Did a Big-Ass Dinosaur Just Save PUBG from Extinction?
A new map has reinvigorated 'PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds'. But not just because of the snow.
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Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.
There’s a new map on the test server for PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. It’s called Vikendi, and it is covered in snow. I’ve been playing it off and on for the last week, trying to see what is shaking in the heart of PUBG development, and I think it is good. It is a solid map that does all the things that it should to make PUBG work as a video game. But there’s also a special silliness to this map.
When new content comes out for PUBG, I often think of an interview I saw with designer Brendan Greene where he explained that the original map for PUBG, which is called Erangel aka Murder Island, is basically the best paintball arena that they could come up with. Meaning: What could you jam into a paintball arena in the real world to make a game of shooting little wads of paint at your friends really, really fun? What aberrations in the order of things would you have to plop down into a world to make it more ready for gunplay and action? What are the things that transform real world locations into mechanically satisfying spaces for combat encounters?
It’s a slippery line of thought, but that’s what is at stake in the creation of a map for PUBG. If this is a place to play a goofy game of tactical fun with your friends, then why does it look the way it does? What decisions are at the heart of the aesthetics?
In distinction from PUBG, Fortnite abstracts its locations out into their most cartoonish form. There’s a cabin, a mad scientist’s lair, a small city block, and an idyllic suburban street. There’s not illusion that these could be “real” locations. They are adapted from warped gestures, not from actual places, and that’s because Fortnite wants to be a cartoon. It needs to goof-ify this gunplay into acceptable, family-friendly ultraviolence.
PUBG can’t be a cartoon. It has planted its flag on the hill of realism, and so its maps need to be grounded in the fantasy of real locations. This farm needs to look like it was abandoned yesterday. That cosmodrome needs to seem like it was attacked and ransacked just last week. We need to be able to take shelter in this bathtub just like you really would if your post-apocalyptic Russian island was attacked.
PUBG’s gameplay is a fantasy in the same way that all of these other games are, but it is a fantasy that is trying to ground itself in some kind of representation of the world that we live in. And so the world has to be representable as a warzone.
Of course, that’s not hard. Humans make war. The Earth is a platform for war. Any given house, hospital, or park can transform, in an instant, into a conflict zone given a certain number of transformations, almost all of which have to do with the presence of people with guns. The immanence of violence is what exists at the bottom of PUBG, though, or at least the fantasy of the immanence of violence. This context could become another context. This hospital can become a place to take cover. This slope at the edge of the park is also a defilade.
To create the realistic world in which war could break out over it at any moment, you have to pepper it with those locations. And that is why Vikendi’s Dino Park is so excellent.
Dino Park is a small area in the center-west of the game map. Like the rest of the map, it is surrounded by snowy ground and lightly forested hills. Unlike the rest of the map, it is a theme park dedicated to dinosaurs. Like a low-rent Jurassic Park, the Dino Park offers a volcano and a small maze and a few shops and trailers that you can dodge in and out of. There’s statues of velociraptors and dodo birds. It is a quaint and weird little zone.
But it also has some personality that is lacking across most of the PUBG maps. Those maps are completely committed to that transformative, tactical idea that I was talking about before. All of the other maps have the distinct feeling of having been abandoned in a moment of duress before you showed up. They deliver their tactical experience by way of the conflict ghost town. The immanent war finally showed up.
Dino Park feels like the PUBG team have lightened up, at least a little. It seems like they have finally figured out that they aren’t just making a game for the tactical badasses who care about the exact heights of the hay bales they are hiding behind. Instead, there are players who enjoy the silliness, the absolute goofiness, of a theme park that just seems to be a little under the weather right now. But, you know, there’s a giant dinosaur, and that’s definitely not going to get smashed by 100 people fighting around it, right?
Vikendi is part of a long slog that has taken PUBG from being some kind of tactical fantasy and into a game that’s just a little more accessible and approachable for a fun night of games. The previous map, Sanhok, had some of these elements, but Vikendi is the fulfillment of the prophecy. Players don’t want to trek across a massive desert landscape. They don’t want to take a boat around the map just to get to their goal. They want to be able to run, fight, and dodge their way to an objective and see some sights on the way. They want a little silliness in their serious.
Conceptually, Dino Park makes the PUBG core wobble a little bit. It’s a good wobble, the kind that shows something productive working its way through the foundations, like dirt shaking as something green sprouts beneath. I want to see more commitment to that kind of tactical goofiness from the team. Less palaces, homesteads, villas, and sheds. More Dino Parks, snowmobiles, and tuk tuks please.