I’m always looking for the hidden stories in media I read/watch/listen to/play – the background clues that point to other narratives, or unstated backstories, or whatever else. I like it when you’re given these as well (the Tomb Raider video games and the not-quite-consistent versions from the original series, “Atlantis saga”, and the modern reboot, are good examples: and intriguing in where the differences lie).
One of my favourite games to play at the moment is Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds (universally known as PUBG) which is the original “Battle Royale” multiplayer online shooter (For those who don’t know what a “Battle Royale” game is, it’s when you have a whole bunch of players in an all-against-all battle, last survivor wins – the play area shrinks over time to ensure players have to encounter one another). I don’t know if there is an official “legend” or backstory to explain what happened before you arrive in the area, but what I find fascinating is to spot the clues that seem to be left in the maps themselves and try to work it out for myself.
There are three maps available in PUBG: Erangel, Miramar and Sanhok. (Those of a similar age to me will surely remember Miramar as the name of the airbase where Top Gun pilot training takes place in the movie. The one in PUBG is evidently not the same Miramar). Erangel and Sanhok are island regions (Erangel is composed of 2 main interconnected islands, Sanhok has 3) while Miramar is a coastal region bordered to the east and west by insurmountable cliffs and to the north by a vast wall, the purpose of which is not clear (the gameplay purpose is clear – the in-world reason for it to be there is less so). They are thus all geographically isolated.
Erangel is somewhere in either Russia, or within Russia’s historical sphere of influence (think Russian Empire/Soviet Union region), and probably in the far east. Miramar is somewhere Latin American, while Sanhok is somewhere in south-east Asia. (These are all my best guesses based on language clues and placenames on the maps, btw – again, I don’t know what the official legend is for PUBG, only that I bought via Steam and play it frequently!).
On the road in Sanhok
The way a Battle Royale game works, is you start off with very little, and have to find weapons, ammunition, health items and upgrades around the map.
One of the first things I noticed was that weapons and ammo caches would typically be found under windows in buildings, and in defensible locations. It seemed to me that there was at least a semblance of underlying logic to the placing of items. And that piqued my interest.
It suggested that there was more to this than the “Hunger Games”-style spectator sport scenario that apparently was the original inspiration for PUBG (and therefore, the Battle Royale genre). There was a strong implication that some major event had happened here before the players in the current combat arrived: the local population had barricaded itself inside where possible, or in whatever locations they thought they could defend with firearms and improvised melee weapons (everything from frying pans and crowbars up to machetes). Some of them must have been defending as small groups, others cowered away alone in bathrooms or closets. All of them gathered what weapons they could and tried to defend against the worst.
There aren’t any corpses – the closest I came to finding some were some shop display-style mannequins left in a handful of positions in each map. (The creepiest place I found them was under water near a sandbar on the Sanhok map – half-buried in the sand and looking like they were reaching up, trying to escape. But I digress.) That doesn’t mean a lot – video game dead people often have a way of disappearing after a short while (and so it is in PUBG – killed players disappear after a while, leaving behind a crate that represents all their possessions in the game – which other players can then loot. Find a crate and you know a battle has been fought and lost in this place.)
What the mannequins most resemble (to me) is the figures used in the footage of old nuclear weapons tests. So perhaps there is some kind of history like that involved here? All three locations have military bases (plural in each case, I think). If so, maybe this is a hint that the events took place a while ago.
It turns out that that is probably not the case…
The Burning Fires
Shortly after noticing the location of the weapons and ammo caches, I noticed that there were definitely some wrecked cars that were still burning. Whatever violence had occurred in these locations, therefore took place recently enough that these fires had not had time to burn themselves out. That makes it probably within hours rather than days – maybe 48 hours maximum. That places a new complexion on everything.
Interestingly, there are many barriers made up of wrecked or burned out cars or vehicles. Others are burned out or tires slashed and abandoned. Around the maps you will typically find a variety of undamaged vehicles (motorbikes, dune buggies, jeeps, cars, trucks, even VW minibuses) presumably left over or abandoned because they weren’t needed. But the combination of fires and already burnt-out cars makes me think that the original violent episode must have lasted for several hours, at least. The fact that some people built barriers suggests that whatever happened lasted long enough to make that a worthwhile strategy – and it also implies that there were people operating collaboratively in response to it. (This point is significant because the standard game is everyone against everyone, so cooperation isn’t possible. There is a “Squad” mode where teams of up to 4 cooperate.)
In Miramar and Erangel, I also found plane crashes and in Miramar, there are still small fires burning at the crash site. (There seems to be less to burn at the Erangel crash site). So two things: whatever happened, affected the aircraft as well, and again, it took place fairly recently. Were the planes deliberately brought down, either by on board action, or by weapons fire from the ground, or did something else cause a critical failure leading to their losing power and thus crashing? If something else caused the crash, what was it?
The Military, The Crooks, The Ancients and the Graffiti
I’ve already mentioned that every map has military bases on it. Erangel has a massive military base with aircraft runways, radar and more; and also, a nuclear bunker. Sanhok has 3 camps (Alpha, bravo, Charlie) and a Bootcamp in the centre. There’s only one obviously military facility in Miramar (although I haven’t explored the whole map yet so some of the other location names might be hiding more military bases).
Other shared features are that there are archaeological sites on every map. Again, Sanhok has the most, and Miramar seems to have the fewest, but they all have them and that makes it significant. The eras covered by the sites seem to be divergent but that is mostly just guesswork from what little I know of world ancient history. Is it possible that the cause of the preceding violent event is linked to the archaeological digs? Did the archaeologists unearth an ancient evil of some kind?
The Ruins of Erangel
Another feature that, like the plane crashes, is shared only by Erangel and Miramar is the presence of prison complexes on these two maps. Maybe on these maps, part of the threat and the civilians’ need to create barricades, arm themselves and hide, is due to escaped prisoners. If the trigger for the event caused the security to fail and a bunch of violent criminals got out, that would clearly add to their sense of fear. But almost certainly, the cause is not linked to the prisons. (It is worth noting that the comparable facility on Sanhok appears to be a hotel for holidaymakers visiting the islands.)
One notable feature is, there were military bases in all three locations, but there’s no sign of the military personnel now. Did they evacuate before the crisis occurred, were they wiped out, or did they evacuate after the violence? On the Erangel map, there seems to be evidence that they were trying to escape the crisis: one of the “staging post” locations on the fringe of the map (and therefore rarely visited in live gameplay) has a wrecked transport plane on the runway, and the plane crash in the map is also a troop transport plane. It’s hard to tell if the plane in Miramar is a transport plane or otherwise, due to how badly it’s wrecked.
The last common feature I’ve noticed may or may not be significant. Again, it’s only found on Erangel and Miramar maps, but that’s because there’s nowhere in Sanhok where you’d expect it to be possible.
On both maps where there are stone and brick civilian dwellings, you find on some of the walls, graffiti. In Erangel, you see murals commemorating the USSR, you see slogans written in Cyrillic, and in what look to me like Chinese pictograms, and you see the occasional English-language slogan, too – most notably “Punk’s Not Dead” with the anarchism symbol of an A in a circle.
Graffiti in Erangel
In Miramar, most of the slogans are in Spanish, but some words can be guessed at based on the common Latin root: for example, it is clear that some are celebrating, or calling for, revolution. Some seem to be advertisements or labels for the type of building it is.
The impression in both places is that there is some kind of factional divide and the slogans are marking out territory or trying to persuade people to join them. Was this a pre-existing situation, or did the faction form as part of the violence, either at the very beginning, or later? Why would they divide along anarchist or revolutionary lines on one side and something else on the other?
Theories and narratives
There are two basic possibilities presented: either this was something the military did, or it was something triggered by the archaeologists. The archaeology sites on both Erangel and Sanhok seem to be among the most heavily-armed and defended locations, which might suggest that people gathered there to defend against whatever it was that caused the violence, and in turn suggests that it wasn’t something archaeological to start with, but it’s not certain.
(Avid gamers, or horror fans, will no doubt already have thought of “zombies” as a plausible explanation, but in that case there ought to be zombies still around. There is a Zombies mode available in PUBG, which I haven’t tried, but having a separate Zombies mode implies that zombies are not the main story, in the same way that having a zombies DLC for Red Dead Redemption doesn’t mean RDR is about zombies.)
If the military did it, the basic theory would have to be that it was some kind of weapons test that went horribly wrong (or possibly, horribly right).
The best explanation for all the observed facts that I can find is something like this: the military released a new kind of chemical weapon that was designed to be psychoactive and debilitate an enemy’s ability to fight by inducing fear or paranoia in the enemy. This could also be used as a means to control internal populations and put down uprisings. Unfortunately, it was a lot more powerful than they imagined, and affected some people differently than others: some became violent and resisting of all authority (perhaps because that was the way their paranoia worked) and others still became cold, calculating killers. The release of the psychoactive agent would have taken place at a particular location, meaning some people were affected before others.
A narrative or sequence of events suggests itself from this.
The military decide to test the effect of their new chemical weapon on an unsuspecting population.In Miramar and Erangel, the prison looks like an obvious place to target. On Sanhok, meanwhile, the holidaymakers at the hotel look like useful guineapigs.
Unfortunately, on Sanhok and Erangel, the targets are close to other facilities: Erangel’s power station is near to the prison, to the south. Similarly, the Bootcamp military facility on Sanhok is a short distance to the southwest. The agent drifts into these facilities. In the prison complexes, guards as well as inmates are affected by the agent, causing chaos in the security systems. On Erangel, the power station shuts down as the workers there stop doing their jobs and fight each other, or cower in fear. This, in turn, cuts off the power to the security systems at the prison, allowing prisoners to escape. Normally, a backup generator would cut in, but because the staff are also driven to fear, paranoia or violence by the agent, that generator is out of order.
On Sanhok, the army recruits in training at the bootcamp (and their instructors) are suddenly overcome with paranoia. Those with weapons loaded with live rounds slaughter the rest as they become convinced that everyone around them is plotting against them. They then scatter, and head outwards – some towards the hotel, others into nearby villages.
On Miramar and Erangel, the prisoners (and possibly some of the guards) seize the weapons intended for the guards to defend against a prison riot, and tey, too, start moving into the nearby population, convinced everyone they see is somehow plotting to kill them and must be eliminated to prevent it.
Meanwhile, the cloud of psychoactive agent is slowly spreading over a wider and wider area. The military had expected that by now the concentration would be too low to have much of an effect, but this is rapidly proving to be false: it is much more powerful than they had imagined, and more and more people are becoming paranoid and either fearful or violent as a result. And around about this point, the general population becomes aware of the rampaging violence and (in Miramar and Erangel) the prisoners on the loose.
Initially, those not yet affected by the agent band together to defend themselves, building barricades or locking themselves in their homes. A mass panic may well have led large numbers of civilians to flee to the military facilities, either seeking protection or seeking weapons to defend themselves. In some cases, they evidently succeeded – some of the weaponry found in the civilian homes must have come from the military bases (in Miramar, it is likely that some of them come from private contractors guarding mining and oil drilling facilities). It is possible that the base commander on Erangel ordered an evacuation. The main military base on the Erangel map is far too big to be evacuated on one flight, so the plane crash, I’m going to say, was the last flight out. The civilians had to tear through the fence with whatever they had available.
By now, the cloud is thinner but covers large areas of the map. Those who have formed teams to barricade themselves in houses now start to eye one another with suspicion, too. Guns and ammo, and other equipment looted from the military bases, are spread through the population. Anyone moving around in a vehicle is an easy target and they get shot up heavily, the cars sometimes catching fire. The few remaining people unaffected by the agent look for anything that seems like a defensible position: the ruins and ancient structures investigated by archaeologists seem like good places, as does the nuclear bunker in Erangel.
But there is nothing to protect against the spreading cloud of paranoia-agent and inevitably these locations are affected too. People turn on one another, pre-emptive sneak attacks by some “confirming” the paranoid suspicions of the others.
Meanwhile, the last planes trying to evacuate personnel from the facilities threatened or already falling to these attacks, fare no better. Everyone on the planes has already been affected by the agent and, as it turns out, it is long-lasting and the effects are slow to dissipate. The evacuation plane on both Erangel and Miramar, is brought down by fighting breaking out in the cockpit, one pilot convinced that the other is going to kill them. In each case, the plane comes down heavily into the ground, with no survivors.
In each case, word gets out somehow about the disaster. Within hours, a team of close to 100 investigators is dispatched to unravel what happened, parachuting into various points across the island.
Parachuting into Miramar
As they come closer to the ground, however, it appears that the agent is still hanging in a miasma over the entire landscape, and every individual suddenly falls victim to the same paranoia or violent urges as the population before them. Their comrades from the parachute jump are now viewed solely as enemies, to be evaded or destroyed. I, as a player of the game, am one of those investigators.
This, as I said at the start, is not any kind of official storyline. It’s the storyline that I developed by looking at the evidence presented by the design of the game and the way it’s played. It also reflects the way it feels (to me) when I play the game: the emotional impact that the Battle Royale mechanic inspires. I do start to feel an almost paranoid distrust of everything. Just the sound of footsteps on wooden boards can inspire dread or animosity, either hoping not to be located, or preparing to ambush the enemy. Where “enemy” means literally any other player.
In real life, I look at strangers on the bus or out in the street and look at what they’re doing, how they move, and imagine backstories for them. It doesn’t have to be true, or real. It just has to hang together so that whatever I’ve observed of them is all explained or extrapolated into a coherent whole. I don’t know if it helps me be any better at understanding humans, but it definitely helps me to create stories.