I couldn’t believe my luck. Holed up in a small room of a large brick structure, I kept my shotgun trained on the only entrance and checked my map. Second by second, the eye of the storm shrunk down. Bit by bit, the player count diminished, and I realized that I was lucky enough to have found a home right at the center of the storm’s shrinking boundary. Everyone else in the match was killing each other as they arrived in the safe zone, unaware that I had been there for minutes by the time they showed up. By the time the storm got small enough to force me out there were only three of us left.
My escape didn’t last long. I opened the door, checked both ways out and ran left, thinking the way was clear. Three seconds later, I was toast, vaporized by an RPG round that came from directly overhead. Rotten luck, believable luck.
In the 2007 Western-Noir classic No Country For Old Men, there’s a scene where Tommy Lee Jones’ character, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, confesses his own powerlessness. Faced with a relentless hitman who can’t be deterred from killing, Bell visits his elderly uncle and tells him that he plans to retire immediately. When his uncle asks why, Bell gently declares, “I feel overmatched.”
It’s taken me a long time to pay serious attention to Fortnite. My very first match was all it took for me to feel like I was wearing Ed Tom Bell’s boots.
Before we get back to the match, I want to note that it’s impossible to divest any discussion of Fortnite from youth. It is, more than anything else I’ve encountered in seven years of teaching, the first piece of cultural media that feels like it belongs completely to the kids. Even Minecraft, often correctly cited as Fortnite’s spiritual forebear, was something I knew being passed between college hard drives before it became a big hit with the children. Fortnite is different. It’s the kids who discovered it, and the kids who made it what it is.
My excuses for avoiding Epic’s battle royale phenomenon finally dried up with Fortnite’s release on the Switch. I downloaded it immediately because A) it’s free, and B) most of my friends have Switches now, and the prospect of us playing an online shooter together at our favorite watering hole is just too good to pass up. Also, who knows? If Fortnite really is that good, then it’s another great game for me to enjoy with my friends, and I’ll be able to appreciate The Youths™ for getting hip to something before I did. After finally sitting down and playing my first match… well, I can’t say that it showed me whether or not the game is good, but it was remarkably instructive in showing me just what this game is going to mean to me as a man in his nascent thirties.
Careful planning and movement couldn’t help me as the RPG came crashing down on my head.
First of all, as you may have suspected, when I say “my first match,” I am not talking about my literal first match. I’m talking about the first match in which I made a serious effort to stay alive and pay attention to the structure and pace of the game. I’d played a handful of rounds here and there on PS4 in the many months before this, but rarely did they last longer than 30 seconds and that was all the data I needed to close the app and fire up Destiny.
But on the Switch, I was focused. I was going to be patient, I was going to stay within the bounds of the storm, and I was going to make sure I was as hard to spot as possible. If you’re a seasoned Fortnite player you can already spot the flaw in this approach. The rest of you, don’t get me wrong, it was a sound and effective strategy for a newbie, but it could only get me so far.
In this case, that turned out to be 3rd place. As one of the last people to parachute out of the bus, I landed in complete solitude and had the luxury of a shotgun, an assault rifle, and two shield potions waiting for me. I found a tiny hut with one entrance by a small pond and holed up until the eye of the storm started to shrink. When it did, I made a beeline for the next safe boundary as the storm closed in and tracked down another tiny structure. I prioritized small buildings with small entrances that could be easily defended with the shotgun. Each time I found one I waited until it was time to run from the storm again.
You know what happened next. Careful planning and movement couldn’t help me as the RPG came crashing down on my head. As a longtime Call of Duty player I know that sometimes other players just have the jump on you and there’s nothing you can do about it. But I was incorrect: it wasn’t the position of the other player that gave them the advantage, it was how they got there. What I saw next was as formative and mind-bending as any previous gaming memory of my life.
After I died, the camera shifted to follow my killer, who did a quick do-si-do around my body to gather all the ammo I had dropped and then immediately switched to their build menu. They then expertly switched between the various structures at lightning speed and began constructing a tower on top of my body: wall, wall, wall, wall, jump, ramp, jump again, floor, rinse and repeat, until the structure was five stories tall and they felt they had the height advantage they needed to survey the remaining map space and find the last opponent.
Wall, wall, wall, wall, jump, ramp, jump again, floor.
Watching that player work, I’ve never felt so consciously aware of a paradigm shift in the way games are played, in the way games work, in my life as I did in those 20-ish seconds. The feeling was total and unambiguous. I felt dumb. I felt old.
I felt overmatched.
You have to know how to build things, when to build them, and be able to build them swiftly.
I wasn’t just playing against someone who was better at the game than I was, I was playing the generation that comes after me.
I know how dramatic that sounds. Honestly, I want to sound dramatic! I think I owe it to this person to be dramatic, because that moment left me so stunned and impressed. It made me think about how I play games, how people my age and older make games, and what we have prioritized in the genres we like to play and work in. I can’t recall where I first heard this bit of insight, but it reminded me of a game developer who said (roughly) “The reason so many games are about shooting and destruction as a primary mechanic is because it’s easier to delete assets than it is to create them.
As a kid, I was taught to delete assets. I’ve been deleting assets my whole life. And when I could not delete an asset, I was taught to poison it, or confuse it, or put it to sleep. That is not what the kids are learning. They are being taught to make things. To be builders. To learn that solving problems is a matter of making something that gives them an advantage their opponent can’t predict, or a thrill that only their mind could create for them. The kids are learning that the best way to preserve their assets is to make more of them.
Is it all really that simple? No, of course not, and I won’t pretend that Fortnite is the be-all end-all sensation that some analysts pretend it to be. Kids these days are still going to be well versed in asset deletion. But Fortnite is the future. It’s impossible to draw any other conclusion, and even though I probably won’t play much of it in the long run, even though I am overmatched, I am really happy that the kids are finally better than me at something, and that something is fundamentally doing more than deleting assets.
What I’ve learned–what I’ve struggled with–is that in Fortnite, you have to build things. You have to know how to build things, when to build them, and be able to build them swiftly.
It is not enough to simply wait out the storm and rely on gunplay. To emerge victorious, you must take shelter by building it.