I’m throwing in the towel on my Digital Gems column, and paving the way for something new. In this “something new,” I’ll muse about a recent game or piece of news, and in the same breath, something that will have nothing to do with games at all. Like an album, or an anime, or a movie of sorts. The name for whatever this thing is remains up in the air—"Play+" and "Two Birds with One Stone" were some initial cliched ideas—but I promise that next week I’ll have a name that’s more concrete. Or maybe nothing at all. Bear with me.
There are some games I genuinely enjoy watching more than playing. And then, there are some games I think I enjoy watching more than playing. Until, y’know, I actually play them. Hitman, IO Interactive’s excellent murder sandbox of 2016, was one of them. Now, the obtusely named PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds joins the ever-bald Agent 47 upon my imaginary shelf of games “I Didn’t Expect to Enjoy Playing, But Loved to Watch.”
PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, as much as it pains me to write that groan-worthy name, masters the art of tension. Tension that can only be measured between hushed gasps of “oh shit,” and paranoid mentions of, “Did you hear that?” Battlegrounds makes one’s adrenaline skyrocket with the pop of a gunshot in the distance, or the creaky footsteps of a stranger in a house you were in the midst of looting upstairs. Battlegrounds simulates the fear of impending death—that a stray bullet can take you out at any moment—like no other game.
It’s hard to look at a lighthouse, any lighthouse, and not recall the fate that once befell a group of teenage girls within one in Battle Royale (whose namesake is often slapped on King of the Hill type games such as the perfected Battlegrounds). The original Battle Royale drops a class of students onto an island, arms them with weapons, and urges them to kill one another. The last student standing is granted freedom. In Battle Royale (either the Koushun Takami’s excellent 1999 novel, the 2000 film adaptation of the same name, or the manga iteration), a sequence persists in all of them: where a group of friends make a lighthouse their home in the midst of hellish, murderous chaos.
Then, suspicion strikes. One character consumes a poisoned meal—intended for an accidental, injured guest—and instantly, the girls who were once best friends prior to being dropped onto this murder-game island turn against one another. Bullets fly, people die. And the lighthouse is a shell of the happy microhome it once was. Now it's painted with blood.
I see this lighthouse echoed all across the map of Battlegrounds, even if not quite in a literal sense. Environments look familiar now with a passing glance. "I've died here before," I might recall. Battlegrounds has also allowed me to see the cruelty in the ways some friends play games. In one match, our party leader forgot to unclick the “auto-match” option, and when a rando joined in, my friend decided to run them over with a vehicle rather than welcome them into our group. It was cold-blooded. I yelled at him to go back, so I could heal this stranger. And then that gave me pause, as obviously they can’t even trust us now. I was guilty by association, as my friend just cackled.
What makes Battlegrounds tick isn’t the vast deadly fields or compact houses, nor the dozens of weapons and clothing at your disposal, it’s the stories your treks across the map come to tell. They are memories embedded within spaces, like the lighthouse that housed bloodshed in Battle Royale, or the corn field where we ran over an unwelcome teammate.
Sometimes Battlegrounds’ uneven setpieces (that don’t seem cohesive on an art direction level—which makes sense for a game made by a prolific modder) become the backgrounds for much more elaborate events, like being seemingly trapped with no exit in a sunken, swampy town. In this particular instance, myself and two friends were pinned in a fire fight we knew we couldn’t win. A friend had the brilliant idea to throw smoke grenades to aid us in our escape, so he did. And we ran across planks of a watery surface, ducking behind decrepit houses in our flight. It felt like something out of a more structured action game, like a chase sequence plucked out of Uncharted. But here we were, weaving our own adrenaline-fueled narrative, just with a little more jank and unpredictability as our pens. We died anyways though, of course.
Math rock has never been this saccharine. Tricot, a rock trio hailing from Kyoto, Japan, have perfected their unpredictable melodies in their latest album 3, released earlier this month. 3 is their third record outing following 2013’s T H E (when they were still a foursome), and 2015’s A N D. And it’s their best album yet.
I saw Tricot a couple years ago on my birthday, and they electrified the room. Hands viciously brushed against guitar strings as the band lept into the crowd of the cramped space in the upper level of San Francisco’s DNA Lounge. Sweat obscured nearly everyone’s vision, as the band and crowd alike screamed away from microphones. This was San Francisco, obviously a long ways from Japan. But together we all felt tethered, not blocked by the barriers of language, but brought together via music.
In an interview with Noisey, Tricot lead singer Ikumi “Ikkyu” Nakajima noted that she sings with her entire soul intentionally. “Although I sing using Japanese I try to put the message of the song in the voice itself,” she told the publication. “I think that way it allows meaning to be transmitted beyond the language barrier.” I felt that in that sweaty, claustrophobic concert; and I feel it again, as I listen to the screeches of guitars and voices on 3.
3 is a continuation of this intensity. And in a way, a more polished version of it. Tricot have never been this poppy before, nor this frenetic. “Tokyo Vampire Hotel” begins the album with voracious energy, while “Melon Soda” closes it out with a soothing melody. The two songs are the two halves of Tricot, and what makes them stand apart from other math rock, emo, and hell, other rock today. Their sound is simultaneously infectious and abrasive; pop yet punk (in spirit, not sound). This is Tricot at their most absorbing, language barriers be damned.
You can stream Tricot’s 3 on Apple Music or Spotify, or buy it from Top Shelf Records.