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…
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.
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?
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.