extra dimension as fans had been told by 100 gecs that their long-anticipated remix album 1000 gecs and the Tree of Clues was already hidden somewhere online waiting to be found by people who could solve their arg. When the album actually dropped over a month later it had become clear there was no arg at all and a t-shirt featuring images fans had found and studied as clues on a Discord server was part of the merch bundle that accompanied the project.
Nevertheless visitors of Square Garden could go wild exploring the festival grounds. And they were actually able to. Where in Astronomical you were expected to follow Travis’ avatar and had little room to move elsewhere, in Square Garden you were often rewarded for exploring its rich surroundings. Apart from the references to the non-existent arg and memes 100 gecs had set up there was much more. There was a coffeeshop GFOTYBUCKS, in reference GFOTY’s (one of the acts) EP. A number of giant music notes growing out of the soil were accompanied by signs listing them as parts of Dylan Brady productions, like “ringtone vocal” or “Coming Down drums”, as part of “Dylan’s Stem Garden”. If you would take a ladder to the attic of a fastfood place inside a giant mushroom you would find the Estrogen Burger. This was not only in reference to a meme about Burger King’s Impossible Whopper, but also to Laura Les who was in her first year of hormone therapy at the time of the festival (on gecs dedicated Discord server for a significant part of the festival people were just posting “TRANS RIGHTS” on the Square Garden chat channel and rightfully so).
During and after Square Garden the 100 gecs, PC Music and Open Pit’s subreddits Facebook groups and Discord servers were ablaze with fans sharing their discoveries. Some fans even took “selfies” with Laura Les by taking screenshots of their avatars next to hers.
Behold the Estrogen Burger.
All of this made Square Garden a more interesting place to visit. Even for myself, who only watched (recorded) livestreams and live chats of both Astronomical and Square Garden, and wasn’t actually playing any of the games. It was clear that in Square Garden players had the possibility, and were actually encouraged, to go explore the gaming environment, whereas Astromonical, though visually impressive, was more of a cutscene.
Both events clearly worked with, or expanded the universe or Secondary Worlds that the artists have build around themselves. Though the ways in which they done so is telling for both the way the artists relate to their fans, what is at stake for their labels and how they function within pop music. As well as the way the gaming environment is set up and what this has to offer. For Astronomical a wide range of in-game items was available not only by completing challenges, but they were also for sale. Travis his avatar was wearing his Jordan collab that is going wild on the resell market and right after the event attendees got an email where merchandise, like $65 nerf guns, was promoted. In comparison, 100 gecs were selling one merchandise t-shirt and sold VIP tickets, with all proceeds going to non-profit Feeding America. But more important, their references and easter eggs, of which their event had way more scattered all over the rich gaming environment, relied less on commerce and attracting audience to the game. Ironically this made for a more engaging experience of the festival.
In-game events can be a great way for acts to interact with their fans and bring fan communities that are scattered around the globe together. For both Astronomical and Square Garden I saw fans exchange their excitement in the online spaces they meet up.
The open setup of Minecraft, where anyone can host and design a server of their own, allows for more creativity both for visitors, who won’t be in a cutscene but can go around and explore the place, as well as for people like the Open Pit crew who are able to throw festivals without having to make any deal with Microsoft.
Fortnite has used Party Royale to host live stream concerts by EDM dj’s and threw screenings of Christopher Nolan films. Open Pit has organized a number of events in Minecraft since Square Garden and is gearing up for Lavapalooza next weekend.