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.
Or is it?
At the same time as I’ve been playing this game, I’ve been making my way through a popular science-fiction trilogy written by Liu Cixin, translated by Ken Liu, and the books have spun my evenings with Fortnite into a deeper, weirder dimension.
The second book in Liu’s trilogy, The Dark Forest, is named for a theory of cosmopolitics articulated by one of its characters that addresses the mismatch between the apparent scale of the universe (vast) and the observed number of high-tech civilizations (one). Even if high-tech civilizations are vanishingly rare, we are dealing with an entire universe here, so vanishing rarity is more than enough to provide neighbors. Why then does the universe seem so ... quiet?
Liu’s theorist has an answer. The universe, he says, is in fact teeming with high-tech civilizations, but their activities are constrained by a few hard truths. First, because communication between stars is slow and tenuous, no civilization can know in advance the disposition of any other. They could be friendly five-dimensional poets, but they could also be voracious space-squid conquerers. Further, “high-tech” raises the stakes. Technology’s exponential tendency suggests that if an alien civilization is more advanced than ours, it’s not just a little but a lot more advanced than ours. Like, interstellar-death-ray advanced.
Combine uncertainty with high stakes and you arrive—inexorably, Liu’s character insists—at the one appropriate response to an alien greeting: Snuff out its source. Do it first. Do it fast. Vaporize, lest ye be vaporized, and if you possess no death rays, then for all you hold precious: Be very, very quiet.
Liu’s theorist underscores this last point. According to him, humanity’s habit of transmitting cheery greetings into the cosmos is unhinged. If everyone else in the universe has already reckoned with the uncertainty and the stakes, then they have become hunters in the silent woods, every ear straining to detect the tiniest sound. We, by contrast, are the blithe picnicker whistling a tune as we tromp through the trees, and even now, a dozen hunters are finding us in their sights, adjusting for the wind, and ...
By now, you have detected the connection to Fortnite. There’s no chat in the game, no way to even lie about your intentions. The only signal you send is your presence—your own tiny silhouette on the far ridge—and presence is menace. Once within striking distance of another player, if you don’t try your best to end their game, they will assuredly end yours. It’s thrilling to win one of these duels, but it’s disappointing to lose, and after a while—because I really am not very competitive (I should probably do something other than play these video games)—the knowledge of that disappointment in the other player’s room began to mute the triumph in my own. As I played through this loop of all against all, I began to wonder: Is this it?
Then, a breakthrough. I unlocked a critical upgrade: a single “emote,” an action outside the boundaries of run/jump/aim/shoot. It’s a heart. I can now press a key and cause a dorky cartoon heart to appear above my character’s head.
In possession of a heart, I began to negotiate.
In the beginning of each game, immediately following the parachute drop, I would often discover that another player had chosen the same landing spot as me. What better opportunity for collaboration? We could divide the nearby resources and part ways peacefully, perhaps to meet again, further down the line, both of us better prepared for a battle.
Mostly, it didn’t work. I would holster my weapon, throw up my heart, and ... get blasted in the face.
Worse, and predictably: I’d offer my heart and it would be accepted—I knew this because I received a heart in return, sometimes a merry dance emote—and then, delighted with our teamwork, I would turn around and ... get blasted in the back.
I tried this negotiation many times with no success at all and my “Is this it?” curdled into “Is this us?” These were just the rules of the game—its very design—but even so. What a dire environment. What a cruel species!
Then, one night, it worked. And, in many games since, it’s worked again. Mostly I get blasted, but sometimes I don’t, and when I don’t, the possibilities bloom. Sometimes, after we face off and stand down, the other player and I go our separate ways. More frequently, we stick together. I’ve crossed half the map with impromptu allies.
When it works, it is usually because I have a weapon and my potential ally doesn’t. When (shockingly) I do not blast them and (even more shockingly) do not pull a bait and switch, a real human connection is established, on a channel deeper than any afforded by the interface. Then, very reliably, when the other player acquires a weapon of their own—sometimes it’s a gift from me—there is no double cross.
It’s never not tenuous. You both have your weapons out. Sprinting down steep trails, my ally’s footfalls crunching loud in my headphones, either of us, at any time, could flick our wrist and end the other’s game, collecting their stockpile of weapons and resources.
But we don’t!
When they’re successful, these negotiations are honestly more nervy and exciting than the game’s most intense shoot-outs. I’m not the only one who thinks so. In forums dedicated to Fortnite Battle Royale, some players share clips of chance alliances, and others reply glumly: “Super rare to find someone [who] won’t shoot you when you emote.” I dream of a Political Fortnite in which victory goes not to the twitchiest sniper but the most charismatic organizer, with factions forming and dissolving ... I imagine the fear and thrill of seeing not one but a dozen tiny silhouettes on the far ridge—a war band sweeping fast down the hillside. I’m outnumbered; can I convince them to let me join them?
Based on my experiments in the laboratory of Fortnite, I think Liu Cixin is wrong. Or at least, he’s not entirely right. Fortnite is more Dark Forest theory than not, and maybe that’s true of the universe, too. But sometimes, we have a lever against the vise of game theory, and in this case, it is a single bit of communication. I mean “bit” in the programmer’s sense: a flag with a designated meaning. Nothing more. My heart emote didn’t make Fortnite cuddly and collaborative, but it did allow me to communicate: “Hold up. Let’s do this a different way.”
There’s another great exception to Fortnite’s zero-sum game. Hidden around the island, there are dance floors, the lights still flashing and the music still oonce-oonce-ooncing amidst the desolation, and it is well-established that the dance floors are DMZs. This isn’t a rule of the game; as far as Fortnite’s code is concerned, a discotheque is as good a place for blasting as a dry creek bed. But the players disagree. If a renegade dares turn against the crowd, the crowd teams up against them, then returns to its revels. This norm isn’t absolute, of course, and it’s also a bit of a cheat, because it’s been established largely outside the game, on the message boards and streaming channels where Fortnite players gather. But some players, surely, have stumbled onto one of the dance floors with no idea what to expect and been shocked at what they saw there, and this gives us another lever against the steel-trap logic of Dark Forest Theory: culture.
I have been, in exactly two games of Fortnite, the last player standing. The reward for players who achieve victory royale is that, in all subsequent games, they drop to the island not with a bulky parachute but a svelte parasol—a dozen murderous Mary Poppinses cutting down through the noobs. I am darkly proud of my parasol, but prouder, by far, of the times I’ve stood on a hilltop with another player and created together a little island in the rushing river of the rules: time and space for negotiation and trust.
If you see our tiny silhouettes on the far ridge, my ally’s and mine, you’d better run.