My first attempt at joining the carnage of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds—a smash-hit new video game that pits 100 users against each other in a spare, bloody deathmatch—was as surreal as you might imagine. Like every other online player, I parachuted onto a gigantic island, unarmed, ready to search for weapons and gear with which to exterminate my 99 competitors. I immediately came across a one-room building that resembled a concrete rhombus and started toward it before being confronted with a fairly typical sight for this game: another player, toting a machine gun, heading straight for me.
Still unarmed, I dashed around him and into the building, hoping to find something to defend myself with, but inside I found ... a T-shirt. My opponent marched in behind me and, over his microphone, intoned what would become the last words my poor cyber-avatar would ever hear: “Hey, what’s up, bro.” I scrambled around his ankles, trying to get past him. “If you don't talk, I’m gonna have to kill you,” he explained, giving me an opportunity to plead for my life. (My microphone was, sadly, not plugged in.) He shot me in the back. “Warned ya. Shoulda had a mic,” he mused, as my screen went gray.
Minus the discussion of microphone etiquette, that’s pretty much exactly how I imagine my life would end if I were placed into a real-life battle royale—rapidly and foolishly. I probably wouldn’t even survive the parachuting, to be honest. So why, after such a pointless experience, did I immediately reload another go-round of Battlegrounds to try my luck at surviving longer in this miserable environment? More importantly, why has Battlegrounds, a video game that is still in beta testing (it won’t be officially released until later this year), sold more than 4 million copies in three months, even faster than the previous PC phenomenon Minecraft (whose beta version took nearly a year to sell 4 million copies)?
Much as with Minecraft, the initial sense of simplicity is key. But unlike Minecraft, there aren’t hidden, byzantine depths to PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. Yes, there are particular weapons and pieces of armor to hunt for, vehicles to drive around, and tactical decisions to be made about the relative value of running to built-up locations (which contain more gear, but will draw in more competitors) versus hunkering down in remote spots. But in Battlegrounds, there is always a ticking clock to contend with, from the moment you parachute down. A hundred players enter, but the last person standing is the winner. As the game goes on, the map begins to shrink, forcing you to confront each other. There is no time for nuance.
The blunt-force apocalypse of this game is what it makes it so easy to pronounce it uniquely suited to this unsubtle moment in culture. Deathmatch games like Counter-Strike and Call of Duty have long been popular among online players, but there’s something particularly grim about Battlegrounds. Your avatar is just a person wearing a T-shirt and khakis, rather than a soldier prowling through a war zone. The landscape is hauntingly nonspecific, just a bunch of empty towns, neighborhoods, and industrial zones filled with weapons and resources. And, perhaps most unnerving of all, there’s no music—the only sound is the pop of bullet fire, which is often the last thing you hear before the game ends.
Still, I kept playing, eager to advance and not just be one of the first to perish on every attempt. There’s a little counter in the top right-hand corner of the screen, slowly moving down from 100, and every new death is announced like you’re in The Hunger Games. The more I played, and the longer I lasted, the more I was struck by the lunatic calm of the experience. Attacking another player, or going anywhere near the more populated areas, was a risk only taken with careful preparation. Most of my playing time saw me scrounging around on the outskirts and fleeing at the first sign of trouble. In my best run (in which I came fifth), I spent most of the game hiding out in an abandoned tower block, gun trained at a door, waiting for some poor soul to open it.
In a strange way, then, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds belongs to the category of virally popular indie games like Firewatch, No Man’s Sky, and Gone Home—games that are light on action and heavy on atmosphere. Battlegrounds is unlike any other shooter I’d played in that it entirely relies on tension—there’s nothing particularly impressive or interesting about the action itself. There’s only waiting, coupled with the gloomy mortality.
The lead designer Brendan Greene (also known as PlayerUnknown) created the game to mimic the Japanese cult film Battle Royale, a goofily disturbing meditation on man’s inhumanity. There’s no better indication that he’s succeeded than in the opening minutes of every showdown, in which all the players are gathered on the airplane they will soon parachute out of, and everyone is free to talk to each other. Loose alliances are sometimes formed, or meeting places set, but the straightforward premise of the game underlines the horror of it all. Even if you work together, at some point, you’re going to turn on each other—it’s just a matter of who shoots first.