It’s 6am and I’m on a beach holiday. While all around me are sleeping, I sneak downstairs, put some coffee on, and start the ritualistic process of watching two hours of Fortnite videos before the rest of the world wakes up.
For those who don’t know or understand Fortnite — which includes most of my friends, family, colleagues and assorted other loved ones — it’s a video game phenomenon, where, in ‘Battle Royale’ mode, you’re dropped on an unchanging (except season by season) island and forced to fight against 99 other random humans (in solo mode (apologies that this has already descended into nerd jargon)) whilst a storm creates ever smaller circles of liveable space on the island. If the final showdown happens in the smallest circle, a game of Fortnite will still take no more than 25 minutes. It is a punch drunk fantasia; a brief, brutal evocation of man’s inhumanity to man.
With more than 125 million current players — and a concurrent gamers peak of 3.4m back in February — Fortnite is a force to be reckoned with. That figure is higher than the global number of people playing golf and tennis combined. Not to mention the congestion of tee times should 3.4 million golfers be inclined to hit the links at the same time. But unlike golf and tennis, Fortnite isn’t an especially good game. It’s crude, silly, simple, visually unremarkable, stripped of any sense of narrative, and free from any mechanical logic. Aesthetically it is half steampunk, half anime; nauseatingly vivid, self-referential and born of no unified visual impulse. It looks, at times, like shit.
But it is free, so the opportunity to test the waters and see why professional soccer players are doing silly dances, including in the World Cup final, is easy to come by. I downloaded Fortnite on a whim after seeing too many Twitter and Instagram references that I didn’t understand. I couldn’t get a sense of what the game was from Wikipedia, other than to establish that it wouldn’t cost me a penny to get playing. And in those first few games, as I was gunned down by Korean children within the first minute, I didn’t get it. I didn’t get why the defining cultural landmark of 2018 was a tacky shoot ’em up game and not, say, Ladybird or The Mars Room.
Skip forward to the present day and I’m forgoing the sun, my book, even the Citi Open tennis, in order to watch videos of other people playing Fortnite. I am, in a sense, not an active player but a passive one, content to watch better men tackle the game. When I am shotgunned from behind after landing, foolishly, in Tilted Towers, I spectate the rest of the game, egging my murderer on to Victory Royale. When I close my eyes and rest my mind, I see a golf buggy power sliding across Lucky Links, or the swing of the axe harvesting wood from trees, metal from cars, stone from Easter Island monoliths. It has become the screensaver to my brain, playing like the old Windows default pipes and mazes, sprawling ever onwards as a placeholder for decent thought. I am not sure whether it is a sign of insanity, or whether it is the last thing holding me fast to sanity.
Then there are the players of the game with whom I have become low-level obsessed. Ninja, particularly, is a source of fascination. Watching Ninja play Fortnite is like watching Messi or Federer, or more appropriately like watching Ronaldo or Nadal in a world where neither Messi nor Federer exist. He has a wired tension, spilling into hyper-masculine aggression, that is a thrill to watch in a tiny box beneath the gameplay screen. In the background, his sponsor, Red Bull, keep a chilled mini-fridge so that he can retain his focus during the marathons he conducts every day. And despite the thousands and thousands of games he’s played, and won, every time he is shotgunned by some noob out of nowhere he explodes like a man who has never been wronged before. Watching him live on Twitch is like watching sports stars simultaneously in training and playing the biggest matches of their careers, whilst watching YouTubers, like Muselk, is the more traditional sporting reduction to moments of high stakes and drama. The former feels more radical, the latter more recognisable.
As time goes by, I get no better at the game. I still have zero Victory Royales and — this will lose me all respect in the eyes of Fortnite players — I have never managed more than 2 kills in a single game, despite playing almost 300 matches now. I just can’t quite understand how to build, and certainly not how to build at the pace required to challenge the best players in any single game of Battle Royale. So instead of being aggressive and playing the game in the way it demands to be played, I play as the most submissive of submissive noobs, heading straight out to the fringes of the map and slowly working my way inwards. I often hide away in a tower with a sniper rifle, or skulk in a bush with an RPG. If I was a soccer player I’d be a deep-lying midfielder who always recycles the ball back to the keeper; if I were a tennis player I’d do old-man forehand slices all the time. In short, I suck.
So why am I up at 6am watching Fornite videos? If the game isn’t good and I’m bad at it, why is it playing on my mind more than Uncharted 2 or Red Dead Redemption, games I’ve previously fallen for? There is something in the way that the game has achieved a critical mass of invested players. A hundred people parachuting onto that island have the same sense of destiny, the same comprehension of rules and controls, the same acceptance of the contract of the game. The 100-strong field is a single entity, a globular mindset composed of a century of discrete minds acting as one. I used to rage when people would shoot me from behind and then dance over my body or spray paint my corpse. Now I enjoy being part of this ritual, this community of acknowledged idiocy. Fortnite is both an intensely competitive game — it is, after all, everyone against everyone in a bloodbath of ever increasing intensity — whilst also encouraging a sexless comradeship between players. It is rare to experience a game where you can simultaneously enjoy both the thrill of winning, the frisson of voyeurism, and the demi-kink of being mutilated.
And so here I am at 6am, the beach at my window and a video of someone firing themselves across the map with nothing more than a bazooka and a shopping trolley. Welcome to Planet Fortnite.