Last man standing

By John Bailey
‘PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds’ is one of the most popular shooter games – and one of the most unusual

I’m writing this while crouched in some bushes in the middle of a field of gently swaying wheat. My gaze is fixed on a bucolic farmhouse at the bottom of a sharp ridge. I’ve just seen someone carrying a rifle disappear inside. I’m carrying a frying pan. The distant crackle of gunfire is a reminder that most people in this pastoral scene are the shoot-first type, and that farmhouse was until recently my only hope of refuge.

I’m playing a shooting game. Let’s pull this tooth quickly: these games are the reason the popular imagination equates game-players with drool-flecked teenage boys yelling obscenities at their TVs. The phallic fantasies suggested by virtual guns spurting endless death give the gamer the cultural aroma of someone squatting in the bushes and masturbating. The prevalence of shooters – they’re the most commercial game genre and comprise about a quarter of the entire industry – suggests that this is what gamers are: a stateless nation of squatting masturbators.

Currently, I’m the one squatting in the bushes, but when this game began I was waiting in a plane with 99 other players from around the world. Before we skydived out towards those idyllic fields, this airborne lobby was the aural equivalent of a Bruegel hellscape, a cacophony of adolescent male voices screaming racist memes, homophobic vitriol and primal ululations (the single exception being a polite young man delivering a perfect rendition of a captain’s welcome aboard Jetstar flight JQ225). It was immediately obvious why every write-up of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds includes a warning to turn off the in-game voice chat system.

Battlegrounds is the latest tearaway hit in the shooter genre, having sold 10 million copies in the six months since its early access release. During busy periods it averages about 500,000 players at once. The premise is simple: 100 of us parachute onto this eerily vacant island and only one will survive. Today, most players scattered to the winds in all directions, hoping to land somewhere far from the others, but by the time my heels hit dirt one fifth of our number had already been murdered. The shooting started early.

It might be the success story of 2017, but the fact that I’m writing this review while playing Battlegrounds hints at how it differs from most shooting games. It is both summation and refutation of one of the most popular and problematic game genres. Where most shooters are geared towards aggression, blood lust and a knowledge of firearm models, Battlegrounds rewards cowardice, avoidance, immobility and blind panic. This is a game in which not playing is the safest choice.

I initially aimed my fall towards an apartment block in a flooded quarter of the island, figuring the knee-high water would deter pursuit, but upon landing I turned to find a man touching down just a few metres away. I hightailed it around a corner and didn’t stop sprinting until a forest and several hectares separated us. I found refuge in a derelict church with a good view of the surrounding terrain, and climbed to the rooftop, where I could lie prone and hard to spot. I found my frypan on the way up the staircase.

By the time I secured my hiding spot, a counter in the corner of my screen indicated that 40 fellow players were already dead. There are people who play shooting games with obsessive zeal. They excel at them, can even compete professionally for hundreds of thousands of dollars, but they’re here today for whatever satisfaction they earn from headshots and virtual victory. For them, Battlegrounds is a chance to star in an action movie. For everyone else, it’s a white-knuckle thriller. For anyone but the pros, the goal is not to win but to forestall the inevitability of death.

Armed with nothing but a frying pan and my two feet, I watched the counter tick past 50. I’d done better than most players simply by hiding. From my aerial vantage above the church I could hear far-off reports of handguns and rifles scavenged from across the map. There’s also the shrinking ring of lethal blue electricity that slowly closes in on the island, reducing the playing space and ensuring that no one can camp out indefinitely.

I hear the car before I see it. A beach buggy racing up the lane that leads to the church. It disappears from view but the engine cuts out somewhere close and I hear footsteps circling the building. I chance a peek and spot the buggy almost directly below me. The footsteps are further off now, inside the church, near the staircase that brought me here. I’m rubbish at shooting. I’m not hopped up on energy drinks and teenage hormones. But cowardice, avoidance and the like– these I can master.

I drop from the roof and two seconds later am gunning the buggy towards the horizon. I’m zigzagging left and right with the expectation – duly met – that a hail of gunfire will follow me for stealing’s someone’s ride. I’m a moving target, though, and I’m two towns over by the time the buggy flips and I’m thrown all battered and bloody into the wheat field. I hobble towards the nearest farmhouse before catching sight of the distant woman disappearing inside. I duck behind the bushes.

There’s no going back the way I came, but the road ahead now looks just as dangerous. Good time to stay put. Good time to start writing.

In the video-game universe, the shooting came early. You can draw a direct line from the 3D virtual verisimilitude of Battlegrounds back to games such as Space Invaders: here is a problem and you can make it go away by shooting it. Make all the problems go away and you win. From early shooters such as Doom, Quake and Castle Wolfenstein to today’s billion-dollar franchises such as Call of Duty, the logic has been maintained. Here is a gun, and here is a problem. Solve it.

But add in other players and something else emerges. Other people become the problem. The solution is just as simple, of course. Use whatever arms are at hand to make them go away. It’s not hard to see this economy extending to, say, social media. The plane-bound obscenity that precedes a round of this game is players using the only weapon they have available at that point: their voice. Battlegrounds is a 3D comment section.

Back to the bushes. There are 33 of us left alive out here. Someone just died from falling. 32. 31. With time to appreciate it, this scenery really is quite beautiful. There’s no sound but the breeze. I am going to die. There is no chance of grace or salvation. This is the point of Battlegrounds, for me at least.

When you die in Battlegrounds, you’re kicked from the match. You don’t get to see what happens next. You don’t know who bested you. You definitely don’t know who wins the game.

Whether by accident or design, Battlegrounds subverts the very notion of “winning”. The only reward that awaits the last player standing are the words “WINNER WINNER CHICKEN DINNER” that appear on their screen. If this sounds like a flaccid trophy for surviving such a difficult ordeal, consider also that in reaching this point, you’ve ensured that every other player has left the game. If there is some pleasure in the victory itself, the fact that this pleasure can only be enjoyed solo is what lends Battlegrounds its critical edge. The gift it gives to the player who has spent the most time playing these games is like a mirror placed in front of the squatting masturbator.

The blue ring tops the ridge and advances towards the farmhouse. The front door opens and the woman nursing the rifle hurtles out into the field, running right at my hiding spot. I lower myself to my stomach. This review may end mid-sentence.

She runs past me, no more than a few metres away. Oblivious. Stalks of wheat ripple in her wake. There are 21 of us left.

It’s a minute later and the blue ring is crossing the field. I’m going to have to run, now, too. If I find another safe place, I’ll keep writing this. If not, I hope it finds you well.

John Bailey

John Bailey is a Melbourne-based arts journalist.

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