Warning: This review contains mild spoilers. Read on at your own risk.
I’ve been waiting for this episode ever since the first season of Black Mirror was announced. I mean, how could an anthology TV series about the dangers of technology, written by Charlie Brooker, acclaimed writer, journalist and presenter whose career started out at a PC gaming magazine, NOT have an episode about video games? The answer is virtually impossible, which is apt considering this episode looks into the horrific potential of virtual reality gaming, certainly the hottest topic on the technology scene right now.
The story starts out by introducing us to Cooper, a young adult American who runs away from home in order to experience a fun-packed, thrill-seeking, around-the-world adventure. Black Mirror sets itself the tough challenge of having to quickly establish new characters each and every episode but the opening sequence here effortlessly shows Cooper living life in the fast lane. From the frantic photo montage interspersed with brief but notable moments, such as encouraging a child into pretending the aeroplane is a rollercoaster, I was quickly endeared to the character of Cooper. We also see him continually ignore phone calls from his mom; who understandably would be worried by his sudden departure from home, hinting at a hidden backstory to the character of Cooper.
“COOPER MANAGES TO SCORE A DATE WITH SONJA; THANKS TO THE INCREDIBLY POPULAR VIDEO GAME KNOWN AS TINDER”
On the last leg of his world tour, Cooper manages to score a date with Sonja; thanks to the incredibly popular video game known as Tinder. I cracked a stupidly wide smile when we found out Sonja was a serious girl gamer, as we see her impressive collection of critically acclaimed titles on the apartment shelves (after all, any girl who loves Portal 2 has an instant place in my heart). They’re an overwhelmingly underrepresented demographic within media and the games industry, and writer Charlie Brooker is clearly aware of this, doing his own little bit to address the balance. But neither has he shoehorned her in for kudos, as she is not only credibly written by Brooker but also acts as a handy segueway into the story’s main topic of video games. Her caring nature also irks out the news that Cooper recently has lost his father who had Alzheimer’s and is unable to communicate with his mother, showing that the thrill-seeking trip is a way of escaping from his current situation.
“things get much worse, gradually escalating the scenario to a sudden and shocking, yet powerful, ending”
An unfortunate turn of events sees Cooper’s card run out of cash due to someone using his details for unknown purchases; perhaps a subtle reminder of our reliance on technology today. Thus, Sonja helps Cooper find a casual job as a playtester for the esteemed fictional games developer, SaitoGemu, in order to make some quick money. It all appears as a fortunate coincidence, with Sonja’s gaming knowledge and Cooper’s thrill-seeking lifestyle fitting the bill perfectly, but we all know Black Mirror doesn’t have a reputation for happy endings.
As Cooper continues to ignore the phone calls whilst he travels to, and then tours, the developer’s rural base, there’s an inherent irony of him avoiding his fear of talking to his mom by playtesting a brand new virtual-reality horror game. With the paperwork all signed and a small chip inserted into the back of his head, Cooper is placed inside a haunted house and challenged to survive for as long as he can. The only scary thing he initially encounters is alcohol-free wine, but the chip soon burrows into his subconscious fears. It starts rather tamely with a giant spider, then a school bully appearing, and then a giant spider covered in dicks. But things get much worse, gradually escalating the scenario to a sudden and shocking, yet powerful, ending.
“this episode is, if you’ll pardon the clichÉ, a love-letter to video games”
Whilst the average viewer may see a by-the-numbers horror story here, any ardent gaming fanatic will notice this episode is, if you’ll pardon the cliché, a love-letter to video games. Brooker perverts expectations by pointing out standard horror gaming tropes in a tongue-in-cheek fashion before quickly subverting them. There are numerous gaming Easter eggs in the background to spot and the dialogue is also littered with references to classic features of video games (mushrooms, levels, final bosses) and infamous lines of dialogue (The “if you kindly” line will give any BioShock fan goosebumps). Even the company CEO is an, albeit fictional, titanic Japanese game designer, evoking the status of industry figures like Shigeru Miyamoto, the man behind Super Mario Bros. at Nintendo.
Meanwhile, Dan Trachtenburg, who made his directorial debut with feature film 10 Cloverfield Lane and who’s gaming credentials include the live action short film Portal: No Escape, captures the haunted house mood so effectively you’d think you were in the iconic mansion from Resident Evil itself. It stands in stark contrast to the opening half-hour, which is brighter, goofier and considerably more light-hearted, making the gradual psychological breakdown of Cooper all the more terrifying.
“it has its own style, plays to its own strengths and knows its own subject matter”
Playtest is undoubtedly not as grim or as serious as the majority of Black Mirror episodes, but that doesn’t make it any weaker than them in comparison. It has its own style, plays to its own strengths and knows its own subject matter in unashamedly incredible depth. Like any great video game, it’s highly entertaining and keeps you fixed to the screen throughout. Its message may be simple on the surface, but the story’s final scene serves as a truly damning delivery of it.
Video games are about escapism, entering another world so we can momentarily forget about our everyday lives. Some of us play horror games because we like being frightened, to jump out of our skin before laughing at how silly we just felt. But Brooker highlights how this isn’t real horror, because whilst giant spiders covered in dicks may freak you out to hell and back, they aren’t quite as tangible as the prospect of losing a parent to Alzheimer’s, to live with your dearest friend long after they’ve forgotten who you are. Real horror is experienced in our daily lives, where we find the things we truly don’t want to face. Nobody wants to play a video game that emulates these fears. Playtest tells you that you cannot run away from your fears. You can’t pause life like you can pause a video game. So stop running away and face them, before it’s too late.
And don’t forget to call your mother.