PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds: Views To Die For

Late To The Party

In a year where the Fyre Festival soured tourists on the idea of an island getaway, the bloodsoaked sandy shores of Erangel became one of the most popular virtual destinations in recent memory. But why?…

It’s March 27, 2017, and the skies have fallen dark.

Off the virtual coast of who-knows-where, above the fictional oceans of god-knows-what, 100 players blot out the sun as they begin their descent, jumping from a plane passing by overhead. By the time half touch the ground, a handful will already be dead. Before the last one lands, the cycle will start over.

Plane. Parachute. Pandemonium.

Welcome to PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds: an infinitely repeating Battle Royale where over the course of just twelve months thirty million YouTubers, Twitch.tv stars, and enthusiastic fans alike descended on an island like a biblical plague in search not of gold or treasure but, rather, winner winner chicken dinners.

Looking back on the year of its release, as those aboard a plane might look down upon this island’s war-ravaged topography, it’s a year now revered as a renaissance, of sorts, for videogames and their propensity for virtual tourism. Think of the Jurassic Parks of Horizon Zero Dawn. Think of the freeform exploration of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Think of the sheer scale of ArmA 3’s South Pacific archipelago, Tanoa.

So, what was it? What was it about this altogether nondescript island that drew more visitors than the annual travel numbers of Seoul, Dubai, and Miami Beach combined? I packed a parachute, grabbed my virtual boarding pass, and spent the better part of a year and over 430 hours repeatedly jumping to my death in an effort to find out.

Four years later, I’m finally sharing that story…

The island with no name

Parachuting over Erangel

Take a breath.

Hold your nerve.

Wait. Wait…now, jump!

Throw yourself from the plane, pull your parachute, and by the time your feet touch the ground you’ll have seen much of what this island has to offer. If you miss something on the way down? Don’t worry. You’ll be repeating this journey again, and again, and again. It all looks so serene from up here. Savour that feeling. It won’t last.

Our descent starts in the island’s far north-west, above the town of Zharki. Zharki is the place everyone’s seen but no one can seem to remember. Why? Because it’s Georgopol they’re here for, so float a little further south and let this town slip from your memory as it has from everyone else’s.

There! Do you see it? The city of Georgopol. Georgopol is this island’s first major thoroughfare. In time it will be teeming with players, but for now it’s teeming with questions.

Georgopol City

Will you aim for the apartment buildings that dominate the skyline? Hedge your bets on the outskirts? Or will you risk certain death for uncertain victory amongst the maze of shipping containers scattered on the docks?

Georgopol Crates
Georgopol Bridge

If nerves get the better of you – oh, and they will – hold tight. Float further south-east and you’ll pass over the city of a thousand names. It’s an overgrown, partially submerged metropolis affectionately known on any given day as ‘Water World’, ‘The Sunken City’, or ‘Atlantis’. That last one is the most common. It’s also the most fitting: you either return with vast treasures, or die trying.

Feeling lost yet? That’s only normal. In ten hours time you’ll begin to recognise locations. The military base off the south coast. The two bridges turn deathtraps that connect it to the mainland. In another twenty you’ll remember the names. Pochinki. Mylta. Severny. Thirty, fourty, or fifty from there…well, you’ll have your favourite spots, if not your first victory.

Some ninety hours of repeated defeats into our year-long journey, my friend and I found ourselves joking about the state of the island’s tourism trade as we crashed against it once more like waves on its rocky coastline. Halfway through the punchline to a joke we’d groan at a few seconds later, we placed our markers at a spot by the island’s southern shore.

It was the last place we hadn’t tried dying yet.

Does the island have a name?” one of us asked.

Maybe it’s just Battlegrounds?!” the other joked, surveying it from above.

School’s in session…

A few years on and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds’ school remains one of videogaming’s most tempting mirages; certain defeat dressed up as victory. Located in the town of Rhozok, the sprawling campus is still one of the most hotly contested drop-zones, littered as it is with high-tier weapons, medical supplies, and armour.

The sprawling campus, with its cramped corridors and countless many rooms, offers a crash course in quick reflexes, listening for footsteps, and how best to lean a corner. It’s a risky place, like no school should be. It’s also a deathtrap, as far too many schools are these days.

Whether it’s intentional political commentary or nothing more than mere coincidence is a question that still lingers above the school like a hesitant player fast losing their confidence. If this industry’s track-record is anything to go by, it’s likely the latter, but the former is still a thought provoking enough statement to inspire at least a passing moment of self-reflection before your boots hit the ground.

Welcome to Erangel

A map of Erangel

This island has a name. It’s called Erangel. Yet following countless reviews, editorials, Twitch.tv streams, multi-million dollar international tournaments, and some 400+ hours spent jumping from that plane, you wouldn’t know it. In fact, there’s every chance some of us are still having to look it up this late into penning a final draft…

Erangel’s name and victory at PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds as a game are one and the same: they elude most players. The question remains, why? What is it about Erangel that makes it so unforgettable at a time where virtual worlds are vast but few, if any of them, are all that memorable?

A few years ago author and journalist Simon Parkin had this to say about Grand Theft Auto V and the power of its virtual world: “It should have been called Los Santos, really. Grand Theft Auto is merely something that passes through the city, one of many stories that you pick up every now and again, in between following your own sojourns and distractions.

The point Parkin makes is that Los Santos is a location that, divorced from Rockstar’s shaky script and even shakier treatment of its staff, could survive on its own. Los Santos is special in that way. Grand Theft Auto’s sprawling open worlds always have been, to be fair. But they aren’t alone.

Virtual tourism is a bustling trade nowadays. Think of The Division. Think of Far Cry. Think of Assassin’s Creed. In fact, think of any of Ubisoft’s modern open worlds. Not all of the developer’s virtual trysts have been critical darlings – far from it, in fact, littered as they are with push-pin points of interest all loosely tied together with red thread – but where else are you able to stand atop the soot-stained roof tiles of 1868 London and breathe in the early morning smog? Wander the perpetually snow-dappled streets of a near-future New York City? Or enjoy a guided tour of ancient Greece from the comfort of your own home?

They’re worlds that warrant a weekend away, if not a prolonged forty, sixty, or eighty hour visit.

A home away from home

Diving onto Erangel

In stark contrast? Any attempts at divorcing Erangel from the game of Battle Royale it’s doomed to play host to for all eternity would see it sink into obscurity and the very oceans that surround it. You won’t find any of the eastern european charm of DayZ’s Chernarus. None of H1Z1’s Saturday-morning cartoon aesthetics. None of The Culling’s zany game show antics.

There’s the odd point of interest, sure. Travel up north and you’ll spy a crashed plane. Drive out east and you’ll stumble on a sprawling factory. Yet it’s all so…dull. Aggressively so, at times. Nondescript towers sprout from the ground like dour beacons. Buildings are flipped and rotated. Its cities are all harsh right angles and, like the deaths of its players, repeated in much the same style and fashion throughout.

As an act of virtual tourism, then, Erangel has always been a tough sell. A heart has to break a little for the tourism operators left to that task, I think. Bend your imagination just a little, and you’ll spot them. The travel agents, that is, hunched over beige keyboards stuffed in the back corner of an equally derelict travel agency.

There’s never been a better time to visit!” they’d say, motioning towards a dog-eared pamphlet.

Enjoy a once in a lifetime trip for you and 99 adversaries friends!

PUBG Corporation’s marketing team shared a similar fate leading up to the game’s release. Their task? Simple! Convince an already skeptical audience that Brendan Greene’s mod-turn-standalone some four years in the making could survive Steam’s Early Access; Valve’s incubator for in-development titles that had fast become the industry’s Bermuda Triangle.

Promising titles would enter, and then simply…vanish from sight.

A few years on, with the turbine engines of its plane still reverberating through the industry, it’s clear that part of this journey was never in doubt. Not once tickets went on sale. Not once word got out. Not once it soared to the top of Twitch.tv and dragged a handful of former unknowns with it into the stratosphere.

By the close of 2017, the game had gone on to sell over thirty million copies.

Three years later, and that number has more than doubled.

It’s an incredible feat, especially when you consider the game’s island never did it any favours.

Pochinki is my city

Pochinki

“We live in cities you’ll never see onscreen
Not very pretty, but we sure know how to run things
Livin’ in ruins of a palace within my dreams
And you know we’re on each other’s team”

With every bittersweet note of Team – the sixth track of her 2013 debut album, Pure Heroine – Kiwi songstress Lorde whispered the complicated praises of her home city of Auckland, New Zealand. Yet she may just as well have been singing of Erangel. The same heady mix of love-struck awe turned contempt that haunts the post-midnight highways of Team seeps from every one of Erangel’s bullet-hole impact shaped pores.

It runs through every city street. Across every field. Along every unkempt forest road.

You only need to look as far as Pochinki to see it. The town of Pochinki is a mess of buildings painted like a target across the heart of Erangel and, while the plane’s flight path differs each time you board – Georgopol to Mylta. Military Compound to Firing Range – the town’s placement guarantees it’s almost always on the itinerary.

It’s only when you realise Pochinki isn’t big enough for the both of us, let alone half the server, that it becomes such a beguiling proposition. Still, they jump. To watch a group of players willingly plummet to their death is to witness an act of shared, server-wide psychosis.

To finally succumb to peer pressure and do the same some hours later is to admit you are, in fact, part of the team.

Pochinki Is My City logo

Pochinki is a joke of a location, then, it’s just everyone is in on the punchline. So much so the town’s ironic popularity spawned its own catchphrase: “Pochinki is my city!”. Within months the internet had twisted the phrase into a meme, before slapping it on the side of every mug, t-shirt, and cup this side of an Etsy store. Later, a PUBG Invitational Tournament team out of England would take the phrase as their official name, before the developers themselves graffitied those four iconic words across the side of a building in Pochinki itself and so the inside joke came full circle.

Coming full circle

A view of Erangel's coastline

Circle? Circle! It’s the circle that does it, I think. As PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds’ shimmering, deadly blue circle shrinks, the love for Erangel grows. It’s an awkward, broken kind of love. Unhealthy. Territorial, even. Why? Because as that blue circle drives players together, it also forces them to fight over an increasingly diminishing piece of otherwise nondescript real estate.

Give it enough time – a win or two, a few close calls, and a few hundred hours, perhaps? – and that circle breeds such a strong sense of ownership that you’ll find yourself shouting “Home ground advantage!” as it shrinks towards your favourite location. For some it will be a named city. Georgopol. Mylta. Hell, even Pochinki! For others? A stretch of field. A certain hill. A patch of forest. For the rest? It might well be a spot by the island’s southern shore where they just haven’t tried dying yet.

To put it another way? PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds asks you to willingly jump out of a plane and then fight your way through the kinds of virtual cities you’ll never see on screen or, at least, see gracing the Twitter feeds of videogame photographers like Petri Levälahti or Duncan Harris until you, too, begrudgingly whisper this island’s complicated praises.

Erangel is dilapidated. Broken. Fractured, even.

It’s an altogether uninspiring mess, at times, but that’s the thing…

…it’s our uninspiring mess.

Views to die kill for

In time PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds’ map pool would grow, each location more fascinating than the last. Miramar was the game’s sophomore album; a parched desert where players fell from the skies like hesitant summer showers. The claustrophobic forests of Sanhok soon followed, as did Vikendi; a winter wonderland draped in blood-drenched snow. Now Paramo and its volcano loom large on the horizon, threatening to erupt and shift the landscape of this game once again.

Yet for ten long months following its release, this game didn’t just survive, it thrived, on the back of little ol’ Erangel. The map itself has seen a facelift since, revisited, revitalised, and reinvigorated for the game’s now-smaller yet no less demanding audience but it’s the barren, somewhat uninspired blank canvas of a map from early 2017 that everyone remembers so fondly.

There’s a reason our squad would ask “Going home?” as we’d place our markers over Rhozok. There’s a reason we dropped at a beach on the southern shores for at least 90% of our 400+ hours. There’s a reason we can look at that map and remember every victory, defeat, and mistimed grenade throw.

That’s the brilliance of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds’ blue circle and the little map that could.

It gave us all a view, and then convinced us it was worth dying for.

And oh, how we died…