I can't stop buying $20 Fortnite skins

I should really buy some new pants. Just two pairs of black jeans in my drawer these days. Rotate them out for a wash once a week and those suckers stay pristine barring any airborne sauce event. Black pants and a band tee. Haven't spend a penny on my wardrobe in a minute. I'm told it's a good look.

I'm more self-conscious in Fortnite, obsessed with my appearance in a place no one I value can see me. Out here it's black pants and a band tee again, but in Fortnite, I'm a fish astronaut. I'm an anthropomorphic tomato with angel wings. I'm edgy Xur cosplay that sails in hanging from a satellite. I'm a nutcracker that boogies on your corpse. And because I can't stop buying Fortnite cosmetics, I'm also $100 short of a new pair of pants.

Skinner box

I shouldn't be $100 deep. I mean, Fortnite is a free game. For the price of some spare time, you can play an excellent battle royale shooter with a building system that somehow works, beatific deathmatch on a grand scale that makes you feel OK with inevitable, sustained failure. I lose 99% of my matches, but I'm having a blast. (I explain better in my Fortnite review.)

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However, I've supplanted a fear of loss new form of psychic torture. Now I spend money I don't need to in order to feel unique among group after group of 99 strangers I'll never know. Killing them is secondary. Looking good is everything.  

And looking good is easy with the quality of Fortnite's clothes. Playful and sharp, the skins are irreverent exercises in whatever the fuck the designers feel like that day. Unlike Overwatch, they don't need to say a damn thing about the character because everyone starts as a nobody in Fortnite. What you wear determines that.

Fish astronaut: the jean shorts of Fortnite.

Take the Leviathan outfit, for example. The body isn't too special, a reconfiguration of color and texture from the Mission Specialist astronaut skin—but look at that head. A sentient fish in a bowl suspended in spacewater that somehow maintains control of the human-shaped body below. 

A likely ode to Minion from Dreamworks' Megamind, the fishman is so, so incredibly stupid, the kind of expressive cartoon I'd draw in the margins of lecture notes back when. But touched up with a glossy, light color palette the fishman is a complete departure from the boring, blonde-haired Jonesy that somehow still graces most Fortnite marketing materials. 

When I wear the Leviathan, people don't just see me as a man who doesn't know how to spend money, but as a person that doesn't mind looking totally out of place. Fish astronaut: the jean shorts of Fortnite. 

The Raven is another recent purchase from yours truly, Fortnite's cheeky attempt at 1999-era edginess. Think The Crow (duh), Spawn, and a little Xur for you lapsed Destiny fans. The Raven is the embodiment of an 8th grader's idea of unbearable inner turmoil in human form. Now a new generation of hormonal preteens can channel their angst through the most popular game among their peers. I didn't have to beg my mom for the V-Bucks, so I don't think I've truly earned The Raven, but I'm happy it exists—a no-brainer solidarity purchase.

But I don't think that hard when buying most skins. Rabbit Raider, a pink rabbit wearing a hockey mask led to an out-of-body experience. I saw myself from above clicking buy before I knew what was happening. Tomatohead was just too damn goofy to resist, and who could say no to the baby dino backpack that comes with Tricera Ops? I can't quit, and I don't really mind. Supporting a game I love is good, right? 

High fashion

Problem is (and to be clear, it's my problem), Epic prices their cosmetics high. The best skins run for around $20. That's a third the price of a brand new videogame. That's two good hamburgers. That's bus fare for the week. Fortnite is still free to play, but it still takes a toll. To get asked to dance in the pre-game lobby, to make the cut in overwrought montage replay videos set to electronic music from another dimension where it's 2003 forever, to be noticed requires far more than good aim. 

But I'll take $20 fish people and bunnies wearing hockey masks over a stack of Overwatch loot boxes any day. I know what I'm doing when I drink two beers and go on a V-Bucks spree. Do the math and whatever it took to get Elite Skin X in your favorite character-based multiplayer shooter probably far outpaces my $20 truth. With every transaction, I get exactly what I want. I just wish the best skins did more than say I made a decent enough income to spend my money on ephemeral cartoon clothing.

The skins available in each season pass could change that over time, but the current selection is too small for Fashion-nite to coalesce. Fortnite's also so new that everyone who's anyone has the hot new skin the moment it hits the item store. Outfit homogeneity means in-jokes and skin reputations have yet to attach to specific outfits in a big way. Everyone is just wearing the hot new shit all the time, Yeezy with slightly less classism.  

It doesn't help that Fortnite has no Dark Soulsian Solaire or big-headed Xanthous to graft onto. We're left for our version of Fashion Souls and Giant Door Squad raiding parties to take shape. Hopefully, Fortnite skins become just as capable of earning reputations based on usage by popular streamers, or behaviors that emerge from matching skin-users that happen upon or agree to a particular method of play. 

The closest we have right now is the colloquially named John Wick, whose real skin name is The Reaper. As the level 100 reward for the Season 3 battle pass, anyone can nab the skin with enough time and skill, but because you can also spend money to level up your battle pass, players that earned the skin suspiciously early into Season 3 were tagged as connoisseurs of 'mom's credit card.' Now, at the end of Season 3, Wicks are everywhere, but for a few weeks you could ID the rich kids from a mile off. 

Nice try, kiddo. 

Next in line is the inverse of fashion, a subersive response to aesthetic and taste. Forgoing skins, even those you own, has become a mark of sorts. Dubbed 'Noskin' by the community at large, what was once an easy way to ID inexperienced or frugal players has become camouflage for the best out there. Spotting a Noskin on the horizon could mean you're about to 1v1 a mobile player, but it could also signal Death, The Twitch Streamer is marching up stairs of stone and fire to take you home. Noskins might fly in the face of fashion, but they represent a unified movement based on looks. 

You don't see ursine armies of pink Cuddle Team Leaders asking for hugs from squaddies (hug emote requested, Epic) or, more plainly, anyone dressed in the Special Forces skin sticking to stealthy play. But maybe we will soon. I'd love to dress up in accordance with whatever mood or playstyle I'm feeling, we just need more time (and skin) for those habits to take shape on a grander scale, if they ever do. Until then, I stand at the fore, knowingly, recklessly harvesting skins with money I don't deserve with the hopes that one day I'll have a deadly party to wear them to. 

James Davenport

James is stuck in an endless loop, playing the Dark Souls games on repeat until Elden Ring and Silksong set him free. He's a truffle pig for indie horror and weird FPS games too, seeking out games that actively hurt to play. Otherwise he's wandering Austin, identifying mushrooms and doodling grackles.