Nearly two decades after its release, cult Japanese movie Battle Royale is currently enjoying a resurgence in popularity. Not because of anything to do with the film itself, nor the Koushun Takami novel it was based on, but because it serves as the inspiration for two of the most popular games of the past 18 months: first PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and then Fortnite’s Battle Royale mode.
In the wake of these two games, we’ve seen the creation of an entire new genre of multiplayer shooter. One that seemingly every developer wants to get in on – the most recent example being Boss Key’s Radical Heights, which launched in ‘x-treme early access’ earlier this month. Note that the developer has since shut its doors.
But these games don’t pick the bones of Battle Royale completely clean. The original movie contains many ideas that remain unused, some of which may yet make for interesting additions to the game genre it’s inspired.
"Life is a game."
The first thing that strikes you, revisiting Battle Royale after hours playing out a similar scenario on your sofa, is just how much it plays out like a game. The film operates by a clear set of rules, carefully laid out before the action begins. 42 school children are dropped onto an island, given basic supplies and a random weapon, with hourly danger zones they need to avoid, until the last kid standing is crowned winner.
Battle Royale is filled with moments that will be uncannily familiar to any player of its namesake games. Characters slowly collect weapons from the people they kill, for example, or when one member of a duo checks the map and announces: “This is going to be a danger zone. We’ve got to head south, quick.”
In retrospect, it’s kind of amazing it took this long for Battle Royale to be translated into a computer game. Especially given the recent popularity of another series in this weirdly specific sub-genre, The Hunger Games.
The setup of those books and movies is no less game-like, though the rules play out a little differently. Take, for example, the Cornucopia. A big pile of weapons in the middle of map, where all the players spawn and get a single minute to prep before all hell breaks loose. So, basically Tilted Towers.
The way these kinds of concepts have been adapted into battle royale games is actually remarkably faithful. Where changes have been made, they’re mostly ways of streamlining the core ideas into something that is entertaining to play, rather than watch.
Brendan ‘PlayerUnknown’ Greene has said that he initially considered borrowing the cornucopia directly from The Hunger Games, having all players being in a circle. Eventually, of course, he came up with the idea of everyone jumping from a plane that flies over the island.
And in doing so, actually solved one of the biggest gaps in Battle Royale’s setup, when you look at it through a gaming lens: given all the students spread out from the same spot, one at a time, surely anyone who leaves early and lucks into a machine gun is pretty much guaranteed a win?
There are plenty of interesting ideas in Battle Royale that haven’t gone through this adaptation process, though. With more and more developers jumping on the battle bus – and the two kings of the scene still changing and evolving – could any of them provide the spark for the next killer feature?
"You probably guessed, but our new transfers are a little dangerous."
When Battle Royale’s unwitting contestants – a class of school children – awake on the island where they’ll spend the next 90 minutes crossbowing each other to death, they find two strangers in their midst. While the majority of the characters are still in their school uniforms, these two ‘transfer students’ are having a mufti day.
Clearly, they’ve been hammering the loot boxes for new cosmetics – which, as you’d expect, means they’re more experienced players. Kawada is the survivor of a previous game, Kiriyama a psychotic Heath Ledger-looking volunteer. It’s an idea that crops up in the Hunger Games series, too. The second instalment, Catching Fire, revolves around a sort of murderous Champion’s League, pitting the winners of previous games against one another.
Imagine if, after being awarded their chicken dinner, victorious players were given a minute to prepare before the next hundred got dropped onto the island with them. Or if their entire squad was immediately matched up with a bunch of squads who’ve also just won games, for the chance to prove themselves as Eragel’s finest.
"Not everyone will get a gun or knife!"
You start every battle royale round unarmed – or, in Fortnite’s case, with only a pickaxe to your name. But land in the right spot, and you can immediately fill your inventory with guns.
The kids of Battle Royale, meanwhile, get assigned a weapon before proceedings begin. Sounds great, right? Except that the weapons are randomly allocated and you’re as likely to get given a paper fan as you are an SMG.
This creates a fascinatingly uneven playing field, where the route to victory is defined by what you’re given. If your bag contains a GPS tracker, you’re going to need to team up with someone to capitalise on the information it gives you. Poison means you’ll need to play a much sneakier game. Pot lid? Okay, time to hide and pray to your deity of choice.
Within the framework of existing battle royale games, this would be near-impossible to balance. But there’s an opportunity here to shift the emphasis away from just scooping up all the shotguns you can find, and towards something that encourages a different approach every time. For this to work, though, you’d need to make another major change...
"Really trusting someone... is a hard thing to do."
At its heart, Battle Royale is a story about trust.
Most of the kids gather into gangs, generally ones based off the cliques they ran in at school, but it doesn’t work that way for everyone. Essentially, some are playing squad mode, but others are in duo, or even solo. PUBG nods in this direction, with the option to play in a one-man squad while everyone around you is in teams, just in case you fancy making victory an even trickier proposition.
What’s key in Battle Royale, though, is that however well a team works together, there’s always the knowledge that there can be only one winner, one survivor. If you dispatch all your foes, eventually you’ll be forced to turn on each other.
I remember playing squad mode for the first time, slowly approaching the top spot and wondering, with a paranoid glance at a friend’s exposed back, whether we’d be splitting the chicken dinner or if this was strictly a meal-for-one situation. It’s a frisson, however, which quickly disappears. While friendly fire is an issue in some of these games, you’re encouraged to work as a team and stay that way.
But what if, once you were the last duo or squad standing, you had to eliminate the players you’d spent the past half-hour working with in order to come out on top? It’d certainly change the feel of teamwork.
This tension is central to the drama of Battle Royale. The conversations between characters – "how do I know I can trust you?" or "who betrayed us?" – are more common in board games, but they’re not completely alien to multiplayer shooters. After all, this was the foundation of zombie survivor game DayZ, where ‘PlayerUnknown’ first made his name with a battle royale mod.
SOS, unfortunately best known as the game that Snoop Dogg pretended to stream, is currently experimenting with "social survival" mechanics, where players can choose to team up – or betray each other – at any point.
An increased emphasis on relationships, and squads that form organically, could be one way to make a more uneven selection of weapons work. Hidden in the bushes with only a pair of binoculars to your name, you shout out to a passing stranger with a scopeless rifle: do they want to team up? They agree, and you thin out the competition together – until one quiet moment where their back is turned, their health is low and you realise that rifle could be yours.
"There's a way out of this game."
There’s one last thing which unites Battle Royale and Hunger Games, but isn’t present in any of the games they’ve inspired: a second win condition.
Unlike in games, if you introduce a solid set of rules in the first act of a movie you’d best believe they’ll be broken by the end. So, whether it’s trying to blow up HQ with homemade explosives, disabling the pulse-detecting shock collar, harnessing a lightning bolt to crash the equipment that pens you in or just manipulating the crowd, our heroes win not by playing the game as written but by beating the system.
This highlights a key difference in the conception of these games. The players want to be there, are actively keen to get to the violence. Only Radical Heights, with its garish gameshow presentation, even gestures towards the idea that this might be a system that’s trapping us. But whatever the game, we’re all Kiriyama – the psychotic volunteer.
What if there was another way to win? One that involved co-operation, fending off external threats – an idea that crops up in the Hunger Games, with everything from genetically-modified beasties to poisonous fog – as well as any rival teams who’ve decided to take the simpler homicidal route to victory. A chance to rise up and seize not only the chicken dinner, but the entire means of production.