In the course of my life I have died, by my best calculation, ninety jillion times. My many demises run the gamut of options: crushed, drowned, run over, smothered, incinerated, exploded, imploded, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. I am a connoisseur of ends; I’ve sampled them all. My palette is discerning. Paul of Tarsus boasted of dying every day. To that I say, pshaw! Pshaw, sir. Pshaw. Sometimes I die every thirty seconds.
For those of you not in the know, PUBG (as the hip cats call it) hails from the line of open country free-for-all murder parties like DayZ, H1Z1, and Rust. Unlike some of its progenitors, PUBG eschews “player versus environment” hazards like zombies in favor of direct warfare between live human players. At the start of a round, 100 participants are stuffed into a flying C-130 cargo plane like sardines in a can and given the choice of when and where to parachute out over an expansive island many kilometers in diameter. Their sole objective upon landing: snuff one another out and become the last one standing.
Matches are notable not only for their unusual length, but for the way much of that time is spent in lonesome and uneasy scavenging. Apart from the opening airdrop, it’s not rare to go without seeing another player for upward of ten or fifteen minutes, and even then perhaps as only a silhouette climbing up a far hill, like an ant in your vision. The interim is spent in busy solitude, managing inventory and picking through heaps of litter for weapons and supplies, as well as traipsing across kilometers of hills, fields, and towns. It is a listless lonesomeness haunted by the specter of violence which hangs on the periphery of your awareness, threatening to swoop in at any time and without warning. An ever-shrinking circle that causes damage to anyone outside it draws all players inward to a central point on the island, an inexorable and fatal gravity.
Death often comes swiftly, punctuated by the ear-splitting crack of a rifle or thunderous boom of a shotgun from unknown quarters. That is the end of the matter. There is no respawning, no kill-cams (not yet, anyway). The source of your doom is more often than not a mystery, particularly when first starting and the world of PUBG is wholly alien. Your serendipitous finds of weapon caches and skillful sneaking across the map for twenty minutes have come to nothing but a dark screen a button that says Exit to Lobby. You will die with an aggravating finality, your jaw clenched at the injustice of it all, and you will die daily.
There is little to do except start again. You bring nothing with you into the next life, save, perhaps, for the tattered remains of your pride. There is no leveling system to improve your character or your arsenal over time as in many other modern games. You will not unlock a better weapon or special ability to give you an advantage next time. The slow, laborious process of scavenging for supplies begins anew with each airdrop.
There is a saying: “You can’t take it with you.” Whatever lies on the other side of that curious curtain we call death, modernity is still helplessly unsure. Science has yet to produce a telescope that sees so far. We do know we do not take any of our possessions with us beyond the grave. Death, in that respect, is a great equalizer; we are reduced to the merest of very selves. Our cars, our homes, our various collections—the great signifiers of status in our age—are cast away. We are naked in death, and equally so.
Circling back to Paul, perhaps there is something to the daily act of dying. In PUBG, death is humiliating and frustrating, but it is also instructive. Little by little, death by death, we become wiser. Less hot-blooded and headstrong. The player who has died many times over has learned when to walk, when to run, and when to sit still among the trees and grass, listening in silence. He does not fire at everything he sees. His dying has served him well. If I am honest with myself there are many aspects of my own character, such as arrogance and impatience, that would be best put to death regularly.
Yet for its funereal qualities PUBG remains a delight to play, particularly with friends in the squads mode. You and up to three friends can band together against a few dozen other teams to compete to be the last squad standing. Here the deaths are no less jarring or frustrating, but the burden of angst is at least shared amongst friends and lightened by our laughter. Death still bites, but we feel its teeth all the lesser.
My wife and I recently attended the funeral of her grandpa, who passed away suddenly a few weeks ago. One particular thing which struck me was that while the service itself was somber and tear-filled, the gatherings after were marked by great peals of laughter. Even her grandma joined in the mirth, telling jokes and anecdotes about the man to whom she’d been lovingly married over six decades In gathering together to mourn, joy irresistibly found itself bubbling up among friends and family.
Taken together, these two ideas—that death is both instructive and best shared with friends—present us with the possibility that the real life act of death itself is not all that it’s cracked up to be. I shall leave the reader with this poem by John Donne, which came to my mind after more than a couple deaths in PUBG:
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.