With the popularity of franchises like The Hunger Games, DayZ, and PlayerUnknown’s Battleground, the battle royale genre has gained incredible traction over the last few years. The idea of many against one and the rise to the top is nothing new in storytelling. But what makes this specific end of the spectrum so special? Competition, conflict, uncertainty, paranoia, and survival, much like my typical Thursday night, are the core tenants of this genre. And, like my usual Thursday, it can leave you guessing as to what might happen right up until the end.
So let’s jump into the narrative shallow-to-deep end and discuss what exactly makes the battle royale genre so damn fun.
No More Heroes
We know from stories we’ve read or had read to us that the heroes always win in the end. It’s a given that good will prevail and the main character will lead an army to face the big bad. They’ll overcome incredible odds and face dangerous challenges that shape them into the hero they’re meant to be. And the idea of having innumerable enemies to challenge them at every turn sure seems like a trial.
But who is the hero? Who is the protagonist? There can’t be only one person in an arena with right on their side and a family at home. With good storytelling, anyone could be the main character, or in fact there might not even be just one. Ask a couple Game of Thrones fans who the real protagonist is and step back.
A big draw to the battle royale genre is that anyone, literally any character, could be the hero. Rue from the Hunger Games, Jack from Lord of the Flies, my “friend” on PUBG. There are characters that do horrendous things, not necessarily because they’re bad people, but because they have to for survival. Usually the main character is the typical hero, but even they aren’t always virtuous or level headed. Ralph gives into his bloodlust and kills Simon in a frenzy. Katniss manages to kill 4 people, one out of revenge and one out of mercy. That same guy on PUBG who SOMEHOW manages to win every game even though he’s CLEARLY hiding and camping every round. Sometimes the hero is the obvious choice, sometimes it’s that guy in the corner with a shotgun.
Battle to the Top
In fiction, it’s a little more difficult to portray a BR-style because there has to be a hero. There has to be the one good character alive at the end to keep the story going. Understandable, but a bit predictable. Harry wins the Triwizard cup (though that has its own problems), Katniss beats the Hunger Games, Shuya Nanahara escapes the island. Yay, woo, huzzah, etc. In order to keep a series going, the main character usually has to survive through the end. There has to be at least one reference point of good.
Video games, on the other hand, have no such restrictions. League of Legends gives no main troupe, DayZ has no protagonist, Fortnight presents no singular hero. It’s many against one, tactics and luck, and that is that. Last person standing is the name of the game and everything else is disregarded. So why is this so preferred over the literary interpretation of battle royale?
Obvious out of the way: player agency. Actions result in consequences, triumph over the competition. Same reason why Dead by Daylight and Friday the 13th are such big genre successes: movie characters make dumb choices. The viewer wants to make the choices. Likewise, in a battle royale game, the player wants the option to choose their actions. They alone determine their survival, and the leaderboard is the one thing that matters. Maybe it’s a little bit of a power/survival fantasy for the player since there isn’t really a main story. Maybe it’s the drive of competition. One thing for sure, and I will stand by this: games have a better grasp on the isolated BR genre because, ideally, there are no heroes. There are no villains. There are victors, and competitors.
Only one may stand.
Back to the Fiction
While games have their own appeal for being a truly lawless free-for-all, this anonymity is also a weakness. I do occasionally harp on the “hero rising to the top” concept, but it’s prevalent for a reason. A hero is someone to cheer for, to hope overcomes and overthrows the abusive ruling order. More often than not it’s a corrupt system that put the battle royale in place to control a population. And we as readers want that victory, that moment of triumph. We want the good to beat back the evil, even if the good has moments of weakness. The idea of a neutral free-for-all is difficult to put to page or screen for that reason. An audience needs a hero.
With this personality in literary BR also comes the ability to blend so many genres. Action, horror, drama, scifi, fantasy, romance, tragedy, comedy, revolution: all these and more can find comfortable homes in the arena. And depending on the author, the characters aren’t all cardboard caricatures or hollow shells or plot devices. Done correctly, the BR genre can be one of the most human storytelling techniques available to a writer.
Or, if you really want, you can go completely off the rails ridiculous with it, and that can work too.
What are your thoughts on the BR/arena genre? Do you prefer games or stories, or a little of both? What’s your personal favorite?
Thanks to TGE’s own Tahani Nelson for being a sounding board and discussion partner for this piece, and be sure to welcome her to the team!
As always, thanks for reading, and may the odds be ever in your favor.
I like weird and silly and scary things. Sometimes I talk about them.
I enjoy gaming, sci-fi/fantasy books, well-written stories, Magic: the Gathering, and caffeine. I like things that make me think, feel, and react.
Praise Cthulhu, hail Rakdos, enjoy the weirdness. And remember: a good story can come from anywhere.