The lines of reality are blurred with survival horror in the enjoyable but somewhat shallow “Playtest”
THERE WILL BE SPOILERS
“Playtest” marks quite a turn from the season opener. It once again widens the scope you’d normally expect from Black Mirror but does end up back on familiar ground in Britain, which is likely to please some viewers. Wyatt Russell plays Cooper, an American travelling around the world who ends up running out of cash in England. He discovers a high paying job for testing an upcoming video game through an app and sets off to resolve his financial woes.
As I mentioned, this is a pretty stark change in tone and pacing from the previous episode “Nosedive”. “Playtest” opts for a more a frantic thrill ride and the decision to attach direct Dan Trachtenberg to this particular chapter of the season makes perfect sense. Once things really start going sideways, I was reminded of the claustrophobic tension in Trachtenberg’s 10 Cloverfield Lane, a similar although more horror-laden sense of boxed in panic at play here.
With augmented and virtual reality becoming increasingly more advanced and prevalent in video games, it might be too obvious to state that this hour of television is a warning of the potential pitfalls of games feeling too real in the future but the point stands. Even the most devout gamer (of which writer and showrunner Charlie Brooker is one, having written professionally about them and spoken of his love for them in the past) has to admit that the likes of virtual reality will simply provide an experience too intense for many to want engage with, particularly when it comes to horror games. I can tell you as someone who owns a VR headset and already finds many horror games too unnerving to play, the addition of another layer of immersion in this type of experience is just too much for me. It’s only a matter of time until VR claims its first jump scare induced heart attack victim.
This isn’t a condemnation of the medium though. While the the actual game aspect of the episode is very much a highly exaggerated interpretation of current tech, the way in which Brooker grounds it in the context of the real world is perfect. His team made fake cover stories for Edge magazine, a real life and highly respected games critic outlet, and conjured up their own Japanese auteur, a mixture of Hideo Kojima and Shinji Mikami. I can just imagine Kojima reacting with joy when he learns that he essentially made it into an episode of Black Mirror. There’s even a cheeky nod to BioShock at one point, Cooper’s handler dropping the famous “would you kindly” line in an urge to push him on. These are organically woven references that I really appreciate as someone with a deep reverence for the culture of gaming.
While it’s all executed with the technical excellent the series is renowned for and the subject matter is tailor made for me, I couldn’t help but feel a little empty by the end. Perhaps it was the case of one two many false finishes, which felt a tad overly manipulative and thrown in just to shock as opposed to having been properly earned and justified. Ultimately though, “Playtest” lacks the thematic depths Black Mirror‘s best episodes have. Which isn’t to say there that isn’t anything of substance to delve into here. The trivialisation of human life and turning it into something as disposable an extra life and the blurring of the real and fake in virtual worlds are intriguing premises to be sure but to me, this episode is more a telling of one individual’s tale of horror as opposed to a thematic dissection on the topics. And broadly speaking, these types of ideas about gamifying life is something that “Nosedive” tackled much better (living through a constantly fluctuating high score) and placing this episode right after it doesn’t do it any favours.
Still, while this isn’t Black Mirror‘s finest hour, it’s far from bad television. It’s an entertaining and eventually horrific thrill ride, that’s well crafted and showcases the opportunity for real variety that an anthology format allows.