Back in a previous life, I wrote instrumentals for a song that would be called “Every Man For Himself.” This was an inside joke–the drummer we were working with would often say this as a comedic response to difficult situations. It was a placeholder title, intended to be replaced. The phrase was just a way of describing a situation as so complicated, or absurd, that there were no collective solutions–just a sense of hopeless, lawlessness where we were all on our own–an abstracted utterance that probably had a lot more substance and meaning in that situation than we likely thought it did, but I “digress.” On reflection of the genre known as “Battle Royale,” (BR) I’m returning to this concept–of thinking about how we’re all “out for ourselves” and how its existence signals something in gaming, but also in media, in “a society” that might be “problematic.”
Okay, whatever, stop reading now if it’s boring you or–if you’d prefer–tl/dr: BR is a lame, uninspired genre that illustrates the ills of a selfish society that seeks to deny collective experience and expression, pitting us against each other because it only understands the presence of other people as obstacles to not only overcome, but also to destroy to get a “chicken dinner” or become a “champion.”
Here’s the thing; the idea of a “free for all” isn’t new. Many games have always had this–Halo’s “Slayer” game mode (now known as FFA for free for all) has always been around; but since there were respawns, the objective wasn’t so much to win (a winner would be inevitable anyway) as it was to create a collective experience of chaos–even if it wasn’t understood, the experience was collective, you need the respawn to create the dynamic, collective, back and forth in a Slayer match. Yeah, there’s still violence, there’s still competition and all the other vectors for toxicity (though not guarantors) but people weren’t permanently “checked out” if they died. They got back up, grabbed a plasma pistol and battle rifle combo and became that guy/girl, they were signified in a collective sense in an expression of time spent together.
Likewise, non-respawn games aren’t anything new either; check it out: Gears of War may have been one of the more popular iterations, but other titles like SOCOM and, more recently, Rainbow Six: Siege, have put forth the multiplayer concept of single-lives in a violent, shooter context here. What’s the difference? These games are team efforts where the objective isn’t so much to win (again, winners are inevitable results of the context, not the end goal; and if you mistake this, you’re missing the point…and probably losing). It’s about executing a plan, working together, sometimes (and often) forced to create new plans when the shit hits the fan, perhaps without even communicating it, but still by operating on collective instinct. Dying changes the plan–you stay alive for the unit, for the experience, for others. Yes, all the violence and the gamification of terrorist scenarios, war and the like is “problematic” and worthy of discussion in a non-Jack Thompson way, but the mechanics of what you do, the “game to be played” is a dynamic, collective realm of expression where winning is the contextual result of a dynamic between people.
This is not what Battle Royales are. BR games are “Every Man For Himself,” and its logic fails to connect to any social human experience unless it is under the bizarre, alienated conditions that selfish, individualism breeds. How else do you explain the absurdity of the situation? Players fall out of the sky, have to grab weapons, and murder each other. Now, Apex Legends offers a twist, there’s a team dynamic, which means it operates more closely to what I described above–but with the amount of people who have been interested in a solo mode, it’s clear that the desire for a selfish bloodsport where winning is the only point remains. And when I say it’s the only point, I really do mean this: how else does one explain the multitude of technical issues PUBG has had to deal with? It’s of no surprise that a game where the only point is to just murder and kill everyone, with no other thought to the creative implementation of a software experience exists, has serious technical issues. Its foundation and point of existence is vapid and so the process, the construction and means of communicating through the medium reflects the shortsightedness. And though Fortnite is way more polished, and arguably more popular, it has a much larger company behind it with the power to exploit its workers and, in all reality, seems to be manifesting as a different experience than just BR. Furthermore, while Apex is a team game, the end result is a single “champion.” The winning team isn’t greeted with an announcement that “YOU ARE THE CHAMPIONS”, but instead takes the team effort that goes into winning and reduces it into an individual achievement: the Champion. It hides the collective condition and effort that goes into the victory and through the magic of a false consciousness, builds the myth of the Champion.
What does this have to do with anything? Well, nothing. Nothing matters and everything is a social construct. But, let’s return to music. The modern landscape of musicians today, especially the independent, the “indie,” is a similar situation. The collective existence of an artistic medium crumbles in our age of entrepreneurial jargon; we don’t ask ourselves how to create inclusive, vibrant musical environments; instead, we pride ourselves on being DIY go-getters, grinders, and hustlers. We build relationships under the illusion that we are doing it ourselves, and when others seem to be lost, asking for help, we don’t offer a bridge, we don’t break bread with them over their struggles, we don’t laugh together, we don’t cry together, we don’t sing song together, we instead make an abstracted shrug in our talk about how anyone can make it work if they just try hard enough–if they’d just leave the rest of us alone and do it themselves. We hide away existing social and collective efforts to bring a musical experience to life, and instead prioritize the spotlight on the artist–who seems to not only be gifted in their art, but is a fine businessman too. I won’t dismiss the DIY spirit in terms of its positive elements (shit, I refused to use roll20 because I wanted to build a Linux server and run MapTool all on my own, just ’cause), but there is something sinister behind the notion of do it yourself–it’s a request to be left alone, to not bother to build something together and to lock everyone in a bloodsport competition for exposure–and, after all, why bother building something together if we’re just in it to win it?
This is the essence of the selfish nature of the Battle Royale, and we’re all locked into it unless we start talking about how we’re socially constructing this isolating, alienating society–where we always wonder why a musical scene fell apart. Maybe encouraging everyone to just do it themselves is why no one is together anymore; and, after all, there can only be one champion.
And, in case you’re wondering, yeah, I suck at Apex Legends.