'Listen, do you know anything about PUBG?' inquired my childhood friend and director, Ibrahim Baloch, who is based in Karachi, Pakistan, in late September 2020 over a phone call.
Without giving it much thought, I retorted, 'You mean the game that got banned in Pakistan?'
I had heard in passing about the battle royale mobile video game PUBG Mobile, a massively popular game published by Chinese tech giant Tencent Games, when I used to live in Pakistan and recently became aware about it when it got banned by the infamous Pakistani digital watchdog Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) on grounds of being 'addictive' and a negative influence to its young users. The ban has been suspended after much hue and cry.
'Well, start playing the game because PUBG wants us to make their first ever Pakistani web series,' instructed Ibrahim.
Ibrahim's words propelled me into a four-month-long project as the lead writer for PUBG Mobile Pakistan's first ever web series 'Gully Squads' that spawned three episodic short films and garnered millions of views.
After trying our hand with the game like two gullible noobs, Ibrahim and I attended meetings with the PUBG South Asian team over Zoom calls in separate time zones. The PUBG team's vision was clear: they wanted the Pakistani consumers to know that the global PUBG brand recognises the massive Pakistani fanbase and wants to strategically deliver content that will increase consumer participation, just like how they did with their successful Indian counterpart. This time around though, the socio-political climate was quite different when it came to adapting it for the Pakistani market: the PTA transgression had left an indelible scar on the PUBG team, which greatly influenced our creative decisions.
The PUBG team was upfront in making sure that none of our live-action sequences would have any guns or weapons, that all our storylines would revolve around the positive themes of friendship and bridging communities and that we would stick close to the sensibilities of our main target audience – Pakistani males above the age of 18. What this meant was that we couldn't show any slick live-action gun fight sequences that are part of the international PUBG branding, we couldn't show any critical storylines of the current regime's banning of the game and that our stories needed to revolve around 20-something male Pakistani characters, thereby closing the window on female-centric storylines.
Our entire creative process was designed to circumvent the restrictions imposed by the moral policing Bolsheviks at the helm of affairs in Islamabad, not to mention the minor disruptions that arose during the process such as the fatwa issued against the game in Karachi. Yet, Ibrahim and I raced against time to write emotionally resonant stories for those young Pakistani players passionately connected with the game.
With our three scripts locked in November, Ibrahim and his production team set out to shoot the entire series in and around Lahore. With 2000 new COVID-19 cases popping up every day in Pakistan in November 2020, the pandemic certainly made the shooting process an exhausting one. However, Ibrahim and his team managed to create COVID-safe sets and got access to some of the best locations in Lahore, including the historic Walled City. We went through a painstaking post-production process in Karachi and a constant back and forth with the PUBG team drove us to release our first episode in December 2020.
'TPP ka Khel' (Third-Person-Perspective's game) is a story of three street-smart Karachi friends – one sells underwear, one sells travel packages and the other is a Bollywood-crazed delivery boy – who forget about their best friend's birthday and manage to throw a PUBG-themed surprise birthday party at the eleventh hour. Laced with Karachi street lingo and a frenetic-comedic pace, the PUBG team championed this story to be the first episode for the series because the episode was in a safe zone – the friendship theme wouldn't ruffle the feathers of the movers and shakers in Islamabad.
With our second episode 'Sunny in Sanhok', we were able to tell an original Pakistani story which followed a young bakery owner trying to gain respect from his loud-mouthed PUBG-playing workers. The episode allowed us to stretch the PUBG universe by bringing a dynamic story of class conflict in a salt-of-the-earth narrative. The episode stuck close to the squad gaming aspect of the PUBG brand and a 'unity' theme that would acutely bypass the national conformity project.
In the final episode 'Nawab-e-Erangle' (Erangle's Prince), we were in the PUBG Pakistan stronghold – the rural Punjab – through the story of Roshu, who comes back to his village after winning the PUBG Mobile Global Championship overseas but faces strict opposition from his conservative father. Pakistani e-sport players are bringing laurels back to their country and a story like this will help clear misconceptions in the minds of traditional Pakistani parents, allowing their children to dedicate their energies towards a rising gaming industry. The sentiments expressed in this episode are also indicative of where the Pakistani Government seems to be heading towards with respect to all matters e-sports.
The series has received an overwhelmingly positive response on YouTube from Pakistan and abroad, which shows how much the fans were hungry for stories that reflected their realities. While this success is proof of big tech investing in Pakistan's digital economy, the threat of a disruption from the watchdogs is far from over. Ruptures and erasures are part of Pakistan's political legacy since its chaotic independence, but it is incumbent upon us storytellers to rebel and persevere against and despite the state's draconian laws and fatalistic social engineering.