Black Mirror: Playtest

*Contains Spoilers*

Virtual reality seems to be the ‘in’ thing right now. An entirely virtual exhibition was staged at Somerset House and the latest ride at Alton Towers also employs the software. I don’t like it though. I think it feels clunky, gimmicky and entirely unnecessary. The headsets I’ve tried on in the name of futurism feel anything but futuristic: they are heavy and uncomfortable – nothing like the VR used in the second episode of Black Mirror’s newest season. I’d like to think that Charlie Brooker feels the same way as I do about VR, why else would he have written Playtest?

Wyatt Russell plays Cooper, a new age American who ups and leaves home when it all gets a bit much. Through the trusty old medium of montage, we see him traverse the globe in an effort to escape his taxing family life. Arriving in London, he meets Sonja (Hannah John-Kamen) with whom he shares an extended fling and some marmite on toast (a classic). Sonja agrees to house Cooper when his funds run dry, so he insists on finding ‘odd jobs’ to pay his way. The first listing he finds involves trials of a new video game from a well-known gaming company called SaitoGemu. He decides to go along – what’s the worst that could happen (he clearly isn’t aware he’s in an episode of Black Mirror)? In the ultramodern google-esque offices, Cooper meets Katie (Wunmi Mosaku) and her boss Shou (Ken Yamamura) who encourage him to don a high-tech headset and play their game. He materialises in a virtual world and, naturally, chaos ensues.

Essentially, the episode is a spoof on the haunted house genre, only it’s much more intelligent. There are plenty of jump scares, constant tension building and occasional gore, but the real horror is in the subconscious details. The game that Cooper has been transported into is a horror game designed to evoke the player’s deepest fears. We’re talking weird Freudian stuff here. Cooper’s surface fears, for example, include spiders and his high school bully; but with a little digging and the use of the psychodynamic approach, his unusual relationship with his mother comes to the fore. It’s all very clever.

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Russell nails it in Playtest. I was surprised to have never seen him in anything else before, but I expect he will be appearing in much more now. He embodies the white male American archetype – loud, annoying, strangely lovable. When he’s funny, he’s hilarious and when he’s scared, we’re genuinely terrified. John-Kamen is similarly impressive; as viewers, we’re unsure of her trustworthiness but depend on her loyalty for Cooper’s sake. Mosaku and Yamamura are as clinically unsympathetic and cruel as the episode demands – they are as scary as they are believable.

I think the message here is a clear one: live in the real world. What is the point of virtual reality when we have a genuine reality that actually exists? When Cooper ultimately succumbs to the intense psychological trauma he is subjected to, the cause of his death is listed as “phone interference”. When we later find out that he’d only been in the game for 0.04 seconds, we can only infer that to be an allusion to the transience of life. Playtest isn’t dissimilar to its preceding episode, Nosedive. They both urge us escape the mundanity of our digital obsessions, exclaim “Carpe Diem!”, and go and live off grid somewhere. After all, the world according to Brooker isn’t over. Yet.

The entire third season of Black Mirror is available to stream on Netflix now.