In Fortnite Battle Royale, the world’s most popular video game, released last September and today being played by millions of people at a time, you’re dropped into the sky above a richly rendered island, 99 other players all parachuting down alongside you. You angle toward your preferred terrain and as soon as you touch down, you are searching for a weapon—any weapon. The island is ringed by a glowing circle that periodically shrinks, shepherding the players into an ever smaller arena. The last one standing wins. In other, similar games, this is a gruesome progression, but Fortnite renders everything with cartoony bounce; when a shot lands, the result isn’t carnage, just holographic dematerialization. Even inside the game, it’s only a game.
Fortnite’s island is big. Even with 100 players, it’s not unusual to find yourself crossing a wide-open field or exploring an abandoned house with no one else in sight. These sequences often last several minutes—a veritable Vipassanā retreat in game time. But then, inevitably, your solitude is broken, and it’s those breaks that constitute, for me, most of the game’s appeal. You’ll glimpse a tiny silhouette on the far ridge, so small you can count the pixels. It’s another player, descending fast. Coming your way. Or, you’ll hear the far-off blast of a weapon, source unseen, the sound artfully shaped by the game’s impeccable audio engine, its tone hollowed by distance. Sight or sound, the response is the same: You prepare yourself. Presence is menace.