When You’re Smiling

By now, you’re probably familiar with Battle Royale or one of its many derivatives: a group of young people are stranded across a massive, inescapable zone littered with weapons, and are charged with killing the rest if they hope to survive. As their numbers are whittled down, friend turns against friend, unexpected romance blooms, and the weaklings of the group hold their own with unexpected determination. It’s a simple, dramatic premise with plenty of room for tweaks, so it’s hardly any wonder why we’ve seen it flourish through Young Adult tentpoles like The Hunger Games.

PLAYERUNKNOWN’S BATTLEGROUNDS takes Battle Royale’s soul and plops it into a multiplayer frame, complete with one hundred players per match and one life to lose. Making said soul fit required a few sacrifices: what once took days ends in less than an hour, which leaves little time for a traditional plot. The only friendly faces are the ones you bring along as a premade group, and everyone else is a permanent target, so there’s little room for unexpected alliances. And are you truly risking your life when the next attempt is a few clicks away? BATTLEGROUNDS meets these disadvantages head-on by stripping away every participant’s humanity, only leaving them with fear and the competitive spirit. In other words, they replaced everyone in the cast with Smilers.

No matter how many twists or turns you pile onto Battle Royale, The Smiler is woven into its genes. Unlike the rest of the cast, they unquestioningly rise to the morbid occasion before them, eliminating contestants left and right without a moment’s hesitation. Regardless of whether they’re coping with the situation or unleashing long-dormant brutality, Smilers are dead set on finishing first, even finding joy in the swing of an axe and the spark of a flamethrower. This makes them convenient targets for the hero: if these people are the aggressors, whistling without a care in the world as they butcher others, why shouldn’t the good guys eliminate them? The audience has their bloodlust satiated, the author flexes their protagonist’s prowess without any pesky questions about morality, and everyone goes home happy. Except for the Smilers, who likely died in some gruesome fashion befitting their transgressions.

While Smilers are a perfect fit for a story-free, truncated take on Battle Royale, BATTLEGROUNDS must coax its participants into playing their designated role. Simply tossing players out of an airplane and onto an island filled with weapons might seem like enough, but fostering the necessary ruthlessness requires stripping away empathy. With little fanfare, a counter in the upper right corner ticks down the number of survivors left standing. If you manage to live for any considerable amount of time, you’ll go for long spells where the only human interactions you’ll see is the dwindling number above and the “X Killed Y” cause of death below. When the only visible players are the numbers they leave behind, enticingly working to the bottom (“My survival means I’m *that* much better than the others!”), you almost feel obliged to help it along.

It isn’t like you have much time to think it over, either. If the other player has more than their fists, fights begin and end in the blink of an eye. For jumpy players, walking into the wrong end of a shotgun results in a deafening roar that will send you flying out of your chair faster than your digital body hits the ground. Starting a new match takes 3-5 minutes, but that sense of immediate loss still packs one hell of a kick. After a few rounds of that, there won’t be much hesitation left when the next sap enters your sights.

I already know what you’re thinking. Why not hole up in an easily guarded bathroom and wait for the others to drop? That might work for the first quarter of the match, but time is not on your side. At set intervals, an ever-tighter circle appears on the map, along with a time limit: if you aren’t in that circle when the clock hits zero, an electrical field will inch toward its boundaries and wipe out the stragglers. Even if you’ve managed to pick a hiding place that coincidentally stays within the circle forever, everyone else will be crowding in on your turf. Survival isn’t everything, either: to win the big points, you must shed blood. Just one kill is enough to make a difference, but while you’re at it, why not two or three? Imagine the number of new hats you could earn with five kills! Until you’re forced to sprint across an unprotected field with nothing but luck for protection, hiding under a bed is certainly a strategy, but where’s the reward in that?

PLAYERUNKNOWN’S BATTLEGROUNDS successfully spins the Battle Royale formula by shaping its contestants into Smilers using clever, suggestive techniques. Your opponents are mostly represented by the order in which they die, and encountering one in the open is no laughing matter. Better keep moving, dome anyone you come across, and rake in every point you can! After all, everyone needs something to Smile about.