In 2009, when the Academy Awards seemed to make room for more experimental films by extending the potential number of nominees for Best Picture from 5 to 10, it was expected that Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, the underdog Godfather Part II of a new generation (fight me), would make the cut. Heath Ledger did posthumously earn the award for Best Supporting Actor, and the film itself was nominated for eight total categories, but for Best Picture overall, The Dark Knight was snubbed. To this day, comic book movies have never been more important to the box office, regularly defining conversations about all film for better and worse. They are highly influential, gargantuan pieces of art, and yet the Academy Awards couldn’t move fast enough to recognize, at the outset, their outsized impact. Let us be thankful, then, that video games are not that way. It can move faster as an industry.
The Game Awards, to air December 7, have, in duty to perhaps fandom or sheer popularity, nominated a technically incomplete game, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG), for Game of the Year. PUBG deserves this spot on the list, not because it is perfect and not because it is even roundly good, but because we can expect, in years to come, to refer back to the moment of its explosion of popularity as a change in the status quo. An award is not a review; it is a recognition. So in honor of change, we must recognize what changed us.
Regarding Game of the Year, I adore the other games on the list. Super Mario Odyssey and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, in fact, I’d even say are better games. But 2017 was the year of PUBG, whether anybody particularly likes it or not. I think that means it’s also the Game of the Year.
The argument against PUBG receiving this kind of recognition is quite sound, given a certain set of criteria. As Steven T. Wright laid out on Glixel, PUBG is at times frustrating, boring, and often, on the merits of its technical construction, a complete disaster. Wright surmises that we’re awaiting the inevitable PUBG refinement, a la a refinement of the first-person shooter genre in Doom from the innovations of Wolfenstein 3D. But if that’s the case, we already have it in the form of Fortnite. Epic’s quick turnaround notwithstanding, the battle royale mode in Fortnite is a technically superior experience, and even throws on an engaging crafting metagame to boot. Nevertheless, on pure instinct, it’s safe to conclude that Fortnite does not deserve Game of the Year. And would you really want to gift such a recognition to a publisher that happened to have the means and pre-existing framework to capitalize on the trend first? Of course not.
PUBG, as haphazard and clunky as it often can be, is the dam that broke open a genre that’s been building for years. The likes of H1Z1 and The Culling before it slowly stitched together an idea, only for PUBG to finally tighten that idea into something so widely played as to have broken the record for most ever simultaneous players on Steam. PUBG is the Doom, not for pure technical quality, but for what could be considered mechanical articulation. Mechanical articulation can mean that a game works well enough to promote a practical ease of interpretability. The mechanics have been articulated to the player in a way that makes them subject to useful critical judgement. We, as in all of us across the fandom of games and game industry, can finally agree on one thing: the battle royal genre is fucking awesome.
To reiterate the most repeated statement in video games this year, the battle royale genre sees a large number of players, commonly 100, spawn in some way on a large map and battle it out to the last man standing. PUBG did not invent this structure, nor in its current state does it in any overt way deviate from that structure. In fact, on the surface, PUBG doesn’t look particularly special. Yet, in action, there’s something there that clicks. The looting is just a tad more intuitive. The map feels like an adventurous sprawl, rather than disparate patchworks. The end-game, in which ever-shrinking circular boundaries push players into a randomly-chosen sector of the map, applies a more deliberate and readable flow. Through mechanical refinement, PUBG extends the genre from a compelling tech demo into a virile, immersive experience. In the crossing of this bridge, those elements of the battle royale genre that once felt like mistakes might now be re-interpreted as new aesthetic opportunities.
That’s PUBG’s contribution, to have finally made an idea workable on a scale that matters. Lament the future battle royale derivatives if you must, but here and now we can finally see that they are coming. And, from a critical point of view, PUBG’s success grants us the opportunity in this mechanical articulation to as players dig into why this genre works so well, to extend that articulation into analysis and investigation. We get to push forward, together, on the back of PUBG, into a discourse about the wider genre itself. Maybe that’s lofty, but whenever a genre really breaks out and hits a mass of acceptance, there’s a trickling down effect across game development and criticism that goes beyond simple imitation and sees elements of that genre pop up in places you might not expect. Every other game is an RPG because of this effect. Every fourth game is somehow a roguelike. Now, every shooter on the market has the potential to be, in some small way, a relative of the battle royale. In fact, existing shooters already are. The mechanics and systems that guide PUBG are necessarily going to comment on the existing structures that guide previously accepted classes of first-person shooter. Even PUBG mechanics that seem like mistakes, or are in some way challenging to the norm, introduce an inverse challenge to the norm themselves. Without PUBG's brute popularity and broad-scale acceptance, the reverse argument is not possible.
Take for instance the criticism that PUBG can easily slip into boredom over the course of a match. Players will find themselves trekking across large swaths of land having little else to do than run toward something more interesting. That sounds terrible, and it’s something the Battlefield games, known for the largeness of its maps before PUBG, have struggled with, too. You’ll cross entire deserts in a Battlefield game only to be shot down and respawned right back where you started. But this space for boredom and untimely frustration feels like an innovation in PUBG, not for any sense of resounding excitement at the prospect of just walking along, but in the reframing of that activity around a different set of goals, which makes the long walk to death, at the very least, tolerable. To conceptualize a victory over 100 other players makes this very lull-driven gameplay worth the effort, to obviously very many players. Because this victory feels so huge, and so looming, PUBG can afford to set the player down a meandering path. Overwatch, Call of Duty and Battlefield, on the other hand, promise immediate gratification. Most games, really, make this promise. It’s an enormous shift in expectation that players are willing to play through the slog, and that’s an aesthetic opportunity to not just make battle royale games better in the future, but to bend other genres toward long-term, looming, and singular goals, without depending on something like grinding in RPGs or constant mechanical derivation in platformers. It’s our job now to reason out how this works, and develop a new set of criteria for when this becomes acceptable. That’s the power of an emerged genre, and PUBG deserves credit for creating this emergence.
Before The Game Awards announced their nominees, there was a palpable and sometimes nervous anticipation that PUBG might claim one of the coveted nominations for Game of the Year. In some way people were already aware that the Game of the Year award is more than, or maybe just laterally separate from, an accounting of Metacritic scores. Some might describe it as a popularity contest. They may be right. But if the side-effect of that popularity contest is a game rewarded for something other than a fulfillment of expected quantitative and qualitative criteria, then so be it. We can allow cultural and industry impact to sway this type of recognition. We can support the idea that a good game of extreme and aberrant consequence deserves more than a great game that remains within an expected critical bubble.
In 2011 Skyrim bore the brunt of year-end accolades, with a peppering of Portal 2 here and there. Both were immaculate beacons of their respective genres. But another game was released that year, one that remains to this day an idiosyncratic nightmare of confusion and frustration, basically requiring a consistently-open wiki to beat. This game would go on to inspire more than an entirely new and successful franchise; it would inspire actual language used to talk about games. This game was the Dark Souls of Dark Souls. It was actually just Dark Souls. In 2011 our industry wasn’t agile enough, fast enough, to recognize within a year of its release the rampant greatness and undeniable penchant for inspiration of this remarkable game. For whatever reason, maybe it’s Steam, or Twitch, or everyone’s desire to pew pew rather than slice and dice, in 2017 we are. We’ve rightfully crowned PUBG a king of at least something in its actual cultural moment. It’s rare that an institution is ever able to do that.
The Academy Awards are almost embarrassingly predictable, and as a result their potential to speak to the culture, let alone impact it, is more than modestly nullified. The Dark Knight failed not on widely accepted merit but on the stringent criteria of forlorn ideals in film that happened to have survived within this one annual framework. Batman’s cowl was never going to get through security, because Gone With the Wind says so. You then have to ask the question, what’s an Academy Award worth, if I already know who should win it? There’s an opportunity in the giving of an award not just to recognize an intangible greatness, but to make tangible a new thing that’s made great on its own terms. For PUBG that’s the mechanical articulation of its wider genre, and in the giving of this nomination we have an institution that is miraculously avoiding standardization in a way that promotes straight-up weirdness. There’s more value, more impact, to an award that escapes predictability, for the very reason that we’re debating its merits right now.