From a distance, one Fortnite: Battle Royale player looks like any other. If you watch carefully, though, you might notice that the very best players carry themselves a little differently – forgoing the crouch key and jumping at regular intervals, as if to stand a little taller than the rest. But, on this occasion, I was not watching carefully enough.
Related: why Fortnite: Battle Royale is better enjoyed when you’re not winning.
I had made it into the last 25 through a policy of Tactical Avoidance – which you might sometimes see referred to as ‘hiding’ – but was unfortunate enough to encounter somebody destined for the final two. A steep, rocky outcrop had promised an inaccessible hut where there would still be guns, so I steered my glider there before setting up with a scope to survey the area.
It would have been an easy shot for anybody familiar with the trajectory of the sniper rifle – a mark heading towards the centre of the map, oblivious and unprotected. But that is the downside of Tactical Avoidance: very little weapons training. I missed, and when I looked down the scope a second time, the target had disappeared.
Of course, no outpost is truly inaccessible in Fortnite, a game equipped with instant construction tools that make the Lego Movie’s master builders look tardy. While I marvelled at my opponent’s vanishing act, they scaled the cliff face and appeared directly behind me with a shotgun – a series of events I only worked out after my ammo and bandages were spilled across the plateau like entrails.
Up close, my killer had all the hallmarks of somebody you do not take potshots at: he was covered in cosmetics. Think Aaron Johnson’s Kick-Ass costume, accessorised with Link’s shield. A bold look. He sighed, shook his head, and then put it in his hands. A stock emote, but the inference was clear: he was embarrassed for me. Reader, I would love to tell you I did not rise to it. I was fuming. I kept watching.
Minutes later, Kick-Ass climbed a stairway in a mountainside, left behind by another player. The workmanship was shoddy, however, and he slipped through a gap, sliding down the shale back to ground level. There it was again: the sardonic despair. With no-one around to see the performance I realised it was for my benefit. And not just mine. A skull-adorned counter on the UI revealed that Kick-Ass had so far killed eight others. He was playing to the spectator mode-crowd.
Others would have logged out by now to compete in matches playing out on different servers. But there are some, like me, who stay, trailing our killers like ghosts, either hate-watching or hoping to learn something. Kick-Ass had a private audience that increased its membership with every click of his deadly trigger finger. All of us were personally invested in seeing our killer brought to justice, and with no other option but to leave, this was our only means of closure. We were souls trapped in his sword.
Then the doorbell rang. The spell was broken, and Kick-Ass lost a viewer – a fact that would be made apparent to him by his own interface. Maybe he would buy another emote before the next game: a slow clap, perhaps, or a pair of finger guns. I hope he wound up watching somebody else’s death-stream before the end, but I doubt he would stay. Some of us in Fortnite are watchers while others are determined to be watched.