The brilliant, imperfect stories of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds
Most PUBG matches are unremarkable. This is by no means some part of a long, finger-pointy critique of the game, but rather an acknowledgement that in some regards, this open-world battle royale loot-’em-up isn’t that dissimilar from any other multiplayer shooter. Most matches of Call of Duty, Battlefield, Overwatch play out in a way that might be described as “usual”, and as such, they’re not afforded the kind of prime real estate in our memories usually reserved for cross-map headshots or that one time we told an opponent we did stuff with his mother the previous night and then killed and teabagged that same opponent. Etc.
When it comes to PUBG, for somebody of my skill level (somewhere between “average” and “normal”), these “usual” matches usually consist of ‘chuting to an empty house, stocking up on first aid kits and bandages, then proceeding towards the playzones as stealthily as possible before being shot to death by some guy hiding behind a rock.
Where PUBG differs, however, is what makes an otherwise unmemorable match turn into something worth sticking to the fridge of the mind (that’s the last of these metaphors, I promise). Although the rare match-winning chicken dinner is certainly a big deal, the sheer number of possibilities engendered by the open world of the battle royale means that even if you don’t win, you can still have a remarkable experience.
Case in point: the accidental narrative. In this game, unlike any other, sometimes the events of any given match will fall together in a way that is almost genius, and the stories that these rare matches tell can be so entertaining that it makes me wonder if this outcome was the true intention of the developer all along.
The following is what played out in the best PUBG match I’ve ever participated in. A fumbled start, separation, and a long swim made it seem like this duo match would be just like any other (a disappointing failure) — but as it drew to a close, I realised it would be anything but.
Allow me to tell you a story of camaraderie, tragedy, and shootin’.
My usual PUBG duo partner loves looting. I mean, he really loves looting. He loves looting so much that whenever we play together I often have to sit around with my thumb up my ass while he picks up every bottle of painkillers and every gun accessory and every smoke grenade from every building in every area we pass through. Even if he’s armed to the teeth and kitted out with level 3 gear he’ll nonetheless try on those hi-top shoes just to see if they look better.
Yet he and I are cautious types. We tend to stick to deserted housing estates rather than try our luck with the more lucrative sites such as the military base or the school, etc. While this works wonders for our being-alive-ness, rummaging through house after house filled with nothing but pistols and t-shirts doesn’t really do much for my partner’s hoarding tendencies. That said, his desire to do score well tends to supersede his desire to have a lot of cool stuff (if only just), so this has never really been a huge problem.
In addition to being cautious, however, we are both wildly childish. Which is why at the beginning of this particular match we decided to drop into the power plant on the south-east corner of the main island. And when I say “into”, I literally mean into one of the cooling towers — just to see what would happen. We fully expected to die horribly, laugh about it, then re-queue.
To our surprise, we found nothing inside the shaft other than a painless way out. At this point, we nonetheless still expected to die horribly — but this time, at the hands of an inevitably competitively-superior duo which had landed while we were chuckling our way down a big tube.
Only there was nobody else around. We had the entire power plant, and everything inside it, to ourselves and our grubby paws. My partner was understandably beside himself.
I quickly stumbled upon some high-level armour, some first-aid kits, and an SKS with an 8x scope — enough for any wannabe Mad Max in search of a hearty chicken dinner. And after a quick scrounge in the outlying shipping containers, I figured we should be on our way to the first playzone — which had landed directly over the dreaded South island.
As I’m sure any PUBG player is aware, having the playzone drop over the South island is a nightmare. For those who don’t land there to begin with (which is most of us), there are three ways to get across: swim, floor it across one of the two road bridges, or gun it in a (rare) boat. Taking a car usually ends in death over one of the bloody player-funnel-esque bridges, and swimming is often too sluggish a method to keep up with the rapidly-contracting playzone. For me and my partner, the third choice is always preferred— the boat is fast enough to evade most gunfire and reach a safe disembarkation point in a timely fashion.
Needless to say, however, my partner was in no rush to get moving. Even though by this point he resembled a fully-upgraded Armored Core, he was nonetheless still plodding along, working his way through the warehouses in obliviously methodical fashion, leaving no stone unturned (or second un-wasted, it would seem).
Not wanting to be the nagging mother-in-law that I so often become when play teams in PUBG, I hit the coastline in search of a boat — my plan being to drive back up to the power plant to pick up my partner who would by then surely be done with his foraging. That way, he would get to continue his loot orgy, and I could quell my nervous tendencies — everybody wins.
It wasn’t long after I started my south-bound expedition along the cliffs that I made a disheartening discovery: either boats didn’t spawn on this part of the coastline, or they had long since been nabbed by our competitors.
I told my partner that he should get a hustle on, because it was becoming increasingly likely that if we were to make it, we would have to get our feet wet. If he didn’t leave right now, and I didn’t find a boat, only one of us would be surviving.
“One more building,” he said.
Perhaps I should have reminded my partner for the third time that no amount of loot matters if you just end up dying to the Lightning Bubble O’ Doom, but I decided to let him have his fun. He would die outside the playzone, I would die to another duo, and we would requeue. It’s not like the world would end.
As I was thinking about all this, I slipped and fell off the cliff.
This was a particularly bad move on my part. Initially, my non-boat contingency plan was to skirt around the coast on foot to close as much of the space between myself and the South island as possible, to ensure that I would be required to do as little swimming as possible. But trapping myself at the bottom of the cliff with nowhere to run meant that I would have to start swimming now — and not only that, but if I was going to out-pace the playzone bubble, I would have to head straight for the very-probably-occupied town of Novorepnoye. It was a plan that would get me killed, but it was the only one I had, so I got moving.
And my partner and/or time-vampire, now satisfied with his extensive ransack, decided to get moving. Too little, too late if you ask me.
To summarise, everything was going: poorly.
I was around halfway to Novorepnoye when the circle of blue lightning death began to close. I knew I would make it to the playzone (of blissful non-lightning life) in time, but what mattered next was the location of the following playzone.
As it stood, there were two possibilities: first, the new circle could land close by, possibly over Novorepnoye itself. This would drastically reduce the chances of my own death by electricity barbeque, but drastically increase my death at the hands of whichever teams were currently holed up in the town. Frankly, without a partner, I was a sitting duck. Second, the playzone could land somewhere to the west, which would mean having to cross Novorepnoye without being shot to pieces, and worse, getting over or around the mountain which separates the town from the rest of the island — again, a process very nearly impossible without a second pair of eyes.
Oh, and about that second pair of eyes: he was currently swimming, and experiencing a light toasting at the hands of the lightning dome. Not dead yet.
I made it ashore and dashed behind a car wreck. The likelihood of having been spotted was low, but that didn’t mean I was completely safe. Those few seconds between the present and the reveal of the new playzone were spent periscoping the camera like a crazed lookout in search of any potential threat.
But nobody came for me by the time the news broke that I would have to get to the other side of the mountain.
Problem was, I knew there were guys in Novorepnoye. There’s no way I could make it out of town without being seen. A key strategy of PUBG is waiting until the last moment to move to the new playzone, since it reduces the chances of being collapsed on from behind. I crawled to a decent position and watched for movement.
A little way offshore, my partner was alive and inside the dome, albeit somewhat singed. Given his distance from shore, however, we concluded that he would certainly be overtaken by the dome during its imminent, inexorable constriction. He would keep trying, but we were nonetheless resigned to the fact that I would be going the rest of the match alone.
Movement came shortly before the timer ticked down to zero. Just one car, zipping off from between two houses.
I bolted the second it was out of sight.
There was no way I had time to take the safe route around the mountain, so I bolted straight up the incline, doing my best to mask my ascent behind the sparse flora. Distant shots rang out from the west.
Like any match that forces players onto the South island, player population was on a premature decline as the remaining teams tried desperately to make it across the water. We were down to fewer than 25 players at this point — good news for sitting ducks like myself.
Halfway up the mountain was a main road, almost completely devoid of cover. If a team was holding the tactically-superior high ground on the opposite side, they wouldn’t have a single problem dealing with a lone ranger like myself. Again, it was about waiting for the last moment before moving. But this time, there could be enemies on either side of me, waiting for that very same last moment to make the sprint across the road.
And so there were — only they weren’t waiting to cross the road at all. They were heading straight for me.
They hadn’t yet spotted me, but it was only a matter of time before they did and turned me into a human colander. At this point, it was either both of them, or me, so there was only one thing for it.
I channelled my inner Rambo and started firing.
The first guy went down in just a few shots, but by that time I had already taken a bullet from his partner. I turned my attention to him, but it was too late — I took one shot too many, and I was down. I crawled, achingly slowly, to a spot behind a tree. In a few moments, my enemies would pick each other up and brush each other off, and finish me off.
Or at least, that’s what would have happened if my partner didn’t come limping up the side of the mountain, burnt half to death and armed to the teeth.
It was a hilariously unexpected thing. Separations in PUBG usually end in divorce — so rarely have I found myself reunited with lost teammates that when my partner started to revive me, I could help but laugh. How ridiculous was it that he had survived, and had caught up with me at this exact moment, to rescue me right at the brink of death?
I patched myself up, reloaded, and we readied ourselves for a fight.
So often is it that at this point in any given action film our protagonists, having brought themselves back from the brink of death, will find themselves filled with some inhuman combination of determination, ferocity, and combat skill. John Rambo, Sarah Connor, Jason Statham — these characters, bloodied, bruised, and broken, will brush off any and all ailments and proceed to thoroughly annihilate anything that stands in their way.
But PUBG isn’t like this. No video game is like this. There’s no Saiyan-esque power boost that arrives when one is retrieved from death’s door. There’s no renewal of confidence in one’s abilities.
Absolutely nothing changes.
We aimed together, fired together, and died together. Shot to death by a vastly superior duo. We didn’t even manage to kill one of them.
I’m sure I don’t have to explain to you the hilarious irony of this match.
The narrative of this match was unsatisfying and incomplete — certainly in any fully-fledged tale, my partner would have come to my rescue, we would have won the fight, and I would have learned a valuable lesson (about looting, or something). But none of that happened, and instead, we both struggled, and we both died — practically doubled over laughing, mind you.
But I like this version more. That incomplete-ness makes things feel far more personal and unique — this isn’t some standard action story where my partner and I kill shit and learn things, no, this is a PUBG story, where you’re probably going to get wrecked by a lucky shot from a fifteen-year-old.
This is, by far, the best match of PUBG I have ever played. It didn’t matter that we didn’t win — what mattered was that my partner and I took part in a wholly unsatisfying, but nonetheless hilarious, player-driven story that couldn’t possibly have been enacted anywhere else. And that’s what I love so much about this game.