Formats Unpacked: Battle Royale
How a book format became a film, and a game, and a smash Netflix series, and more...
And hello to all the new followers that subscribed this week. We got a big bump in subscriptions after the wonderful Jason Kottke wrote about Formats Unpacked on his hugely popular, and very brilliant, blog. Thanks so much Jason.
Doing the unpacking this week is Darren Garrett. Darren is a Bafta award winning creative director of games, animation and all kinds of smart digital things. He’s been with Storythings since the very early years making all the things we make look goddam gorgeous.
Over to Darren…
What's it called?
What’s the format?
A large group of school kids take part in a game where through various rounds or changing rules they’re gradually eliminated until only one remains and is declared the ‘winner’. In most interpretations, elimination is quite final for the players, which sounds rather grim doesn’t it? Still, it’s a ludicrously popular format that jumps from book to film to television and video games. Oh, and wrestling. We just can’t get enough of it.
What’s the magic that makes it special?
It’s hard to nail down the exact reason that makes this format so enduring. A cast of hundreds swiftly and brutally whittled down to a few select characters? Watching that nuplayer counter reduce? Will it be the one you’re rooting for that comes out on top? What will they do to make it there? The moral quandary and the thought that niggles your brain, what would I do? Would I sell out my allies to stay alive? Break the game and stick it to the man? Make that noble last-minute sacrifice to make a point about late-stage capitalism? Like a terrifying version of It’s a Knockout, a good Battle Royale format contains the best competitive elements of a game show with a whopping amount of social commentary on top.
Battle Royale’s origins can be traced back to the novel of the same name written by Japanese author Koushun Takami. Published in 1999 it was swiftly adapted into manga and film. It was a breakout hit in Japan and has gathered a worldwide cult following. The story centres on a school class who on a day trip are gassed and transported to a remote island. There they are told that they have three days to fight to the death — the victor will be the last person standing. The rules of the game mean the playable area decreases as areas become hot zones that are instant death for those left in them.
I distinctly remember the first time I saw it. I was at a friend's flat for a light-hearted evening of food and film. We went with Battle Royale and I think we both agree that we picked the wrong film to meet the criteria of light-hearted.
The format became massively popularised to a western audience through the Hunger Games books and films. Teen ‘tributes’ are selected to battle in a booby-trapped arena with the survivor declared champion.
It’s also a format that you can experience with millions of players every month through some of the world’s most popular video games, including Fortnite. Players are dropped onto an island or area. The playable zone decreases over time as the player numbers reduce till eventually one player is left standing. A less violent variation on the format is Fall Guys — 100’s of tiny player-controlled minions idiotically dash across a candy-coloured assault course for a finish line with participants whittled away over a series of rounds.
The latest spin on the format is in Netflix’s most popular series to date, The Squid Game. We follow the main character as he is taken to a remote island with 456 other players, their numbers reduced over a series of simple games with losers eliminated until one person is left.
Certain tropes come hand in hand with the format. Changing and broken allegiances. Betrayal. Twists. Horrible and/or tragic moral choices. A lot of violence. The format’s endurance is down to its structure and how the setup allows for the exploration of different themes — human nature, generational divides, divides between rich and poor, the unfairness of the capitalist system, multiple dystopian nightmares.
I’ve watched Battle Royale maybe twice and have an unopened copy of the DVD that has sat under the TV for ten years. I think you have to be in the right mood to watch it and I obviously haven’t found what that mood is for a while.
I never really got into Fortnite. Being shot by 99 seven to 14-year-olds does nothing for your self-esteem (tactic — hide, hide, hide, make it till the last 30, break cover, get shot). Fall Guys, with its blend of chaos, cuteness and random chance, was much more up my street.
So I’m going to go with its latest incarnation, The Squid Game. I find it hard to nail why it’s so popular. The grotesque spectacle of the games themselves? The themes of injustice and the divide between rich and poor? Great set design and some iconic outfits?
I won’t spoil it for you but needless to say (slight spoiler) it follows the format — there can only be one winner.
The Colosseum (games, various Roman Emperors), Bulldog or Dodgeball, Punishment Park (Film, Peter Watkins, 1971), The Long Walk (Novel, Richard Bachman, 1979), The Thunderdome (Mad Max. Battle Royale on a budget — two men enter, one man leaves), Takeshi’s Castle, Total Wipeout, Highlander (“There can be only one”), The Running Man, Fifteen to One.
When I mentioned that I wasn’t aware of Battle Royale on the Storythings Slack today there was a lot of shocked emoji face going on. It seems that when it comes to grotesque, brutal, and completely shocking formats that are a cross between Clockwork Orange and Lord of the Flies, I have a lot of catching up to do.
We’re always looking for guest writers so if you have a favourite format you’d like to unpack do get in touch. It doesn’t have to be TV/podcasts format. We’ve previously unpacked joke formats, graph formats, Twitter formats and more. Niche as hell is good.
OK, thanks for reading. Have a great read. See you all next week.