The Virtual Life – Tellin' Tales In PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds

by Javy Gwaltney on Jul 23, 2017 at 12:32 PM

PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds is easily one of the most talked about games this year. Initially I ignored all the chatter about it because I wasn't fond of any of the other survival games like Day Z and The Culling that PUBG shares a genre with. Eventually, however, I watched too many streams and heard too much conversation from my colleagues about how great the game is, so I loaded it up and found myself, after making a character, flying high in a cargo plane over a mysterious island.


Jumping out and parachuting, I landed near a cottage and found an AK47 inside with a single clip of ammo. I crawled through a field, trying to make sense of the map and menu items that were strewn about my screen. In the distance I saw a house. I sprinted across the field and opened the door, carefully tiptoeing my way inside the house. Suddenly, a shrieking from a stairwell:

I'm not armed! We can work together! We can trade!

I turned and – alarmed by the screaming – shot the man on the staircase through his eyeball. Blood splattered on the wall behind his head, creating some gloopy rose pattern, as the body slumped on the stairs. On the top right of the screen the ticker, keeping count of everyone in the game, dropped down from 94 to 92. For a minute I stared at his corpse, horrified by the immediacy and intimacy of the violence I had just executed. And then I went over to the corpse and took his boots and his kevlar and the shotgun shells in his pocket and went back outside.

Seven minutes later, I was dead and in 32nd place. I never even got to use the shotgun shells. Such is the cruel whims of PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds. Still, I was immediately hooked and jumped back into the game, ready to compete, which is rare for me. I don't like competition that much. Usually there are too many rules or the game is too sluggishly paced. However, PUBG's few systems, particularly the ever-shrinking lethal dome that forces players toward the middle of the map, are so well-designed that it appeals even to me. I think that, at its best, PUBG is the purest distillation of the battle royale, and that's why I find it so compelling.

Most multiplayer shooters are not inclined to emergent storytelling. The rules are rigid (capture the flag, kill the most enemies, hold this point for this long) and the maps are small. However, PUBG's flexible victory condition (survive until everyone else is dead) as well as its huge setting allow for shocking, hysterically fun, and tragic short stories to happen at almost any point – perhaps all three kinds of stories within a single match. To me, PUBG functions more like Shadow of Mordor than it does Overwatch, Call of Duty, or ARMA. It's more a short-story generator than competition, and that's ultimately why the game stands out to a huge audience. Where another shooter will fling you against your opponents and demand that you kill them over and over again to carve out a path to victory, here, you can spend large bits of each match lying in wait, weapon in hand, as all around you people murder one another. Sometimes it's even wiser to do this, to hug your belly to the floor and wait for the men and women outside the door to stop killing each other so you can sneak away or pick off a straggler with a couple of pistol shots.

There's a particular thrill here. A violent, grisly one, that taps into the zeitgeist of survival fantasy put on by the likes of Battle Royale and The Walking Dead. Straight up brute-forcing your way to victory in shooters isn't necessarily fun. However, a game like PUBG that lets you be crafty, and build the identity, the fiction, of this character is enthralling. I loved figuring out who my protagonist was through my playstyle. How my main character loves to kill with peerless tactical consideration, quietly moving through fields, focusing on traversal more than combat and only getting into combat when she knows she can win. A survivor, not needlessly cruel, but cruel enough for when the occasion calls for it. Within a matter of a few matches, I had created this character in my mind.

People love telling stories and the interactivity inherent in games makes them a natural ground for player-driven stories that occur because developers have given them the toolsets and the conditions, not because they're delivering a traditionally told story through cutscenes. Emergent storytelling is for many a buzzword but games like PUBG prove that this notion of exciting, memorable stories happening naturally in a simulated world are possible. I look forward to returning to the battlegrounds not just for the day that I might emerge at the top of the leaderboards but for the exciting possibilities that exist as players fight to survive in this massive world? (Also: I want my damn chicken dinner.)