PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds is not a narrative tour de force in the traditional sense. Even the game's set dressing and environmental storytelling paint an odd picture—houses full of soiled sheets and walls besmirched by dark footprints, as if the now-absent residents of this lonely island suffered catastrophic bladder failure before lacing up their Timberlands and embarking on a bold quest to defy gravity.
Of course, as its popularity suggests, none of this matters. This is a game where one hundred players parachute onto an island and hustle to find conveniently-placed military hardware while an ever-present towering wall of electrical energy pushes them towards a final confrontation in which only one can be the winner and receive, as per the on-screen victory text, a chicken dinner. The houses, trees, and debris which make up the landscape of the island could easily be sets and props deliberately placed in preparation for the bloodbath—and of course, they were, by the designers.
But the island isn't totally devoid of narrative. In its burnt-out, run-down style it evokes the post-apocalyptic settings of games like Fallout, and especially—given the island's Russian theming—the Stalker and Metro series. And the game's conceit, in which many enter but only one leaves, draws on the cultural resonance of films like Battle Royale and The Hunger Games. In 2017, the concept of to-the-death hardscrabble survival in a barren world is immediately comprehensible to anyone who has the barest passing familiarity with pop culture or being alive, which no doubt has contributed to the game's massive success.
While the character creation system seems most suited to populating the world with an unending tide of crowbar-toting Basshunters and Macklemores, it does allow for male and female characters and provide a small range of faces and skin tones. Additionally, players can unlock clothing to dress up their character, allowing for some development of their digital murder doll's fashion—are they more of a steampunk goggles or wraparound shades kind of combatant? This light customizability, combined with Battlegrounds ' evocative setting, has had an interesting result: players investing in their avatars and essentially creating PUBG original characters (or OCs).
Take Dorcas, a Latin-American woman in her 40s. "She's an ordinary housewife who's fighting at the battlegrounds to get money for her family… not especially athletic, trained with weapons or anything like that," according to her player, Yenien.
"It wouldn't make sense for her to be a marine or something," they add, "as I can barely shoot someone with a shotgun, and spend most of the game cowering in a bathroom not knowing what to do." So, Dorcas was shaped by Yenien's playstyle, but she's since become more of a character rather than simply a narrative justification, as Yenien finds themselves making decisions based on what Dorcas might do rather than what might be most expedient for them as the player to win.
I imagine that I'm fighting for my freedom from prison, that I'm perhaps a convicted war criminal. I certainly don't think of my character as a morally good person, and I think the kinds of things players do to each other in this game supports the idea that we're all, in fiction, somehow morally depraved.
Rather than focus on their skill as a player and shape a narrative around that, Gage Ledbetter looked at all of the abilities the game assumes of player characters and started from there.
"In making sense of the things my character is able to do — sky dive, handle weapons proficiently, perform first aid—I think of her as having an intense military background, maybe as a mercenary or as a part of some elite but now disbanded military unit."
Finding themselves wondering about the world of Battlegrounds, Gage ultimately decided that a Hunger Games-esque scenario didn't fit as well as something like the film Death Race, in which privatized prisons are ascendant and profit via broadcasting modern gladiator games: "It fits much better into how I think about my character—a silent, bald killing machine — and the world of the game… I imagine that I'm fighting for my freedom from prison, that I'm perhaps a convicted war criminal. I certainly don't think of my character as a morally good person, and I think the kinds of things players do to each other in this game supports the idea that we're all, in fiction, somehow morally depraved."
Another player, FJ, also sees his character as a prisoner—albeit a political one imprisoned for anti-governmental action—forced to fight for his freedom. Like Yenien, his character developed out of his nonconfrontational behavior in the game. As FJ prefers to play cautiously and avoid unnecessary interactions, his unnamed prisoner character prefers not to kill. "If non-lethal options were available," FJ says, "he would use them and in team matches he's left people bleeding out instead of finishing them off, sensing that they, too, would rather be anywhere else."\
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FJ and Gage share a love for RPGs and an involvement in tabletop roleplaying games like Dungeons and Dragons. In fact, many of the players I spoke to come from a strong roleplaying background, prompting them to develop backstories for their characters even in games like Battlegrounds in which there is very little narrative grist available.
As FJ puts it, "If a game provides no backstory at all I tend to start with where my character's moral compass points and then develop a backstory or character based off what I know about the world." Gage gives the example of Hyper Light Drifter, saying "while that game has some backstory clues, I've nonetheless been trying to make sense of my character's actions." Another player, Åsmund, echoes the desire for some kind of characterization in game worlds: "I like to have at least an idea of who my character is. In Skyrim I was a petty criminal who wanted nothing to do with 'saving the world.'"
Some note that PUBG was their first real experience with competitive games. And while most define themselves as casual, investment in a character doesn't seem at odds with investment in the game—most reported dozens of hours of playtime. Åsmund, who named his avatar after Tamika Flynn, a character from Welcome to Night Vale, has won the coveted chicken dinner of first place in a solo game.
Much like these players, I come from a background of roleplaying and narrative games. And like them, I've crafted my own narrative for my character Jana and the world she inhabits, through a combination of my own playstyle and happenstance.
For instance, all players receive one random clothing item when they start playing the game. Mine contained a pair of sunglasses, and my character has never removed them. She's seen too much—walls covered in bootprints, cars performing aerial maneuvers that defy both man and God, other people's PUBG usernames—and she needs to shield her eyes lest she disturb others with the dead emptiness they betray. She's a cold, calculating, efficient killer with no time for compassion or hair.
Yet she is also deeply superstitious. Having executed her first sniper headshot immediately after removing her boots, she now refuses to wear any form of footwear, stalking the island barefoot in search of her elusive prize and the one thing that can bring her joy in this world: a sensible Romanian sedan. Once inside a car, her quiet caution is chucked gracelessly to the wind, and she can't help but scream joyfully as she rockets over hills, through her foes, and, always, inevitably, into the bottom of a river.
While it may seem silly to some, for me and other players building out a narrative can improve our enjoyment of a game. Sometimes this is encouraged by the game, as in the case of Åsmund deciding to play Skyrim as a criminal uninterested in the savior role the narrative thrusts upon the player. In others, such as Gage trying to piece together the motivation of the player character in Hyper Light Drifter, it may be heavily based on interpretation rather than the game's affordances. In PUBG—a game which is uninterested in providing the thinnest of pretenses for its action—it represents the ability and willingness of players to stitch together details in order to create a more coherent world to inhabit.
That a game like Battlegrounds could be the source of OCs also speaks to a kind of playing against form. PUBG is ostensibly a hardcore survival game, with outwardly militaristic, serious, and 'realistic' trappings. Yet even in this kind of game, which can seem cold and ruthless, some players will latch onto the smallest opportunities for personalization and construct something weird and wonderful.