Fortnite Almost Had a Dark, Gritty, Depressing Look

Fortnite is known for its bright, friendly, colorful aesthetic, but it started off with a dark, grim look and feel.

I’m officially a Fortnite fan now, what with my first battle royale victory last week and all my enjoyment of the game’s vibes. So I’ve been poking around in some of the game’s GDC (Game Developer’s Conference) talks from the last few years, looking for some fun nuggets about the game’s earlier days and current design. 

In this GDC talk, Epic Games’ Peter Ellis shows off old concept art and talks about developing the first concepts, before showing how the team iterated and found the unique look that would come to define the game. It’s pretty funny and wild to look at now, but Fortnite was once… Fortnite Dark. Or maybe Fortnite: Grimdark and Gritty, judging by the initial art style.

Much of the early art is a bit depressing, to be honest: a lot of dull grays and generic, industrial waste-scapes. There is a cartoony spark there, indicative of what Fortnite would later look like (and the prompt does show some of the modular nature of the game’s building mechanics), but it’s sort of wild to imagine this zany, candy-colored game with a “vibes” splash screen and Darth Vader chilling with cartoon banasuit-ed people and Indiana Jones… like this!

fortnite first environment

“I want to start with our gritty, more serious art style that we had way back at the start,” Ellis says, speaking about the game’s very early 2011 ideation. “The original concept of Fortnite — I’m going to read this — was a survival horror game that mixed third-person action built around social fortifications and a dynamic day/night cycle. Scavenge by day, defend at night. It’s Minecraft meets The Walking Dead, in an HBO-style world where loners die quickly, and extinction is just a heartbeat away. Social survival: work together, or die alone!”

The team began developing a style — there were lots of freaky horror creatures, zombies that had a sort of evil “mist” component, and other nasty, grimy, creepy-looking things, which you can see here. But the team felt the need to walk away from the gritty environments and characters when they started to consider the longevity of their project, especially looking at free-to-play games and the games as a service model.

fortnite early character art

“These types of things that people would engage with for hundreds of hours, if not years of engagement — what we saw was that a lot of those games tended to be brighter or more stylized,” he says.

The developer’s data from developing Gears of War games even supported the idea that players gravitated towards brighter maps rather than the “gray/brown, desaturated, bleak” environments. The art team went back to the drawing board, and one artist put together a piece that made Ellis say, “hell yeah, we have got to make this!”

Some of those survival horror elements are still visible here, but it also looks more recognizably Fortnite: dark in a way, but playful and a little zany, much like the tone of the eventual game.

fortnite concept art direction

It’s fun to try to “see” the current game in the old, grimy aesthetic. Well, fun in a “wouldn’t that be weird” kind of way. It’s actually hard to imagine it being quite as popular without the bright tones and cartoonish feel.

The talk is a wonderful resource (and goes far deeper into the idea of developing a cohesive look and feel for such a huge, ever-evolving game); it’s something I’ll come back to a few times, I suspect. I’m glad the world didn’t end up with Fortnite Dark Depression.