Tony Black reviews the second episode of Black Mirror season 3…
Charlie Brooker has always been a big gamer, growing up in the 80’s with the advent of the home entertainment system, through to middle age as this year we enter the realm of PlayStation VR – the true first step after Kinect & Google Glass towards the gaming revelation of the early to mid 21st century – virtual reality. Black Mirror may prefer ‘augmented’ reality for its second episode, ‘Playtest’, which tackles head on what the future of intense, hardcore gaming may look like as a form of technology designed to push to its limit the most basic human response: fear. First person shooters and driving games are all well and good, but nothing gets under your skin like *that* zombie dog crashing through the window in Resident Evil or the face hugger leaping out of nowhere onto you in Alien vs. Predator. ‘Playtest’ takes all of these existing fear examples and heightens them to explore an interface technology which pushes hapless tourist Cooper to the limit.
For the first act, ‘Playtest’ oddly doesn’t always feel like a Black Mirror episode, much more laid back and modern day as Wyatt Russell’s lead leaves his soulless family home to embark on some globe-trotting inter-railing, assiduously avoiding calls from his mother while doing so, before he ends up in London on a casual date with Sonja (Hannah John-Kamen) and is signposted ultimately, when he runs out of money to get back to New York, to a cutting edge games company in the English countryside who are playtesting said interface which connects directly to the brain stem through an injection into the back of the neck, allowing a ‘layer’ to be placed on top of reality which allows the technology to adapt to whatever it needs to that will scare the living daylights out of Cooper. In what quickly becomes a cautionary tale, the chilled out, slightly white-privileged American is placed in a scenario where he doesn’t get what he bargained for, exposing his inner demons and allowing Brooker to push what a gamer using such technology may perceive as reality. It becomes a first person horror game by way of Inception for all intents and purposes.
The build up isn’t the strongest of Black Mirror, with Cooper not the most engaging of protagonists the show has given us, but once Brooker lands him inside a spooky old manor the games company used to design a popular horror game, and now use as the test site to gauge Cooper’s fear response, Brooker and guest director Dan Trachtenberg manage to retain a dark undercurrent of humour with one eye on the gaming satire element, while also indulging in exploring and ripping up classic haunted house movie horror tropes. Cooper sees bizarre amalgamations of his own internal fears, such as a giant spider cross-bred with the face of a high school bully, before everything gets especially trippy and the layers begin peeling back. What’s interesting is the core of Cooper’s psychology, only lightly touched on but central, which is his relationship with a mother potentially suffering from a debilitating disease who he’s escaping caring for by sauntering off around the world. By the time Cooper meets his ultimate fate, you’re left questioning just what kind of man he really was.
An episode saved to a degree by its fascinating concept and the narrative choices made in the second half, ‘Playtest’ is good TV but not quite the best Black Mirror can do. It’s evocative, the characters are interesting, the ideas it explores are fascinating in terms of the future evolution of gaming, and the writing and direction are once again impressive. It just lacks that power, emotion or touch of true brilliance which can mark out this show as top drawer television.