The Quiet Holiness of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds
PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds is a game of contradictions -- it's a quiet game with loud guns and a lonely game with 99 other players.
The road through Rozhok is stained with blood. Plain wooden crates decorate each side of the street: one, two, three, four, there are five of them. Five small boxes filled with guns, filled with bandages, filled with clothing. The boxes tell stories of intentions; stories of submachine gun-wielding men holding sniper rifle scopes, stories of assault rifle-wielding women that ran out of ammo, stories of people that never had a shot to survive.
“We’ve got gunshots to the south,” I hear a voice say. “Yeah, but that shit is real far south,” another says. “Water tower? Nah, further than that. They’re probably at the school,” the two voices agree. After all, somebody’s always at the school.
There used to be a third voice, but he was killed way out east in Yasnaya Polyana. Sniper shot to the head, SKS I believe, went straight through his helmet. The voice bled out on a rooftop while the rest of us scrambled into a nearby car. The zone was closing and none of us had meds.
For a few months this year, I started every Saturday morning the same way. I would wake up at around 7 a.m., get a coffee and a bagel from the bodega around the corner, and play PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. There was always a quiet holiness in this ritual; the soft, almost ambient sound of the deli owner watching Premier League soccer, the hum of a computer being turned on, the ceremonious first slurp from a fresh cup of coffee.
The world was asleep and I wasn’t. There were no text messages to answer, no articles to write, and no buses to take. Sunlight would creep in through my bedroom window and tickle my cat as his body lay strewn across my bed. Saturday morning was always a small, yet humble savior; the last bastion of personal time untainted by personal or professional obligations.
PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds was the pièce de résistance of this liturgy. Despite being a shooter by trade, PUBG rarely feels like it. The main verbal focus in PUBG is not “to shoot,” rather, “to survive”; it’s less concerned with the minute-to-minute gunplay, tense standoffs, and other gun-based tropes of other shooters. PUBG makes you check your urge for constant high-octane action at the door, instead offering a meticulous slow burn of looting, scavenging, and scouting.
Looting is, above all, the most therapeutic part of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. What may seem like a chore to trigger-happy Call of Duty players and old-school Quake fans, looting slows the pace of PUBG down to a crawl. Dropping in one of Erangel or Miramar’s (numerous) rural areas allows you to slowly travel from house-to-house and outfit yourself with gear. This grind carries a similar catharsis to other mundane chores; the feeling of accomplishment from crossing out items on a grocery list, the strange electricity from mailing out a package at a post office, the sleepy excitement of waiting on line at a bakery on Thanksgiving morning. Deliberately slow, yet never a slog, PUBG implores you to hurry up and wait.
The five boxes ask a lot of questions, yet, answer none of them. How many different squads were here? Who killed who? More importantly, is there anyone alive in the city?
“Five boxes, for all we know there’s another three alive in the city,” one of the voices says. “That or they got the hell out of dodge when things went south. I’m thinking the former, seeing as these bodies haven’t been looted,” the other voice chimes in.
We cautiously rummage through the bodies taking first aid kits, 7.62 ammunition, and helmets. We linger in a circle dropping gun attachments and trading ammunition with one another. Rozhok is uncharacteristically silent, especially for a town with five bodies in the street.
“We have the zone,” one of the voices says. “I reckon we just wait in one of these buildings here and keep an eye on the road. We should have some stragglers coming in from the school. They have to come to us.”
Something about PUBG’s slowness is directly conducive to the mystic sanctity of a solitary Saturday morning. Due to its survivalist roots, PUBG plays almost like a strange open-world game; an RPG of sorts where there are no NPCs, rather, real people. Every match illustrates a plodding story, an Easter egg hunt to connect the dots. In this vein, PUBG achieves an inadvertent type of scenic storytelling; an energy drink can on the ground, a blown-out car in the distance, and a dead body in a river all mean something. There’s a story in the soil behind every squad in every match in PUBG. Whether you’re a footnote in that story or a featured player is entirely up to you.
Unlike other games with large maps, PUBG doesn’t task the player with discovering places but, rather, discovering people. While PUBG, unlike other battle royale games like SCUM and DayZ, doesn’t allow players to coexist with one another, PUBG’s human elements award the game with the kind of scope that most open-world games don’t possess. Underneath the game’s consistent setting lies one hundred breathing variables; one hundred sticks of dynamite ready to combust at a moment’s notice.
PUBG‘s signature quietness has an eerily meditative quality to it. Awfully silent for a game with a lot of guns, PUBG almost inadvertently transgresses other shooters, and most notably, other battle royale titles. If Fortnite is the latest action-packed Marvel movie, PUBG is its premium television foil; yes, you still get all of the same wonderful action sequences, but they’re spread out over the course of a much longer period of time.
While it’s possible to play PUBG with a guns-blazing, reckless demeanor, carelessness ultimately ruins the pace of the game. Despite bringing a lot to the table, PUBG doesn’t work well as a vanilla shooter. Offering uber-realistic gun mechanics and player physics, the game’s actual gunplay often feels jilted and stiff. Like smearing store brand ketchup all over a sirloin steak, players that don’t appreciate the hushed, snail’s pace of PUBG are doing themselves a grand disservice.
I’m consistently shocked when I check Steam (and Xbox Live) to see how much time I’ve spent playing PUBG. As of right now, I’ve played the game for over 200 hours, presumably more than any other game I’ve played. The reason why this time spent in the game catches me off-guard is that PUBG‘s palatable pace and branching maps always manage to hook me in. Similar to the way that an episode of AMC’s Better Call Saul feels like a minute, PUBG‘s signature slowness works tirelessly to make players turn on, tune in, and drop out.
It starts as a hum in the distance until it isn’t a hum in the distance. It gets louder and louder. A sputtering motorcycle engine roars. Chugging and chugging and chugging. A cyclist in the east turns onto the road that runs through Rozhok.
“Light him up?” one of the voices wonders, looking at the cyclist through a second story window. “No need, brother, no need,” the other voice replies. “We ain’t suppressed and even if we were it just ain’t wise to hit a man flying through Rozhok like he’s got some kind of death wish.”
The cyclist gets off the bike in the road and walks to the other side of the street. Silence returns to Rozhok.
PUBG’s maps are haunted. Often eerily quiet and disconcerting, PUBG’s maps offer a world devoid of normal people. The towering apartments of Georgopol are desolate and empty, the valley-encompassed prison contains no prisoners, and the charming farmhouses of Gatka are chillingly barren. It’s probably for the best; after all, everyone you come across in PUBG tries to kill you. Any sign of human activity, such as open doors, footsteps, or a car engine, means danger is nearby.
Silence is the natural state of PUBG‘s world, a norm which is only broken by other players or a plane carrying a supply drop. Like Golding’s Lord of the Flies, PUBG‘s world-building offers a cynical treatise on human nature — sure, the earth is okay, but human nature dictates we’re all going to end up murdering one another. Much like the British children marooned on Golding’s island, the only collaborative aspects of PUBG come from tribalism. The most comradely acts of sharing supplies and gear only extend to those by your side, those in your squad.
Much of PUBG‘s core premise is built around materialism. At the beginning of matches, especially if you drop in a popular area, PUBG serves as an allegory for the ‘haves’ versus the ‘have-nots.’ While experience and skill both play big roles throughout each match, even some of the best players can’t kill a fully-equipped enemy with a simple frying pan. This emphasis on being well-armed feeds PUBG‘s looting mechanic and ultimately dictates the entire pace of the game as a whole.
“I can’t see him anymore,” one of the voices says. “I can’t believe we lost him,” the other says. The two voices look out of different windows through the scopes of their guns.
The wind blows softly through the broken upstairs windows. A cooked grenade lands between the three of us. The two voices scream and go down. I try to revive them when the shots ring out from across the street.
“The cyclist was just a distraction,” one of the voices calmly says. “I can’t believe we fell for it,” says the other.
A sniper shot hits me in the head and kills me. The other squad walks over to our bodies and begins to take our equipment. Silence, once again, returns to Rozhok.
PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds is a game of contradictions — it’s a quiet game with loud guns, a lonely game with 99 other players, and a shooting game that is more preoccupied with survival. There’s something inherently, yet subtly subversive about PUBG and the frameworks it utilized to “form” the battle royale genre when it arrived last year. It’s simultaneously boring and suspenseful, quiet and loud, asocial and collaborative. Above all, it’s a game that looks like standard AAA fare, yet acts nothing like it.
Perhaps PUBG isn’t so cynical after all. On second thought, the game never explicitly tells you to kill one another, it simply tells you to get into the next zone. Maybe we’ve been playing PUBG the wrong way this whole time.