Black Mirrothon Part 9: ‘Playtest’
It would appear that the new production team are going to do just fine, at least if ‘Nosedive’ is anything to go by. The next episode also taps into one of Brooker’s favourite topics of discussion: video games.
Director: Dan Trachtenberg
Writer: Charlie Brooker
Cast: Wyatt Russell, Hannah John-Kamen, Wunmi Mosaku, Ken Yamamura, Elizabeth Moynihan
Premise: A young American backpacker has circled the globe and finds himself in London. Needing extra money for his return fare he takes a job testing an advanced gaming system. This cushy job becomes more sinister when the augmented reality forces him to confront his fears and insecurities.
Review: It’s well documented that Charlie Brooker is an avid video game fan and it’s inevitable that we’d be getting at least one Black Mirror episode examining the most popular form of entertainment in the world today. Whilst as well received as many other stories in the series I always felt that ‘Playtest’ was more an exercise in narrative writing than any real insight into video games. Maybe I’m missing something but the revelation that surgically implanted augmented reality systems might be a bad idea is all that shocking. The twists that we do get work as part of the story itself, making this feel more like a The Twilight Zone episode than a Black Mirror one.
We begin with Cooper Redfield (clever Resident Evil reference there, tying in to the later setting) (Russell) has been living a carefree life travelling the world and having great experiences. After a rapid fire montage establishing this with a focus on Cooper ignoring calls from his mother we join Cooper chatting with a girl – Sonja (John-Kamen) in a bar. I don’t like Cooper, and I suspect that we are supposed to low-key dislike him. He’s braggy and his sense of humour is obnoxious. We later learn that he’s dodging his mother’s calls because he’s unable to confront his father’s death. This could be a sympathetic character trait if he wasn’t leaving his mother out in the cold.
Anyway, Cooper has his credit card information stolen and takes a job testing a new video game in order to earn the money to return to the USA. This game, from possible Hideo Kojima stand-in Shou (Yamamura), involves inplanting a piece of tech into Cooper neck, allowing him to partake in augmented reality. After an introduction to the game with Kate (Mosaku) Cooper is shown to a creepy old mansion where he begins to see scary images including giant spiders and his high school bullies. Initially his dismisses these illusions and even jokes about them but they become more realistic and dangerous, slowly wearing him down. This culminates with Sonja appearing to attack him, losing contact with the people controlling the game and amnesia.
This ties into Cooper’s difficulty in coping with his father’s struggle with Alzheimer’s and the fear that he too will lose his sense of identity. Just as it looks like Cooper has been subjected to his ultimate nightmare he wakes up in Shou’s office having imagined the entire scenario within the space of 1 second. But that’s not all – Cooper waking up, travelling home and reuniting with his mother, who has seemingly lost her mind was also simulated and the reality is that he never left the initial testing room and died within four seconds of the ‘game’ beginning. Cooper was unwittingly hoisted on his own petard, having turned his phone on to take photos of the technology for Sonja and his mother’s attempt to reach him which scrambled the hardware and his brain.
This episode is packed with fine details ranging from images of spiders through the first act through to many, many subtle nods to classic video game moments. Anyone familiar with gaming culture will no doubt pick up on moments like Cooper being asked if he would “kindly” head through a door. These references are done well, not distracting from the story if they don’t mean anything to you.
That Moment When You Feel Your Stomach Drop: The moment when you realise that Cooper’s phone was his own downfall.
Links to Other Episodes: I guess they were pretty impressed with Hannah John-Kamen as this is her first role in Black Mirror. In addition to playing Sonja in ‘Playtest’ she played Selma in ‘Fifteen Million Merits’. There’s an even easier spot later in the episode when Cooper is photographing the technology you can see the symbol from ‘White Bear’ on the top.
Ranking Black Mirror: Whilst this story certainly tickled video game fans and the double-bluff finale was well handled, but this felt much more like a generic The Twilight Zone episode rather than anything else.
- ‘Fifteen Million Merits’
- ‘White Christmas’
- ‘Be Right Back’
- ‘White Bear’
- ‘The National Anthem’
- ‘The Waldo Moment’
- ‘The Entire History of You’