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Here’s What A ‘Battle Royale’ Video Game Could Have Been In The Year 2000

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Here’s What A ‘Battle Royale’ Video Game Could Have Been In The Year 2000

When you think of battle royale today, your brain can’t not go straight to the superbly popular gaming genre. Fortnite, Apex Legends, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, modes in Call of Duty and Battlefield, and so many more. The online multiplayer, last-avatar-standing experience has shot to the very heart of what we play today, and such is its success that few major publishers are going to look away from the space anytime soon, even as we see certain titles fail to gain traction.

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The genre takes its name from the December 2000-released movie Battle Royale, a picture itself based on a preceding novel (there’s also a manga adaptation, said to have been an influence on Squid Game). In both the film and the books, Japanese high school students are dropped onto an island to, basically, fight to the death. They are given a random weapon each - some deadly, others apparently useless - and fitted with an explosive collar which, if activated for any reason, means certain death. There are rules to observe, regarding time passing with no kills, and parts of the island that become no-go areas as the three-day deathmatch progresses, but the tl;dr of the matter is stay alive and win, whatever the costs involved.

Watch a trailer for 2000’s Battle Royale movie, below (Credit: Arrow Video)

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Battle Royale was a huge success in its native Japan, finishing 2021 as the third-highest-grossing movie in the country after Spirited Away and Pokémon 4Ever. Its overall estimated box office was over six times its budget of under five million US dollars. Critically, it attracted a wealth of positive reviews, despite its graphic violence and controversial subject matter, and earned comparisons to A Clockwork Orange and Lord of the Flies. But despite the movie’s significant impact on audiences, it didn’t do what so many movies of the era did, and spawn a video game tie-in. And it seemed so perfect for one, too.

With that in mind - and with the movie just celebrating its 21st anniversary in late 2021 - we asked some game developers of the here and now how they’d adapt Battle Royale for a video game. But there’s a twist here: they have to pitch a game of the year 2000, mindful of the hardware of the period, covering consoles and computers, and the multiplayer options that were available. So, Dreamcast-exclusive, optionally online survival-horror thrills, anyone? Let’s see what our creators have to say.

Steve Bristow worked on the multiplayer-focused action game Strange Brigade, pictured / Credit: Rebellion
Steve Bristow worked on the multiplayer-focused action game Strange Brigade, pictured / Credit: Rebellion
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Steve Bristow - design director at nDreams Studio Orbital, formerly assistant head of design at Rebellion (Battlezone, Strange Brigade, Sniper Elite VR)

It’s the year 2000 so we’re around Deus Ex, Metal Gear Solid, Shenmue. We’re in 3D, stealth mechanics are evolving fast, and we can handle a narrative cutscene or two. We’ve got a few years to go until Manhunt, so there’s a decision to make about how hard we want to lean into the blood and guts. The me of the year 2000 would say: very hard.

The game starts with a close up of the eyes of a dying schoolboy, craning slowly up to reveal a blood-bubbling mouth. Cut to a school bus full of excited kids; then the sleeping gas is released. Back to the kid, the camera lifts higher, revealing a killer standing over their body. Cut to the briefing room, and there’s Takeshi Kitano if you squint a bit. Back to the kid. Cut to the panicked scramble for weapons. Now you have control. You are the killer, standing over the body of a dead classmate.

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It’s a dark, third-person 3D stealth and stalking combat game. Mostly melee-based, with elaborate QTE-driven kill moves which are spliced with flashback scenes showing the character you’re controlling interacting with your victim at school or at play, or falling in love before the island.

If the character you are controlling is killed, you assume control of their killer and continue on as that new character. You will be the last one standing, then, but the question we’ll ponderously and insincerely explore in a laughable attempt to justify the obviously controversy-courting violence is: did any soul really survive that island?

A rumour will be leaked during development that it’s possible to complete the game without killing anyone, but that won’t be true because we ran out of time to QA it properly.

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Catherine Woolley worked on the exceptionally creepy and stealth-focused Alien: Isolation / Credit: SEGA
Catherine Woolley worked on the exceptionally creepy and stealth-focused Alien: Isolation / Credit: SEGA

Catherine Woolley, senior designer at Media Molecule (Dreams) and previously at Creative Assembly (Halo Wars 2, Alien: Isolation

When I was a teen, I was very much engulfed in Japanese culture. I consumed all the games, anime, manga and Japanese films I could, and dreamed of visiting there one day. Battle Royale - the movie, not the gaming genre you’re acquainted with - had come out and I remember us picking up a copy from Tartan’s Asia Extreme collection, which included some amazing films over the years!

Growing up with a lot of violent films, Battle Royale didn’t seem too bad for me when watching it, as it was just violence in a film. But it’s interesting to think of just what could have been made back then as a game based on the movie. If I think about the kind of game releases Japan had at the time, versus those in the UK and US, we were happily making film tie-ins for games and they’d sell like hotcakes, or at least enough to cover the development costs most of the time. But in Japan at least, games coming to our market didn’t seem as big on film-related releases, at least from what I remember.

Could there have been a Battle Royale game? I mean, I don’t see why not. The main type of game that springs to mind is if it were an action/survival horror with permadeath. There’s 42 students, and you’re assigned one of them at random. Of course, playing out the actions of the film specifically may not be that fun for this nature of game - but if you were put into the shoes of any student, and had any weapon from the film, that could be interesting - depending on artistic licence. And then, you do your best to survive, of course scavenging other weapons along the way or taking them off your victims. And if you die, you can jump into another student.

A still from Battle Royale (2000) / Credit: Toei Company
A still from Battle Royale (2000) / Credit: Toei Company

Permadeath could remove any repetition - once a student is dead, they’re gone, until all characters have been exhausted. Your goal, then, is to be the winner - but should you wish to go rogue and try to leave the play area, the game would allow you to die, keeping the same rules and harshness of the film. Plus with each of your own deaths, you bring down the number of students left; and certain key students would be non-player characters, ensuring you couldn’t just keep killing yourself to win. There’d also be a meta game which tracks your performance, showing how well you’ve done with each character and offering bonuses for the kills you’ve made while controlling them.

As Shenmue was released in 1999, it would be ambitious but interesting to try a day/night cycle for the game, mimicking the three-day deadline the students had in the movie to be the lone survivor. Adapting that living, breathing world of Shenmue to have other students finding and killing each other, instead of solely revolving around our player character, and requiring you to kill them all, would be amazing. You could have an option to sleep, should you feel you’ve found a suitably hidden place; or you could form a group with other NPCs and try to survive with them.

Talking of NPCs, Phantasy Star Online was released at the end of 2000, and with the help of the DreamKey players could come online and play together. If I had the option to utilise the potential of the Dreamcast servers, then perhaps an online version would be possible, allowing you to team up with a small handful of player-controlled students, let's say four. You would be given random weapons in the same manner as solo play, and try your best to work with each other to be the final survivors, or betray your teammates, or just casually wipe them out while they’re not looking. Unless you agree to no friendly fire, but where’s the fun in that? Making the game online would be an additional feature to change up the gameplay, as humans will always play differently to AI.

Throughout the days, the deaths and their order will be read in a similar manner to the film, giving you an insight as to whether or not that character you met and helped the day before is now dead. As long as this game reflects the tone of the film it’s on the right track, and I feel it could be interesting. If there had been a Battle Royale game, would it have left a mark on games today, and could the very popular genre of Fortnite et al have surfaced a lot sooner? Or would it have been banned in a similar way to the film in some countries? We’ll never know - but it’s fun to imagine how such a game could have shaken up both offline and online survival gameplay.

Alec Meer worked on the forthcoming Total War: Warhammer III / Credit: SEGA
Alec Meer worked on the forthcoming Total War: Warhammer III / Credit: SEGA

Alec Meer - writer and narrative designer currently at Returnal studio Housemarque, and previously on Total War: Warhammer III, Trek To Yomi and Humankind.

Two things spring to mind when thinking about the shooter landscape in the 1990s. 

The first is that licensed games, often made with excruciatingly short development times in order to meet the release date of the latest tentpole movies, were all the rage. People expected characters much more than they expected vast battlegrounds, so any Battle Royale game would need to serve that trend.

The second is that exactly which outlandish weapons a shooter had were still a talking point. These days we’ve seen pretty much every imaginable variant of killing-tool and games have to find other ways to hook their audience-to-be. But, back in the year of our lord the millennium bug, someone wielding a pot lid or a paper fan as a weapon would have been a thrilling inversion of the pistol-shotgun-machinegun norm, while the nunchucks, baseball bats and machetes would have tapped right into Grand Theft Auto III-era transgression. Battle Royale, the movie, presents at least a dozen different plausible gaming magazine cover stars, each with their iconic weapons. Catnip for noughties gaming folk. It’s absurd it didn’t happen.

But as to how it would have happened? Well, 32 simultaneous players wasn’t a pipedream back then - 1998’s original Half-Life managed it, for but one example. That’s enough for a right Royale rumble. But a more likely treatment for the time, I’d say, would be to have two to four players amongst a dozen-odd disposable, generically armed bots that are replenished every time one dies, thus creating the illusion of far-vaster numbers. 

Each of the players, meanwhile, chooses a specific Hero character with their specific weapon, Street Fighter-style. Deadly, silent Kiriyama and his fan; vengeful, tragic Shogo with his shotgun and his cigarette; innocent, introspective Noriko and her binoculars… Icons indeed, as opposed to the almost overwhelming parade of chaotically attired yet somehow identikit characters in today’s battle royales. You’d learn to fear specific characters, with specific reasons, for they can and will do terrible things to you. 

And, of course, only one can win.

Dave Cook worked on the 2021 puzzle-platformer Unbound: Worlds Apart / Credit: Alien Pixel Studios
Dave Cook worked on the 2021 puzzle-platformer Unbound: Worlds Apart / Credit: Alien Pixel Studios

Dave Cook - author of Go Straight and game writer on Unbound: Worlds Apart and Loot River

I think a year-2000 Battle Royale adaptation could have been one of those early netplay titles on Dreamcast. Sega AM2 director Toshihiro Nagoshi envisioned something similar in his 1998 arcade brawler SpikeOut: Digital Battle Online, which would have let up to 16 players brawl it out on city streets via linked cabinets. But it was a bit too ambitious. 

But with Dreamcast netplay I could see a Battle Royale adaption realising that dream. Sure, the net code could maybe only handle about 20 or so combatants, but the other kids could maybe be fleshed out by low-level NPCs. 

Like in the movie, you’d start out with a randomised weapon (including the crappy pan lid!) and you’d spawn into the island in third-person mode. Like in the movie, some zones would become hostile and trigger your explosive collars, so you’d have to keep moving.

There would need to be some kind of stealth, as a lot of the movie is people skulking around, trying to get the drop on their classmates. 

In a neat twist similar to the first Streets of Rage, the last two survivors must fight against Beat Takeshi’s evil school teacher in a final boss encounter, and then fight each other to determine who survives the game. 

And of course, if you had no modem connectivity, then a split-screen, four-player deathmatch version would have to suffice. I think this could have been a really fun game at the time.

Alex Kanaris-Sotiriou worked on the award-winning 2020 narrative adventure game Röki / Credit: United Label
Alex Kanaris-Sotiriou worked on the award-winning 2020 narrative adventure game Röki / Credit: United Label

Alex Kanaris-Sotiriou, creative director at Polygon Treehouse (Röki)

I watched the film again to reacquaint myself with its themes. Sure it's got the stuff that everyone remembers: students booby trapped with explosive collars, random starting weapons (anything from pot lids to automatic weapons), designated hourly danger zones to keep contestants moving around the map, and so on. However, what I had forgotten was how much the movie focuses on its cast of characters and their relationships with their other classmates. Relationships established with the tensions of high school but now thrown into the pressure cooker under the lightning bolt stimulus of the gladiatorial arena they’ve been unwillingly thrust into. 

At Polygon Treehouse we focus on non-violent, art-led narrative games, so spitballing what form our video game ‘take’ on the original movie might be is a difficult circle to square, as the concept itself is inherently pretty (very) violent.

Saying that, in the movie there is a clear divide. There are those students who embrace the grisly nature of the contest, seeking out weaker students to pick off whilst at the same time building their arsenal of weapons. But on the flip side many of the students refuse to take up arms, and instead look at ways to subvert and break the game and build alliances with like-minded classmates. 

So for our take I'd focus on these soft science kids and their attempts to carve out an existence and break the ‘Battle Royale’, rather than playing by its bloodthirsty rules. Think of a cosy Stardew Valley lifestyle sim colliding with a brains-over-brawn base building and defence game. Mix in narratives of high school drama and romance and it's starting to sound pretty tasty, so I’ll leave it there.

Featured Image Credit: Toei Company, Battle Royale Production Committee

Topics: Interview, TV And Film, Battle Royale

Mike Diver
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