“Why is PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds so Popular? So Laggy? So Hard? Addicting? Why is PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds so good?”
I hear these questions frequently, and after nearly 80 hours of playtime with Brendan Green’s ARMA-III-mod-turned-internet-craze, I think I’m starting to understand the answer. Boot up PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, henceforth referred to as PUB-G, PUB-Gah, Battlegrounds, or Murder Island, and you’ll find a game that’s quite rough around the edges. Twenty percent of the time the game won’t even run on my MSI GE Series that’s configured with a GTX 970M graphics card. There’s nothing quite as infuriating as receiving a network error while running from your impending doom, only to watch your character get swept away by a swift and unfair death. I can’t remember a game previously that caused me as much frustration, anger, and apparent memory leaks as Battlegrounds has, yet it’s by far one of my favorite games of the year. So why is PUBG so popular? Why is it so good? Well, it all comes down to tension, happenstance, and ultimately, fear.
PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds is a battle royale game wherein players parachute onto an island with nothing but the clothes on their back. Think Hunger Games, Schwarzenegger in The Running Man, that mid-2000’s movie with Stone Cold Steve Austin, or you know, the actual Battle Royale movie. Anyways, the win condition of the game is to be the last man standing: the one person (or squad) who manages to successfully collect enough gear and firepower to navigate their way through countless sniper scopes, stressful firefights, creepy apartment buildings, and soul-crushingly vast wheat fields – all while being tailed by a blue forcefield that will quickly end the player’s life if they find themselves outside of its circumference. There’s also the fact that there are literally one hundred other players surrounding you, all of whom are moving around the island with their own ever changing motives and strategies. It’s a dynamic unlike any I’ve experienced before.
PUBG isn’t the first battle royale game – there are actually quite a few of them – however it’s the only one in the genre that seems so heavily focused on self-preservation; whereas other titles feel like some sort of sociopathic sport. H1Z1, which is the most similar to Battlegrounds in format, contradicts the sense of tension it tries so hard to build due to oversaturated colors & a looming fog of war that distorts the game’s sense of scale. The Culling has an actual announcer who constantly slanders opponents with grating commentary. I’d argue that Brendan Green & company manage to capitalize on their competitors’ weaker aesthetic & mood, both of which contribute to an overwhelming sense of tension in Battlegrounds.
There’s no guarantee of the caliber of loot or weapons one will discover while pillaging through houses and industrial complexes. I once watched as a squadmate and friend spent twenty-five minutes of our roughly thirty-minute match searching for anything besides a pistol or machete. Other times, it’s as if the murder island deities are smiling down upon their entertainment, showering players with AKM’s, SCAR’s, or – if they’re lucky – an AWM with an 8x scope.
Battlegrounds is a game of luck and happenstance, one by which players surrender control upon entering. It’s a lottery which doesn’t deal in absolutes; and it’s the gambling of one’s most precious asset: time. What do you fear the most? What haunts you? What keeps you up in the dark hours of the night? For many of us, it’s the unknown, which is exactly where PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds plants itself. Should I open this door? What happens if I stand up instead of laying prone? Should I sprint across this field to more quickly arrive at an advantageous position and risk being seen? Is it worth attempting to loot this power plant even though I’m only armed with a glock? Should I flee or stay to fight the disorienting voices that are pushing closer and closer to my hideout? I often say that the core philosophy of this game is more in line with old school RPG’s than modern shooters; as each singular play-through is simply a series of choices that make up the larger experience, and the only question is “Will this be the decision that kills me?”
From the onset, this coincidental nature of Battlegrounds breeds fear into new players; and while seasoned players eventually adopt a more aggressive play-style, the inherent trepidation associated with the game never truly dissipates. We’ve just learned how to cope with it. In this world, even the most innocuous task suddenly possesses excessive weight. For example, in modern multiplayer games, vehicles don’t pose much of a threat, as they exist in a reality wherein there’s always a counter measure. In Battlegrounds however, even the most dinky sedan is transformed into a symbol of hope or hopelessness, as transportation serves as a direct currency for convenience and power. There’s nothing quite as unsettling as the sound of a sputtering engine in the distance, especially when isolated from one’s squad. I’ve spent many a time frozen in place while waiting for an oncoming jeep to pass me by; and on several occasions have watched in disbelief as vehicles have ignorantly sped past my rigid frame, barely missing their opportunity to end my play-through. In any other game, we’d laugh situations like this off. In PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, this fearful disbelief, coupled with a sense of awe, serves as dark comedy which pushes players further and further into Brendan Green’s sadistic romp.
I’ve never played a game as risky as Battlegrounds. The lowliness one feels after losing a match they’ve just poured forty-five minutes into is unmatched; but with such high stakes comes even greater reward. I’ll never forget the boisterous feeling of dominance I felt after winning my first match. It’s a kind of dominance that’s soaked in both emotion and relief, and it’s one that leaves your hands shaking in the aftermath. It is, without a doubt, the ultimate high.
Tension, happenstance, and fear – one cannot exist without the other; and they all work together to create the perfect storm. They’re the twisted and hellish parallel to sugar, spice, & everything nice – a trio that mixes together so easily to create one of the most spellbinding potions I’ve ever tasted: PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds.