First time I land I'm all fingers and thumbs. You— hold on. You axe through the—? Hold on. I very clearly should have landed on the roof of this building. That way I can dig down, and through, collecting resources as I— ah, no, someone has shot my head off with a shotgun.
Okay, so we go again. Suppose this time I can land on the roof of th— no, there’s already somebody here, before me. And they’ve— that’s my assault rifle! And they swirl around me, in smooth liquid movements, peppering me with bullets while I swing my axe at the air, until I succumb bloodlessly to them and die.
Games three through five I basically figure out the main controls in the 50 or so seconds it takes between me landing and me being shot to death. I cut down a tree, that sort of thing.
About game ten I get an exceptionally weak pistol kill.
Game 20 I finish in the top ten and only get my head shot out while crawling – slowly, silently – up a well-guarded hill as the storm closes in. Nobody behind me, nobody above me, and then: pop, pop, pow. In an instant, a leaping opponent swirls around me, shotgun boom, and I am dead, collapsed, my bounty pouring out of me in a heap, and I watch as they dab the air where my corpse just was. My blood has never been more alive in my body. My heart is beating so hard I can feel it. I have never been more exhilarated by a game, ever. I’ve never been more exhilarated by… anything? Ever?
Fortnite: Battle Royale is the free-to-play game that your boyfriend, your brother and Drake are all obsessed with, and now also me, I am obsessed with it too. The premise is simple, and ripped absolutely directly from the grittier Xbox-and-PC behemoth PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds: 100 players drop from a parachute into a sprawling island map, where they salvage and forage for guns, health power-ups, ammunition and shields, before taking out every other player on the map. You have exactly one life in the game: when you’re dead, you’re dead. You can watch whoever killed you if you want (this ability – to watch the movements of the man who killed you – will become vital to us later). The last man standing claims the Victory Royale. That is the entirety of the game.
It is totally un-winnable, and therein lies the tension. Players are crammed into ever-decreasing circles of the game map by an encroaching electrical storm, and that means each 20-to-25-minute battle starts as a breezy, cloudless sunny day and turns into a tight tense fight for blood: three or four final players, leaping around the same small square of map, each of them rendered paranoid and deranged by the constant shuffling of footsteps, then violent gunfire, then death. Some evenings when I play it too close to bedtime I have to go and brush my teeth for an extended period of time before my heart rate slows.
I am, as a 30-year-old man, far too slow and trigger-clunky to ever win a game. Teenagers, who have been suckling on iPads since they were in nappies, regularly destroy me and dance on my corpse. I cannot win. I cannot win. I will never, ever win. I still keep trying to win.
Fortnite became a phenomenon over the last six months in ways that have been detailed far better here. Essentially, it’s a triple-A game given away for free, which makes it enormously popular with cash-poor teens and cash-poor adults alike, and means they can play at killing in a big gang with all their friends, and also the game is addictive like a drug is. Folklore dots the game if you look close enough: the newly-landed Season 4 has seen a much prophesied comet land on the island, which is very exciting for everyone (me.) who has seen their life slip from a position of almost-competent almost-cool into being generally obsessed with Fortnite and constantly thinking about Fortnite.
But what makes the murder-game so compelling? The easy answer is [gestures, generally, at everything]. Consider our current reality: not great. Nobody can place a finger on the exact feeling of fraughtness and anger and loss we all feel, constantly, the Earth tearing itself taut and flat, stressed to death like a rubber band, and we look everywhere for symptoms and the source: are too many apps the problem? Are not enough apps the problem? Do we need vitamins, do we need self care?
Be good to yourself because the world refuses to be. Be kind and soft in a world of harsh and unfair. And what I am saying is: yes, good, but have you tried my kind of meditation? Have you been to the bloodless fields of Fortnite, and killed, and killed, kill, kill, kill, kill in loops until it becomes mantric. Real-world violence counteracted with a cartoon of violence. It is soothing, almost, to take a YouTube streamer's head out with an epic-rated sniper gun. I am hypnotised by it.
I had a dream last night. I don’t remember dreams, normally, but I remember this one – and it went like this: I landed on the top of that wooden house you can edit up a bit from the Flush Factory. Another Fortnite player landed on the top of the house, with me. And neither of us had weapons, so we just swung our axes, swish swish, swish swish, neither of us either really connecting, both of us leaping and dodging, and this went on for dream-hours, dream-weeks, and then I got two good hits on and killed him. That was it. That was the first dream I’ve remembered vividly since 2016.
"Hey," I said to my flatmate, one day. "I just followed a meme page on Instagram. A Fortnite meme page. That’s bad, isn’t it? That’s bad."
And he looked at me like I’d run a dog over and said: "That’s bad, mate."
And then I looked at the Fortnite memes for a second and he said—
Show me the meme page.
I'm dying more. One good time was when I thought I was doing really well and then – ptchoo – shot in the head to death by a sniper, instant kill.
Another time I had just looted a chest and got a blue assault rifle and then – boomph, boomph – some lad with a shotgun just took me right out, just took me down to bits
There’s this nice little house I like to land in – just up and over a crest, just out of the way – and I was quietly going about my business and searching the place for ammo when I heard a creak, and then another creak, and then the soft rustle of footsteps, and now I was on my guard: I tiptoed, backwards, carefully and silently, step-by-step retreating under the stai— no, my mistake, they’ve found me. One shot kill.
When you think you have exhausted every possible way to die, Fortnite invents another way for you to die. Clunk: metal trap chomps me to death while I’m searching an innocuous outhouse. Fyiooooo—pang. Wooden staircase I am building to the top of a mountain is shot out from underneath me, and I flutter down towards my death. Fwob–fwob–wob–wob–wob. Inexplicably, I have jumped out of the Battle Bus and directly into the sea. I no longer fear death, because I know what it is to die. Again, and again, and again and again. Press circle to return to lobby. The Battle Bus departs in 0:10. And then we float, and land, and get shot in the head, again, to death.
Watching professional Twitch streamers play Fortnite, I realise there are two main ways to play the game: a laissez faire waltz through the island’s buildings and forests, gunning down whoever you see, close or far, collecting their bounty and consuming their health packets – these players often end a game with six, seven, eight registered kills, maxed out wood resources, a special little dance animation that they bought especially. Then you have the builder: as soon as they see action, they either build a ramp over towards it, build a fortress against it, or – on the occasion you see two builders go toe-to-toe in a to-the-death battle – a complex set of interconnecting buildings, one twined within another, both combatants hunkered down in various anonymous blocks of it, armed with a shotgun, waiting. The storm encroaches and the sound of planks being built closes in. And then someone scores a shotgun kill and: victory.
I, however, have pioneered another, third, and deeply unsuccessful strategy, and I call it "cowardice". The first step of the plan is to land as far away from the path of the Battle Bus as possible (you can do this by tapping and un-tapping the umbrella button to jet yourself away to a distant corner of the island. We are in very real danger of ruining a controller, this way). Then pop into a silent crouch and quietly start collecting guns and ammunition. Work your way into the centre of the storm by taking the least populated route you see. If you spot an enemy combatant in the distance, veer in the exact opposite direction of them and run away. If you hear the faraway put–put of gunfire, try to hide in a bush. If you encounter a town and someone has already visibly built a ramp up to one of the buildings to loot it, run away from that town. This way, you can make it to the top ten or even top six of the game without ever really seeing anyone. Essentially, I have turned Fortnite into a high-tension walking simulator where somebody always, always shoots me at the end.
The Fortnite map includes an overgrown prison and a number of upturned police cars. You see the problem: the artefacts of the world we kill and die in suggest this once was a land where crime, and punishment, existed. And yet: 100 of us, in masks and suits, parachute in to murder each other. I want to know: if murder is not illegal – if murder is a game, here – then what kind of crimes were the prisoners who were locked up here once guilty of?
I’m Top #10, and I feel electric, I feel alive. The storm is closing in on us, purple and impenetrable. Location-wise I’ve done astonishingly: on the top of a central building, in a perfect wooden fort made of ramps and floors and walls, occasionally just popping my head out of the top to stare down my sniper rifle, perfectly aware of every remaining player on the map. And then: clnk, clnk, clnk clnk clnk clnk. The sound of a grenade quietly tiptoeing down to meet me. And then I explode, and watch my loot fall out of my body, and watch my fort collapse under its own weight, and know that the last 20 minutes I spent collecting wood were totally and utterly in vain.
The statistics page on my profile says I have now played 300+ games of Fortnite and so far won zero of them. This is not for lack of trying. The Cowardice Offence has turned into something more: I start to creep out from cover more, run with my head up, occasionally fire shots in anger. In one particularly frantic game I clock four entire kills. I have died so many times now that I am immune to death. I do not care if I die because I always die. "ARGGGGH," I shout, leaping over the crest of a hill and onto a battle-wounded combatant below, peppering them with machine gun fire. "ARRRRGGGGGGGGGGH!" I actually say this out loud with my mouth. And, obviously: they turn their head towards me, slink to one side and finish me with two shotgun bursts, pump–pump. Why do I keep playing this game if I never win it. What am I playing for. How does this end.
The map is the same but always different. It evolves with scars and bumps of the fights that came before it. A small clot of low-level weapons and some leftover bandages suggests an early-game kill happened here. Two vacant fortresses face one another, their wooden fronts iced-out and incomplete. The map is marked with remnants of the action you just missed. Touch the soil and bring it to your lips. A gold hand cannon glitters in the distance. Is this weapon left here as a… trap? Check your inventory. You don’t have anything powerful enough to compete with it. The coast seems clear. Sneak towards it. Clunk. You have died. You have obviously died. There was someone standing there, around the corner, with an entire grenade launcher. You have obviously died. Of course you have died. It is 1AM, man. You have a job and a life. Stop getting tricked into dying by cackling teenagers.
Finally it happened. I don’t even know it happened, but it happened. The past few weeks I’ve been getting more kills with the assault rifle and cared less and less about dying. This game has defeated my spirit entirely. I have given up. Mind and body, exhausted. I land by the junkyard. I get every weapon I want and a full shield. I fell a couple of trees. I build a ramp to the top of a tall hill. I put a pyramid over the top of the ramp to trap anyone coming there, and that’s where I get my first kill – pew, pew, fire five rounds down into them while they are trying to come up. Then I work my way into the storm, and in the distance two builders are battling – one fortress against another, with the whirr of rocket grenades in the air – so I ramp up to another one and gun him down while he’s pre-occupied. Then I build a quick fort to heal in, and hear footsteps while I’m in there, and glance to the map, and—
It’s the final two. I’m in the final two. It’s me vs. one other player. I have made it here before but only gotten killed: a ramp over the top of me; a rocket in my face as I clumsily try to build; me, running for cover, while a sniper guns my back. But this time it’s different: I breathe deep, I move around the fortress I’m in silently, and shoot them in the head four times – pew–pew, pew–pew – and they collapse, and I have won. A guitar chord clangs. Victory Royale. I have finally done it. I know what it is to win.
I scream so loud and for so long that the neighbours start thumping on the ceiling above me.
The next game I get brained out by a shotgun and finish #83rd.
I hate this game, I hate this game. I love this fucking game.