I’ve been staring at a closed door for five full minutes now, waiting for the monster to attack. Somewhere in the building below me—just barely audible through the sounds of bombing in the distance and the periodic waves of gunfire from the battle raging outside—I can still hear their footsteps as they scrounge around for loot or future victims. If the scavenging creature blundering around downstairs finds my hidey-hole, they’ll murder me or die trying, the same as all the other monsters gunning each other down outside. My head swivels every 10 seconds to the room’s sole window, to check that no one’s drawing a bead on my fragile skull, before snapping back to that ominously closed door.
In this moment, crouched and unmoving in a not-so-abandoned building in one of the backwoods nowheresvilles that dot the map of Erangel—the setting for every match of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds—my body exhibits all the hallmarks of being hunted by a lethal and unrelenting threat: My hand twitches on the mouse. My heart is racing. I have to fight the urge to fidget because the slightest noise might give my position away. These feelings are not relieved by the fact that the monsters hunting me are other human beings, or that I’m only hiding in here because I’m a monster, too.
PUBG bills itself as an online multiplayer shooter, a semi-realistic military action game that traces its origins (through a number of player-created mods) all the way back to the hardcore warfare simulation Arma 2. But in practice, it’s one of the greatest horror games of the last several years, nonstop terror broken into bite-sized, 30-minute chunks. And it’s that human element—aided by a number of smart design choices that turn every other killer on the island into a horde of largely unseen, always lethal monsters—that makes it so effective as a work of player-crafted horror.
The fear starts from the jump (literally), as 100 players parachute out over the massive island, desperately searching for a landing spot that won’t see them immediately gunned down by their Battle Royale-influenced foes. Erangel’s 8-by-8-kilometer dimension is important here; full of ghost towns and abandoned military installations, it’s massive enough that you can spend several minutes scavenging guns and equipment before you see another human being. But rather than restful, that loneliness is paranoia-inducing: Did I just see movement in a window a mile away? Was that a gunshot off to the east? Was that a footstep outside my building or just the wind? It’s all amplified by PUBG’s sound-driven nature: A good surround system or pair of headphones is vital to pinpointing where your enemies are and listening for creeping feet, but it also opens you up to a series of minor heart attacks when the unseen sniper, the one who’s been carefully watching you blunder your way across a supposedly safe meadow from some barely glimpsed window, finally takes their shot.
That moment, when a seemingly secure sunlit bit of woodland abruptly turns into an abattoir and you desperately lunge for cover and try to identify where the fuck those shots are coming from, is all the more terrifying because it’s inevitably your own damn fault. This isn’t Friday The 13th, where the antagonist’s abilities stack the battlefield against you. The other guy just got the drop on you because you got greedy, because you weren’t paying attention, or, more likely than not, because you were too worried about The Circle driving you forward.
The Circle is the ultimate weapon in PUBG’s arsenal of fear, a moving wall of blue light that constantly constricts the size of the battlefield, driving every survivor deeper and deeper into enemy territory. It’s a catalyst for bad decisions: You’d love to crawl carefully, maybe search a few buildings for a med kit or armor, but the damn thing is right there on your heels. You don’t want to cross that exposed bit of road or leave the closet where you’re a relatively safe little monster, but the choice is out of your hands.
Staring out at a hayfield that you know is full of other human beings who want you dead, rifles trained and ready for the slightest movement, is more than mere fear. It’s dread—stiff, down-in-your bones dread—and Battlegrounds cultivates it with a precision and specificity rarely seen even in games that bill themselves as outright horror. Like a Halloween protagonist who suggests everybody split up or Ripley going back for the damn cat in Alien, the smart choice is not always within your grasp. And the feeling of doing something willfully dumb, out of a desperate hope for survival, is like ice flowing into your veins—right up until the moment there’s nothing in your veins, because the monsters have caught you and now your blood is splattered across a hay bale in some Podunk Russian wheat field.
That’s also the moment that you sigh, click “ready,” and prepare yourself for the next ordeal. Because when you land in Erangel again, there’s every chance that it’ll be your turn to be the monster, lurking in the shadows to be the start of someone else’s bad day.