From the first shot, battle royale games seem to be about massive scale. They take place on huge maps populated by dozens of players. The ones that have survived the market rely on a steady drip, or in Fortnite’s case, a plastic flood, of new content. Seasons, skins, battle passes, #aesthetics, and unlockables are ever-present in both the play and the coverage of these games. Extending into infinity, they all promise that they are the only game you need to play.
Curiously though, in practice, these games are most effective in their smallness. In contrast to the rapid-fire respawning of a deathmatch, battle royales have a lot of dead space. It’s easy to make small talk, catch up, or banter as you pick up loot, before the sighting of another player snaps you to attention. If you are lucky and/or skilled enough to make it to the end, you play with just a handful of people. Every move seems to matter. Breath grows tight. You exhale or shout joy or relief or frustration or laughter. All that scale comes down to a few spare shots and a couple souls.
Nothing quite defines this curious contradiction like Apex Legends, which dropped onto the Switch on March 5. Apex is currently in its eighth season, which shows its ambition to life-consuming scale. New characters are added to the roster with each new season. The game boasts three big maps. Its twists on the battle royale serve to ground the game to a wider fandom. Apex is set in the same universe as the Titanfall franchise, making it part of a network of media properties. The banter between the game’s characters gives it the hint of universe beyond the moment to moment gunplay. The fact that the game is always played in squads or pairs emphasizes tactics and gives each battle a more dramatic scale. Even its port to the Switch exposes its ambition to reach more people.
Still, the game snaps back to smallness. There are just less people in every Apex match than in other battle royales, 60 total versus the usual 100. While you can have firefights at long range, it’s less common in my experience. Additionally, playing in squads creates a strange kind of intimacy, even when playing with strangers. Playing any battle royale with a squad will encourage camaraderie and dependence between players, but Apex leans in. Many of the character’s abilities depend on other players or give them help or information. My personal favorite, Lifeline, has a healing drone and can spawn high quality healing and armor items. She exists as a means of keeping other players healed up and kitted out. You really exist as a unit, and when a teammate is lost you feel their absence. Fortunately the game lets you spawn teammates back in. It stretches that camaraderie past the grave, and lets even mediocre players (like me) feel needed and wanted. There is absolutely nothing cooler than a stranger sticking out their neck to respawn you, after you unceremoniously die in the first firefight.
That smallness extends, in both bad and good ways, to the characters. They are diverse in ways that point to the weaknesses of other popular shooters with similar claims to representation. For example, the game launched with two playable black women. Overwatch has yet to have one. However, that diversity is channeled through the default ideology of videogaming. Most recently the game added a conquistador skin for the character Wattson. It is not difficult to imagine how such a thing could be used to harass people of color playing the game. Even at a base level though, the characters can feel superficial or stereotypical. These are skins to inhabit, people to be briefly, but not whole selves.
However, they are characters, in addition to avatars and brands. That spark of life gives the players a powerful means of identification and discussion outside of the game itself. The characters joke and banter with each other as the players do. It’s a small prompt towards conversation. The group of friends I play Apex with have layers of in-jokes and language, stuff that feels too sacred and silly to share with the public. Much of it has to do with our personal lives or other in-jokes, but some of it seems prompted by the game itself. Jokes about the characters we tend to play or swapping screenshots of cool skins are regular parts of the discussion. Apex becomes a small means of channeling our friendship.
The Switch version carries that smallness’s strength with it, but also must bear the weight of its scale. Especially in handheld, the game is blurry, and frames drop when other squads come into view. You can feel the Switch straining to render the entire map at the beginning of each match. Yet, the whole thing is here. Though none of the matches went well, I felt that every death was my own fault. The game matched me exclusively with other Switch players, so I never thought that someone else had an unfair performance advantage. Writing this, I thought a lot about my teammates who revived me or helped me, even though I proved to be a pretty worthless companion.
The Switch port is an artifact of the game’s particular contradictions. It cannot handle the scale, the massive maps, the intricate skins, or the fidelity of a more “advanced” system. Still the game’s smallness, the intimacy of a firefight, the thrill of a good find, the gentle companionship of silent strangers, remains. It proves that all of the advertising and event making and claims to massiveness and representation are all just decoration around a jolly good time with friends. Apex Legends, even in the strange, blurry scale of its Switch version, is a pretty good stage for conversations and storytelling with friends and strangers. What else can we ask from a big videogame in 2021?
Grace Benfell is a queer woman, critic, and aspiring fan fiction author. She writes on her blog Grace in the Machine and can be found @grace_machine on Twitter.