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Netflix’s Black Mirror
Season 3, Episode 2: “Playtest”
Directed by Dan Trachtenberg
Written by Charlie Brooker
* For a review of Episode 1, “Nosedive” – click here
* For a review of Episode 3, “Shut Up and Dance” – click here
American traveller Cooper (Wyatt Russell) is off on a solo adventure. He’s sneaked away under cover of the dark, early morning. He takes a plane, arriving in Australia, then Bangkok, Spain, Rome, and all sorts of other destinations. By the seat of his pants Cooper takes on the world, one place at a time. One night he meets Sonja (Hannah John-Kamen) through an online app, they have drinks at a pub and chat about his travels. She wonders if he’s “finding himself” or what the purpose of his trip may be in the end. Of course they wind up spending the night together, it being the tail end of his journey and all. Memories, yay! Aside from that we figure out Cooper took care of his dad at home with his mother – early onset Alzheimer’s – and so now, after his death, the son has gone on a trip for himself. He worries that something like that could happen to him, so seriously: memories!
But travelling, it takes money, right? All of a sudden Cooper finds his credit is lacking after somebody might’ve stolen his card. Things are not looking good. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, poor Cooper.
Well, using an Odd Jobs app he comes across a Playtest job with a huge gaming company. They make horror games and wild things; Sonja clues Cooper in on things, being in the games industry and all. The company is owned by Shou Saito (Ken Yamamura), a visionary developer. She also suggests getting a picture of Saito’s super secretive operations at the company would be worth a ton more than whatever he’ll make at the job. Hmm.
So Cooper is brought out to the massive complex where the games are developed, the lair of Saito and his latest developments. A few good jokes (the “end of level boss” and “Gryffindor” jokes made me laugh out loud). He gets into the contract signing portion of it all. A woman named Katie (Wunmi Mosaku) walks him through everything, including that there’s a medical procedure involved. All has to do with a virtual reality-type experience. Katie implants what’s called a “mushroom” into the back of his neck, protruding from the skin a little. Afterwards, they do a small test, and then he’s initiated into the virtual world which the new game – or experience – is to explore. From 8-bit, the character in front of Cooper changes to become more realistic with every upgrade, only visible to him. As Katie puts it, the experience is more like “layers on top” of reality instead of virtual reality. A totally immersive experience. We get to watch Cooper do real life whack a mole – to Katie it only looks like he’s smacking the table. Love it. Either way, Cooper’s sold on the entire job.
With all that done, Cooper is brought to meet the man himself, Shou Saito. They speak about the experience of gaming, how it makes us feel, the adrenaline involved. “You have faced your greatest fears in a safe environment,” Saito explains, going on to tell Cooper about a survival horror game which uses a gamer’s fears in order to scare the players respectively. An amplified version of what we’re already seeing today in horror games.
Only when Cooper gets hooked up to the game, it isn’t such a “fun” thing as he so wonderfully described the whack a mole. He’s brought to an eerie old house where the game commences, and will continue until he is too scared to go any further. Nothing can hurt the gamer. But what about when the fear is too much? Cooper wanders and his first encounter comes when he picks up a book with Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven in it – a huge spider crawls out from beneath the rug nearby. Only a relatively minor apparition, but an apparition nonetheless. The game probably has to slowly ingratiate the user so that the brain doesn’t explode with pure fright right away. Gradually the frightening things start to pile up. The painting on the wall changes, bit by bit. Licks flicker, sounds of footsteps beating around upstairs. When a 19th-century man shows up right behind Cooper, creeping him out, it shows the game is using his prior experiences and fears to scare him – the man looks like an old high school bully. So, for a moment he’s troubled. He goes on about his night after a few laughs, although he is shaken. Very clear.
A little more poking around sees Cooper terrified by an eerie, giant, human-like spider. Again, his subconscious drudging up bits of his previous experiences as a boy to be used by the game. Things start to get quite unsettling when he can’t reach Katie on the earpiece anymore. Is it the game? Yes, I’d bet on that. Plus, someone keeps banging on the door. It’s Sonja: “You‘re in danger,” she tells him. Has the game manifested her? Or is she actually there? Cooper realises she is actually in the room with him. She talks about a “computer–brain interface” that Saito has been working on for a year. Cooper doesn’t believe it, insisting she’s still a part of the whole game even being real. But Sonja goes on about missing people, all who used the Odd Jobs app to apply for the job. She then attacks him with a knife, as the spider-bully shows up once more, as well. Cooper tries to fight Sonja off, she goes mad on him. One of the single most horrific sequences of Black Mirror ensues when Sonja’s face peels off like rubber, revealing a bloody skull beneath. Cooper survives this round, creatively impaling the skull on the knife through his shoulder.
And of course it’s all fake, a figment of the game and his tortured imagination. Yet it leaves Cooper shaken worse than before. He felt the knife, he felt it all. He freaks out, wanting to tear the mushroom from the back of his neck. Although Katie tries to rally him to the access point, so she and Saito can take him out of the game.
Cooper worries about what’s behind the next door upstairs. Just beyond lies the access point. However, he’s scared that the game knows about things with mother. What things, exactly? Inside, the room is empty. And now Katie says “there is no access point.” It’s all a ruse to get the player to obey directions without question. Oh. Fucking. Shit. This is now very scary. Katie’s not so nice anymore, as well as the fact Cooper’s memories are disappearing. The game is pulling them away, replacing them. Putting him into his ultimate nightmare, ending up like his father with his memories gone and nothing left. This sends him over the edge.
Katie actually shows up now with a team of men, trying to help. But the process can’t be stopped. “I don‘t know who I am,” Cooper mutters at them. He’s stuck with the game worming its way into his brain, past his memories, leaving him a broken shell. He gets an apology from Saito, if that’s worth anything. “Put him with the others, please,” says Saito before the men drag him away.
He quickly is brought out of the game. He was in there for such a minuscule amount of time. Is his brain susceptible to an extreme length? Or is the software much too strong? Ah, the true ethics of gaming, as we step into unexplored territory and wildly uncharted waters, mixing human beings with technology in an unprecedented and likely dangerous manner.
Once Cooper goes home he sees his mother (Elizabeth Moynihan) again, in distress. She can’t remember her son, though, even as he stands right in front of her. Cut back to Cooper in that white room, first testing out the equipment with Katie. He convulses. His mother calls – like she tried to do when Cooper walked in at home. Everything loops around in a mindfuck of a sequence. Katie and Saito figure that the signal from the cell interfered with things. Still, Cooper lies motionless on the floor, a corpse, and in 4 small seconds another volunteer for the new Saito game is gone. Just like that.
What an excellent exploration of the gaming industry in a near future sci-fi sense. Wonderful writing from Charlie Brooker, as usual. He is a treasure. Love the macabre way he puts his lens over certain subjects. We’re not really that far off from the point of this game in “Playtest” when there’s already a game coming out – or maybe it’s already out, I only remember reading an article about it recently – which has the antagonist A.I. trying to thwart players by learning from how you actually play the game. These are the best sci-fi stories, in any medium: the prescient, relevant, and close to home tales. Brooker’s Black Mirror is like a Twilight Zone for the technology obsessed 21st-century. So perfectly eerie and moving in one fell swoop.