Uncanny Island | Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds

The first map for PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds is an island because it has to be. The natural restrictive bounds of an island space are good for the “Battle Royale” game genre, and good for the team of developers tasked with making a large digital space convincingly dense for players. It doesn’t quite resemble a real island, but it’s not entirely supposed to. This is a playing field. Every match the plane that drops players off on the map takes a different route and the barrier that closes in around the players shepherds them towards a different place. Landmarks and set-pieces are packed in, and each of these nodes on the map is more or less equally dense. As a result, the island’s realness is balanced against its suitability as a play space.

“it’s just an island where you shoot people”

This setup is heavily inspired by the 2000 Kinji Fukasaku film Battle Royale, set on a mostly fictional island that the audience can reasonably assume has been emptied specifically so that school children can fight to the death on it. Here, the island serves the same function: an ocean is a reasonable bounds for a game and prevents escape. The houses and other structures on Battle Royale’s Okishima Island are reminders of what it might have looked like beforehand—at least one group of students sets up in a house to cook meals and briefly live like they aren’t under the threat of death. But even though Battle Royale is packed with blood and violence, the tension in the film comes when students find but do not immediately murder each other. The distrust and fear drive the action and put the audience on edge.

In PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, this narrative underpinning is unnecessary: the game is compelling enough without dramatising its setting. Players crouch in fear in bathrooms for ten or fifteen minutes, or cry out, shocked, when they get hit unexpectedly. The island is presumably empty so that this game can take place, and the player doesn’t need much more than that. And yet, Weirdly enough, there actually is a frame story for the game. In-game, the towns are named, the island itself is not. Any back story isn’t present in the game itself, but according to the game’s wiki the island is called Erangel.

It’s difficult to imagine a community ever having lived here

This Eastern European setting feels obligatory in some way. It’s not set in the real Black Sea, it’s set wherever Half-Life 2 and DayZ are set: in a post-apocalyptic post-Soviet landscape dreamed up by distant developers. This backstory exists as a kind of explainer for the stranger aspects of the territory—the presence of the military base and the big blue electric walls that close in on players. This story doesn’t add anything to the way the game is played, and it doesn’t give context for why the player is there, either. In fact, this after-the-fact and incomplete explanation draws attention to the unreality and ridiculousness of the premise. The naked first impression of “it’s just an island where you shoot people” is the easily-forgiven territory of plenty of pulpy action-heavy videogames. But there is something about PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds that stretches beyond its frame, towards a realism that is not seen, but felt.

A game of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds is mostly made up of the time between firefights. The shrinking wall makes it too dangerous to stay in cover, but other players make it too dangerous to be in open space. Weapons and other useful items mostly spawn in the towns or clusters of houses, too, making every house or apartment block an attractive stop on your trip across the map.

the rules of the deathmatch give the spaces a different sense of presence

In some ways, this prioritization of space does resemble how we interact with the world we live in: we move from home, to work, to the corner-store, to home. Paths like this are repeated day after day, collapsing the interstitial space between distinct places. When open-world games are packed with collectables and minigames, like enormous stripmalls—their sidequests turn into todo-lists, and the act of travel feels insignificant. In PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, efficient traversal of space is one of the players most important skills. The island is made up of several clusters. The heatmap on a Counter Strike: Global Offensive map would be a fair comparison—rather than having one central city hub, the island has several small sites of high activity tied together by chokepoints like the bridge, or any of the mountains.

On the other hand, the organization of these nodes feels unreal. One location on the island is a block of apartment buildings, despite the huge expanses of empty space. Most houses are bundled together instead of spread out. The larger towns are made up exclusively of residences: there are no identifiable shops or workplaces. The ruined church on one side of the map is so deliberately characterized as ruins that it feels lifted from another game. The military base is mostly filled up by shipping containers organized into little mazes, rather than vehicles or training grounds. The one school is centrally located and small. These feel like landmarks, but instead of being lived-in spaces, they seem like maps culled from other first-person shooters, given new context inside PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. It’s difficult to imagine a community ever having lived here.

If the door is open, someone must have opened it

It may be the case that one or two of these clusters of houses resembles a small town in a secluded location in Eastern Europe. The fences, porches, or little passageways between houses can be difficult to navigate with PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds awkward movement controls, and their smallness, their superfluousness, as well as this awkwardness, makes them feel less intentional and therefore more real. Sometimes running from shed to shed to see which one has something useful in it feels like looking for a something casual or familiar—a lost football, maybe. The sheds are stocked with gas cans and firewood. It’s the movement from one to the next that taps into that familiarity, even if the action is repeated. There are moments where it feels like someone might have lived here. But then the map has dozens of these clusters, with the same house models, and the same wall textures, and the same scattered garbage. The nodes are necessary, and the details in them are copy-pasted repeatedly. All of these spaces feel impersonal—no one’s taste informs the furniture or the books or the wallpaper. The primary effect of the repetition is distance, but it also adds a kind of eeriness.

The little details that might be found in a denser game like Gone Home are not where PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds gets its specific sense of realism. The player does not feel that someone has lived in this house, but is struck with the fear that someone has been there before them—the rules of the deathmatch give the spaces a different sense of presence. If the door is open, someone must have opened it, maybe ten minutes ago, maybe thirty seconds. If the door is closed, maybe someone closed it to cover their tracks. Players move through a house with a friend or a squad, asking, “did you open this door or did I?” This feeling is one that is familair to us: someone who lives in an old house might be frightened of a sound they hear in the night; in an apartment, one’s neighbors are audible through the walls.

Spaces are simultaneously unfamiliar and too-familiar

The spaces players inhabit in PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds feel real in that they constantly invoke the feeling of not quite being alone. You can hear planes go by outside and mistake them for cars pulling up, or you can hear your teammate on the floor above you and freeze up for just a second. Maybe the new player in a group gets startled and shoots a teammate by accident. Houses are dressed up to look as though they’ve been abandoned by some fictional family, but as a player you worry that they’ve been visited and abandoned by other players: you check doors, you listen for cars or gunshots. As the clock keeps running and the circle gets smaller, the players left alive get closer to each other, and a closed door is more and more likely to have someone waiting behind it.

There are moments on the island that feel real because they deal in emotion. It’s frightening to hear a pop on a nearby hill and have to dash through a field, or to hear a car pull up to the house you’re looting. When you walk into a room and see the same carpet for the third time in one game, it doesn’t make you think there should be more carpets around, it makes you wonder if you’ve been there before. Spaces are simultaneously unfamiliar and too-familiar. One imagines that the team of developers made the choices they did because they were guided by their design focus and because it’s unfeasible intricately detail every home at this scale. But the result isn’t a “good enough” representation of an island once occupied by Soviets, it’s the right level of unreality for PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. In this sense it’s ultimately less important that the nodes on Erangel don’t cohere into a genuine place. Instead, the small sections of the uncanny architecture play host to real feelings of emptiness or presence, dominated by the fear that your incomplete mental map of the space or a detail you’ve overlooked might be what keeps you from surviving just a little longer.

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