It didn’t come as a shock when Netflix agreed to produce the third season of Black Mirror, the celebrated British anthology series that’s helped to revitalize sci-fi television this decade. It also doesn’t come as a shock that Charlie Brooker’s Twilight Zone-esque third season about technological anxieties and possible futures, does not disappoint! For a series that taps into the collective unease about our modern technology, what makes Black Mirror most frightening, is how it offers a dark reflection of ourselves. “Playtest,” the second episode of the third season is Black Mirror’s terrifying glimpse at the future of gaming – more specifically, virtual reality and the dangers that possibly come with it. Like most episodes of Black Mirror, “Playtest” is cynical, searing, and often disturbing. Yet, despite the negative view of the future of gaming, there’s an underlying level of deep admiration and appreciation for the industry which should come as no surprise since Brooker himself, is a huge gamer.
“Playtest” begins with an extended first act in which we meet our protagonist Cooper (Wyatt Russell), an American traveling abroad in order to escape his problems back home. During a stop in London, he meets a beautiful woman named Sonja (Hannah John-Kamen) via a Tinder-like app, and the pair soon hit it off. After what was supposed to be a one-night stand, Cooper finds himself stranded in London and is forced to look for work so he can afford to buy a ticket back home. Sonia – herself a gamer – informs him of an opening at a well-known games company testing a new product. It’s good money and left with little choice, Cooper voluntarily submits himself as a test subject. So far, the first act is so unlike what we normally see in Black Mirror but it doesn’t take long before we are introduced to some creepy, pervasive new technology. The product just so happens to be a revolutionary virtual reality headset that inserts a small chip into the neck of the player and functions as the ultimate augmented reality device, with the ability to layer lifelike images and sounds into Cooper’s perception of the world without the need for wires or glasses. In other words, rather than placing you in the game’s world using a set of goggles, the futuristic looking VR contraption instead, brings elements of the game into your mind. Unfortunately, for Cooper, he never stopped to ask what type of games he would be testing. Cooper is placed in a survival horror game – where the device taps into his biggest fears and makes them a (virtual) reality. Not knowing what is real or what’s artificially generated, Cooper is able to feel pain both psychologically and physically. The goal is to see how long he can endure the horror before screaming his safe word and ending the experience.
“Playtest” is brimming with nods to several popular video games franchises, from Dark Souls to Portal, Bioshock and more. There’s even a clever nod halfway through the episode when Cooper blows on his malfunctioning debit card — a clear reference to a time when kids had to blow on their Nintendo cartridges in order to get them to work properly. It’s no doubt fun spotting all these Easter eggs but “Playtest” doesn’t need to pay homage to any video game to get its point across because it’s evident early on that Cooper’s life is constructed as a series of games. We watch him travel from one country to another (much like moving from one level to the next), working several jobs and overcoming various obstacles in order to make enough money to get by — a parallel not unlike the one between the difficulty and point system in video games. The theme is further echoed in the way he meets Sonja, swiping back and forth on a dating app, no different than any touchscreen handheld game we play on the go. It’s a nifty premise which hews close to something like David Cronenberg’s dark and delirious eXistenZ, and like eXistenZ, experienced gamers should find much to savor through the episode’s unique assessments on the nature of reality as well and our insistence to relinquish complete control over to technology.
Cooper doesn’t think twice about not having control when submitting himself over to test the game because, in Cooper’s mind, technology only betters our lives and video games are designed purely for entertainment. Unfortunately for him, he is wrong. After some successful early tests, Cooper is dispatched to a creepy old mansion where naturally, twists and turns abound. There, he faces off against a gargantuan spider, a classmate who bullied him in high school and then a bizarre amalgamation of the two, that calls to mind Chief Bitores Mendez from Resident Evil 4.
Horror fans should get a kick out of the third act. Director Dan Trachtenberg (who proved an expert in genre conventions with his spine-tingling 10 Cloverfield Lane) makes the most of his confined setting and outstanding cast while finding clever ways to turn the haunted mansion into a wonderful playground for Cooper’s nightmares. A good portion of the episode is a slow burn but once we get inside the dark, moody interior of the establishment, Trachtenberg alternates moods seamlessly, ratcheting tension to a breaking point and then deflating it with dark comedy. He also knows how to construct a perfectly timed jump scare, and when Cooper starts the video game, Trachtenberg delivers enough jolts to recommend this genuinely creepy and deeply disturbing roller coaster ride, despite one major problem…
On paper, “Playtest” is a horror romp that warns of the near-future tech dangers of virtual and augmented reality. It aims to disorient the player and, by proxy, the viewer. There are several fake awakenings, and, eventually, a revelation about Cooper’s deepest fear. Turns out, after losing his father to early onset dementia, Cooper is terrified that he and/or his mother will one day suffer the same fate. There’s an obvious thematic link between Cooper’s fears of dementia and the episode’s depiction of VR technology, but too many ideas get crammed into Brooker’s script, and this connection is never fully explored. It’s a shame really because, its protagonist, Cooper (played by Wyatt Russell, the son of Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell ), is an anomaly in the Black Mirror world: He’s likable and **spoiler** doesn’t deserve his fate. When he faces off against his dementia-stricken mother in the climatic showdown, you can’t help but feel sorry for the guy. Black Mirror is known for delivering a gut punch with its twisted endings, but I can’t help but feel they missed the boat on this one.