A Game Where Your Only Friends Are Patience, Silence, and Murder
'PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds' puts 100 players in an arena, and 'The Hunger Games' style, tasks them with murder.
Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.
I'm sitting at my desk, and I close my eyes. My earbuds are just a pair that I bought at a CVS one day when I forgot my actual headphones, but they're the only thing at my desk right now, and I need to hear this game. A couple minutes ago I realized that my desktop speakers couldn't get loud enough. So here I am, earbuds jammed into my head, eyes closed, and I'm listening for footsteps. I'm listening to see if someone is coming to kill me.
I end up sitting there, eyes closed and focused, for three solid minutes. No footsteps, but instead it's the calming sound of wind and white noise. I listen to the shape of this world, absent anyone other than myself. And, weirdly, I'm somehow tense and calm at the same time.
This is what PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds is like for me. If you're not familiar with the game, it's a pretty simple thing. A hundred people get on a server, distribute themselves via parachute over a map, and then try to kill one another. It's Battle Royale but as a video game. The place where those people can be gets smaller over time, and so time's arrow and a little bit of game design herds each of those hundred players into closer quarters and their inevitable demise.
Death comes quickly in this game. Semi-automatic rifles, a few shotguns, and a cornucopia of handguns are all easily found alongside their complementary ammunition. The parachuting that opens every play session of Battlegrounds is always accompanied by ten or fifteen death messages that appear in quick succession. Someone is being shot in the head. Someone is being punched to death.
You're always aware of these deaths because the game wants you to know where you are in the hierarchy. If you're alive, then you have a rank, and that rank can go up. If you're not dead, then you can be #1. You could be the winner of this game.
I'm not the player who jumps from the plane with ten or fifteen other people. I'm not trying to land in the military base or the industrial zone or the city center. I wait until the last minute, and then I parachute as far away from other people as I possibly can. The same amount of scrounging happens, but I try not to hurry. I'm thorough, and I pick through the Eastern European-esque houses with as much care as possible. I hoard guns, bandages, ammunition, and everything else I can find.
I listen to the game audio, and I watch the death wrack up on a constantly-updating list at the bottom left of my screen.
It reminds me the most of a very strong memory of the game DayZ back when it was an Arma 2 mod. It was very soon after launch. I jumped through all the hoops to install the game, and I started on the beach of this massive island filled with zombies and other players who wanted to kill me, and I just ran. I made my way to the north of the map, where there were roads that cut through old timber forests, and I just walked the roads. I didn't see other players, and the zombies were few and far between.
I knew that if I died here that I might not make it back. I'd end up back on that beach in the grist mill of new players and the trolls who killed them without mercy. Even though I had infinite lives, I knew that I wouldn't be able to have this kind of life again. At some point, I died, and by that point players had figured out how to efficiently make their way to every part of that world. It was never the same again. That solitude just wasn't possible.
In Battlegrounds, I've made the most of my time counting deaths. I get my hoard of items, I pack them all into my backpack, and I find a little shed or a tree with a rock near it. I crouch down on the ground, and I wait for those who want to murder each other to do exactly that. I watch the bottom left of my screen scroll, and I see all the different ways that people can die.
I've spent all of my time in the game alone, as one might do if every other person in the world was trying to kill you, and I've seen some beautiful things that bring me right back to those solitary walks on the northern roads of DayZ. I've walked through a swamp and discovered an observatory. I've perched on a rock and surveyed two different towns from afar. I've slowly walked through the forest, listening to the ambient sounds of the world.
The listening is key.
In Battlegrounds, almost all sound comes with an associated death. You can listen to rifle fire in the far distance, and a few moments later an announcement of murder appears in the list of deaths. My body tightens up when I hear the rare sound of a car engine, and hearing one pull up outside of a house I am looting instills a sense of panic and fear that I can't quite describe. Worse than that is standing stock still in a bathroom and hearing someone slowly making their way around the outside of a house. The crunch of their footsteps is audible through the wall, and I take my hands of my keyboard and put them into my lap, hoping that they won't come inside.
Those moments, though, are rare. They're islands in an ocean of sound, and death is a punctuation mark in a long, flowing sentence that has me moving through this world and appreciating its sights and sounds. Battlegrounds, in presenting life as incredibly short and horribly violent, forces me to focus intently on the trees, buildings, and ambient sounds of life to know if my own bit of punctuation is coming. And in waiting for the period, the stopping point of my time in the world, I appreciate everything before it even more.