Black Mirror: 302 “Playtest” Review
Reviewed by Ryan Monty.
(This review continues spoilers. Read on if that doesn’t bother you!)
Video games are taking new, exciting strides forward every day. No matter what your platform or games of choice, we’re a long way from the 8-bit era now. Even still, it’s probably best to hope and pray that video games never reach the nightmarish level that we see in Playtest. In an era where virtual reality gaming is at technology’s forefront, from the Oculus Rift to the recently launched PlayStation VR, Playtest presents us a world where virtual reality gaming can dig into our minds to create the ultimate gaming experience.
Our protagonist for this episode is Cooper (played by Wyatt Russell), an American tourist who has gone on a bit of a world tour, rocking up in London where he meets Sonja (played by Black Mirror alumni Hannah John-Kamen), and the two end up getting together. When Cooper’s bank cards are cloned, he searches for ways to make cash on a quick jobs app on his phone, when Sonja points out an opportunity to playtest a new immersive gaming experience from a renowned games company, offering a healthy fee. After heading to the company and being fitted with the “Mushroom”, he is taken to a just ever-so slightly terrifying 19th century mansion, where his greatest nightmares begin to come true.
Playtest is an episode with an almost unbearable build-up. The first portion of the episode is completely off-cue with what you’d expect from typical Black Mirror, as we meet Cooper and see just who he is and begin to learn why he is going travelling. As we learn more about him and grow to like him, the icy feeling prodding your neck is always there reminding you that this is indeed Black Mirror and situations never stay calm for long. Once in the mansion, Cooper’s fears begin to come to life slowly but surely, in fully immersive horrifying hologrammatic form. Director Dan Trachtenberg (who directed this year’s excellent 10 Cloverfield Lane) uses the set to its fullest potential, creating a bone-chilling haunted house feel of dark rooms and nastiness around every corner.
It’s the painfully slow escalation that gives Playtest its true horror stripes, as the confident, outgoing Cooper, acting as a surrogate for the audience, often riffing on horror tropes and pointing out expected clichés, gradually succumbs to complete fear, with his terror actualised almost as fully as the painful screams of Lenora Critchlow’s character in series 2’s White Bear. His fears begin with a simple spider, not before long evolving into a horrific mutated spider creature with the face of his school bully (surely no coincidence that Kurt Russell’s son fights a mutated monster?). The contrast between the creaky old mansion, recreated from the game company’s famous horror game, and the hologram virtual reality content being actualised is stark, and gives the episode a fresh feel of terror while still playing to genre tropes in a satisfying way. Not only is Playtest an effective Black Mirror episode, it’s a highly effective horror piece.
The world constructed in this episode is done to a high level of craft, with Trachtenberg’s direction and the maze-like script by Charlie Brooker successfully managing to induce you fully into just what Cooper is experiencing, as you suffer the horrors of the mansion yourself. Teases and hidden details are abound throughout the entirety of this episode, handing out subtle hints and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it flashes that demand your attention be focused fully to second guess where the story may be heading.
Cooper as a character is a man with a fronted personality, running from a reality of pain over the death of his father, his true fear being the possibility of having to face up to that morbid fact, instead content to live in ignorance, refusing to even answer a call from his mother and instead travel as far away as possible from the problem, a reality and fear I’m sure many have agonised over before. It’s this sensitive, deeply scared under layer of the character of Cooper that, when the final gut punches arrive at the episode’s climax, allow you to feel all the pain. It was never spiders, or his school bully, that terrified Cooper to his very core – it was the possibility of his mother and himself succumbing to Alzheimer’s like his father did, and the inevitability that he must face up to what happened to his father. In the end, it was simply the fact that he didn’t call his mother that killed him, a cruel, dark joke. If he’d picked up the phone and confronted his problem, faced his greatest fear, then maybe he wouldn’t have died in such a horrific way, in agony, alone and afraid screaming out for his mother.
It’s a brutal ending, compounded by the fact that all of Cooper’s experience, from his initial use of the technology, lasted just .04 seconds, a chilling end coda which leaves you wondering just how much control of our minds we have. Can we ever be truly sure of just what is real and what is false? What indeed of our reality is a truth, and can we ever trust the world in front of us? Before the initial simulation began Cooper was never told that the game was a horror game, just an immersive experience, which raises all kinds of questions about his mental state at large, and the fact he very well may have created the horror elements and aesthetics all by himself, and the game was never meant to do that. If a technology like this was ever created, who’s to say we wouldn’t all eventually be trapped by our own minds in a loop of perpetual sheer fear? Maybe we’re already there?
Playtest is a true Black Mirror horror story, that addresses fear in a very primal way – the fact it is simply Cooper’s refusal to call his mother that in the end kills him is a poignant thought leaving the episode, and the fact that Cooper’s mind created all these terrors – with just a little push from technology – is a very frightening concept indeed. Wyatt Russell’s performance sells you entirely on just how horrific the experience is, as his character slides from seemingly in – control to a spitting, screaming wreck desperately wanting the nightmare to end. It’s an episode that will make you pine for a good ol’ joypad or keyboard for every game you ever play from now on, and want to call your mum straight after.