The bus doors will open in a matter of seconds.
Thousands of feet below me, a sparsely inhabited island lies amid a shimmering blue ocean, and I am preparing to pick a landing spot, leap from the bus and deploy a glider that will set me down in the middle of a fierce combat zone.
Just before leaping into thin air, I hear the voice of a child with the sniffles say, “Meow. Meow? Hello? Does anyone have a mic? Where are we going to land?”
If you’ve not heard of the game (that is, if you do not have children or grandchildren), then perhaps you’ve heard of the many lawsuits filed against the game, especially by rappers who think their dance moves have been stolen.
Think: the “Floss,” the “Carleton,” the “Shoot.” Just ask any nine-year-old boy you happen to know. He will probably gladly demonstrate the moves.
Back to the kid asking for a mic.
What he means is he wants to hear from his teammates.
I don’t have a mic, so I cannot answer him. Instead, I leap from the bus when the drop doors open and I skydive toward my inevitable doom, assured that the pre-teen who attempted to communicate with me will last much longer than I will.
Each game of Fortnite begins this way: you and 99 other unseen strangers are grouped together in a flying school bus, divided into 25 teams of four.
Your goal: for your team, and then you, to be the last to survive a fierce free-for-all Battle Royale.
You have only a pickaxe when you land; you must quickly find pistols, shotguns, grenades, assault rifles, booby traps, sniper rifles, rocket launchers, ATVs, airplanes, boom boxes and stink bombs.
I have dubbed myself ElPredicto, a handle I have used for years in football prediction pools.
I’m a noob
I did no research before signing up for Fortnite. I wanted to experience the game the way any noob would, throwing myself into the fray, to test my skills against other players.
My skills: I’m 66, in reasonably good shape and have a 7 handicap in golf (Editor’s note: he’s really good.) In other words, I still have my hand-eye coordination. (Editor’s note: except for that time after his fourth hole-in-one when he slipped on the clubhouse steps and severed a tendon in his quad.)
Still, I harbored no illusions that I would be good at this third-person shooter game.
I never dreamed, however, that I would be this bad.
In my first game, I find myself improbably landing on a golf course, and begin running toward a building, most likely the clubhouse or pro shop.
I understand that my immediate goal is to find guns and start shooting other players, and that the guns are hidden in buildings. Before I can find a gun, or even reach the building, I am killed by someone named Darkvillain805.
I never saw him.
Once eliminated, I return to the lobby and wait for the next bus to drop me into the next game.
Upon landing for the second time, I am once again shot immediately, but this time I am not dead. Instead, I crawl along piteously, looking for what the game calls a “medkit” (a small case of medical supplies) to heal myself.
My assassin finds me and pumps me full of lead, finishing me off, and I hear the voice of someone who could not be older than 8 say, “That’s what you get for betraying our team.”
I have no idea what he’s talking about. It eventually dawns on me, however, that I am expected to stick close to my other three teammates, rather than running around the island by myself and simply trying to stay alive as long as possible.
Me and the kids
That’s where the microphones come in. Roughly half the players seem to have headsets through which to communicate with their teammates and coordinate their attacks. I can hear the ones with microphones, but I can’t communicate with them, so when I do something stupid, I hear their criticisms but can’t explain that I really just don’t know what I’m doing.
I can’t control the ATV when I try to ride it, I crash the airplane when I try to fly it, and I run into walls and fall off cliffs just trying to move around.
Judging from their voices, a majority of my teammates seem to be American children under the age of ten, but I am also frequently paired with Hispanic children, Japanese children and the occasional older teen.
In one game I have landed close to my teammates and we set out together to attack a walled structure. While they huddle in front, I run around the wall to the back, thinking this will help.
“Oh, Elpredicto, no!” I hear one of my teammates say.
“Is that a tactic?” another asks.
Apparently not. I am quickly shot.
Another set of teammates take pity on me as I leap from the bus toward a complex called Titlted Towers. “I hate Tilted Towers,” one of them says. “I feel bad for that guy. We’re a team of three now.”
And indeed they are, as I am immediately gunned down when I land at Tilted Towers.
You have the option to watch the rest of the battle once you are killed, and I finally decide to follow the exploits of my killer as he builds ramps, forts and towers with wood and brick that he has gathered from chopping trees and walls with his ax.
This is a revelation: the best players are building, shooting, changing weapons, flying around with balloons and healing themselves with medkits almost simultaneously.
They aren’t just good; like the NBA, the players have such spectacular skills that the game almost becomes boring to watch.
I know now that I cannot win a game. And yet, game after game, I plod on. I just want a kill—one measly kill—and I realize that my chances depend on my finding someone worse than me – a five-year-old or a great-grandmother who is playing her first game of Fortnite.
I also realize that, if you’re looking for the worst player in the game, that player is you.
When you don’t belong
On and on it goes. DudemanCambell drops from the sky and shoots me. PrietMendoza guns me down from behind. Tempteris shoots and wounds me, then finishes me with his ax. Montuv kills me in a garage. Elvis900 finds me in the woods. VoidSilent and Vontine take me out with assault rifles.
I suspect I am older than all of their combined ages, but if anything, that works against me. I kill myself several times by failing to outrun the poisonous storm that forces players to the center.
Even as a child playing cowboys with cap pistols in the woods with older boys, I was never mere cannon fodder, as I am in this game.
It begins to feel like a metaphor for all things athletic and competitive as we age: the game goes to the swift, the agile, the young. Even my index finger on the mouse begins to feel geriatric.
And then, miraculously, it happens. I’m loading up on weapons in a house when I hear footsteps entering. I back into a corner and wait until an enemy runs in. I blast him several times with my shotgun, but he is merely injured.
As he crawls on the floor, I walk up and empty my gun into him. I should be ashamed of the sneaky, messy way I get my first kill, but I’m not. I’m elated—so elated that I run outside the house to find another victim, and I am immediately shot dead.
I know now, without a trace of doubt, that I don’t belong on the Fortnite island, or in the Fortnite universe. I will never spend enough time or money (on battle passes, special costumes or “skins,” etc.) to be competitive.
My avatar will never do one of those victory dances—the Floss, the Carlton, the Swipe It—that are now the subject of lawsuits over Fortnite’s use of alleged intellectual property.
I’ll never know that feeling. But, at least now, I understand it.