PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds' new replays reveal the hidden stories all around you
Leather coat, hockey mask, need the rest - m4w (Erangel)
You, kitted out in black, running towards your buggy near the southern coast. Me, wearing a T-shirt, shooting hopelessly in your direction from 400 yards away. Our eyes met across the grassy field, but then you were gone. What I'd do for another chance...
--Man it turns out you murdered three minutes later
As of its 1.0 release, Playerunknown's Battlegrounds now records everything that happens within a 1km radius around you during matches. You can then watch the replay afterwards. This allows you to track the descent of dozens of other players during your initial leap from the airplane. It means you can use a free camera to watch the missed connections between you and other players, as you walk within feet of one another but never realise they're there. It means you can follow that person who appeared to drive away at speed as they instead double back and shoot you in the head.
This is wonderful, and for every twenty minutes I spend playing the game I spend a further hour reliving my match a dozen different ways via the replay viewer.
Replays are now a regular feature to multiplayer shooters, and they feel essential at a time when cheaters are common and suspicion of cheating is even more rife. Being able to watch your final moments from the perspective of the person who pulled the trigger helps to reassure you that their aim was human and your death was fair.
The impact of replays is unusually profound in PUBG however, where matches involve a hundred players and take place over an 8x8km region.
For example, if you play as I do - by roleplaying as a cowardly vole - it's possible to survive for 15 minutes and never get into combat with another player. I run, I collect some items, and then I'm shot and killed by someone I didn't see. Although uneventful, these matches remain thrilling to me due to the tension created by what might happen at any moment. There could be another player lying in wait around any corner. The replay makes explicit that, yes, there was a player lying in wait around if not every corner, then at least enough of them that my excitement is justified.
I love these near misses. If part of PUBG's popularity lies in the traditional power fantasy of seeing players who never see you, there is an odd solipsistic thrill in discovering that you, too, were seen. Perhaps the factory you drove by contained another player who tracked your vehicle's movements from the moment it came within earshot til the moment it disappeared again over the horizon, or maybe there were eyes peering from the windows of the small village you went scavenging in. You didn't know these players were there because they made a quick calculation and decided you weren't worth the risk, and instead they acted as witness to the interstitial moments of your life that had previously seemed insignificant.
I love the unmissed connections, too. Through the replay, I can follow the person who eventually kills me from the moment they're a kilometer away to the moment when they pull the trigger. Both of us always take rambling, circuitous routes, as dozens of minor, unimportant decisions steer us towards our eventual meeting. Games often dissolve frustration by making clear what you did wrong, so you know your death was your fault. In PUBG, there's almost the opposite sense. Maybe there was nothing you could do? Viewed after the fact, death looks a lot like fate.
(It's possible I'm just terrible at the game.)
Even when you're hardly involved, the replays reveal the stories happening all around you in any game of PUBG. Hit tab while viewing and you can bring up a list of every player in range. Click their name and you'll hop to their location, viewing the world through their eyes.
In one match I decided to avoid a long bridge and instead swim across the river to reach the other side. Watching the replay afterwards, I discovered that I made the right decision: there was a man waiting on that bridge with a powerful machine gun. I watched as he instead ambushed a woman who crossed the bridge on a motorcycle. He opened fire, causing her to swerve and crash. She leapt off the bike, took cover behind a burnt-out car and returned fire, but it was hopeless. The ambusher won the day, as he would have done in a fight against me if I wasn't 60 feet below, ignorant of all of this, swimming to reach the other side.
In a game where encounters with other players tend to be brief, the replays lend context and continuity. This fight on the bridge has now been folded into my internal story of that round, as has the steps my killer took in the minutes leading up to our encounter. Where did they find that brilliant sniper rifle? I can watch and find out.
The replay viewer sounds like it should be a great tool for getting better at the game and maybe it is for other people. For me it's instead been a comfort to realise how many other people play as I do: hiding in a bathroom for long stretches of time and then firing at the floor in a panic anytime they encounter another human being.
The replays also offer one final benefit, increasingly common in games: they turn PUBG into a photographer's playground. 'Ctrl+U' hides the UI, 'P' pauses the action, and space bar lets you switch to a free camera and swoop around the environment. You can get unnaturally close to characters in combat or fly high to capture the panoramic scale of journeys across the game's two levels. PUBG bears the mark of its drab military simulator roots and is most often defined by drab concrete warehouses and fashion that makes every character look like a 14-year-old stumbling to find an identity.
There are areas of beauty too, however. The replays allow you to appreciate the mountainside forest you'd previously only sprinted through, to dwell on the details of Erangel's flooded village, and to appreciate the way the sunlight looks down by the coast, where my body lay motionless. That's the thing about PUBG's replays: they end as all my matches do, when I die.