It may seem odd to compare a free-to-play battle royale to an arthouse indie game, but here goes: Apex Legends is basically the Journey of first-person shooters.
The latter, which was developed by Flower creator thatgamecompany and released in 2012, is a game about traversing the desert ruins of an ancient civilization through nonverbal communication with a series of complete strangers. It’s possible to stick with the same player throughout the whole playthrough. Thus, the game’s themes of connection and trust can surpass beauty and veer into the sublime.
Apex Legends, which Titanfall developer Respawn released in 2019 as a foray into the flourishing genre dominated by PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and Fortnite, is a game about launching canisters of noxious gas from the balcony of an apartment building before zip lining across a public park to escape the shrinking, lethal boundary of an ethereal circle. It is also, in large part, about nonverbal communication and it can also, sometimes, veer into the sublime.
With the growing ubiquity of battle royales as a free-to-play phenomenon in the late 2010s, it stood to reason that many Apex players would dip their toes in the water without a friend or two alongside them. And what with voice chat’s propensity to often suck, it also stood to reason that thousands of players might benefit from a form of nonverbal communication.
Enter: the ping system, which has long allowed FPS players to place a beacon on locations, events, and items of interest. Respawn took the idea (variations of which appeared in series like Left 4 Dead and Battlefield) and amplified it tenfold, allowing players to not only point out the location of a weapon, for instance, but also the exact type of weapon. Crucially, the ping system has been combined with each character’s distinct voice lines to give players as much information as possible, whether they’re in the next room or far across the map.
The upgraded ping system worked so well that both of Apex’s major competitors at the time — PUBG and Fortnite — added ping systems of their own within six months of Respawn’s release. And when Call of Duty: Warzone went live that following year, it followed suit.
I’m always fascinated by how first-person shooters speak to the player without actually saying anything — I still remember running Destiny strikes with strangers in the MMO’s early days, marveling at the unmistakable visual language of the individual classes’ abilities. That Hunter just used their super on that boss, I could tell myself. Time for me to pour on the damage, too.
What makes Apex truly special, though, is how the designers so expertly mesh that kind of visual vocabulary with the game’s actual communication mechanics. Its playable heroes (the eponymous Legends) are recognizable from hundreds of yards away. If I see a Lifeline player taking cover behind a distant boulder, then I know how powerful of a support character she can be once we’ve successfully downed her teammates. If I don’t have the weapon to take her out from this distance, I can ping her as a threat for my teammate playing Vantage, who excels at long-range encounters. Once we’ve (hopefully) eliminated the enemy squad, I can ping all of the heavy ammo and marksman-rifle attachments among the loot, which will keep Vantage in fighting shape for the next firefight. It’s an organic flow of information from Respawn, to me, to my teammates, all by way of an elegant ping system and a vibrant, unmistakable art style. And all the while, I haven’t uttered a single word.
This brings me back to Journey. The true revelation of that game, for me, was how downright intimate it could be. This person could have ventured off on their own at any moment, yet here we are, trekking up these snow-strewn cliffs, surfing down the sparking slopes of a mountain lost to time, just the two of us, alone together.
It caught me by surprise, in no small way, to feel that same sort of digital connection in Apex Legends, only minutes after headshotting a character who had jetpacked up to a ledge that I had locked down with my teammates, in the final moments of a long and arduous journey across a cartoonishly vivid island. The circle was closing in, and I knew that Vantage could be relied upon, because she had been communicating with me the whole time — but that Bloodhound? They’ve been quiet.
They do have 17 kills, though. So I’ll let it slide.