The second episode of the third season of Black Mirror is a particularly chilling look at the future of gaming, drenched in horror tropes. Check out my review.
“Playtest” starts in a rather dark place, before taking a rather pleasant turn. Cooper (Wyatt Russell) leaves home early one morning, and ignores a phone call from his mother. He has been looking after his dying father with Alzheimer’s, and decides to travel the world to recover from the ordeal when this father passes. He ends up in London, his last stop before returning home and reconnecting with his mother, whose phone calls he has continually ignored. As he is about to fly home, he is a victim of credit card fraud, and ends up having to stay with Sonja (Hannah John-Kamen) a woman he met in London, and work oddjobs, through an app, to earn money for his flight home.
One of the posting on the app is for SaitoGemu, a gaming company looking for volunteers to test a new immersive gaming system. Cooper jumps at the chance at what looks like easy money – and the thought that even a picture of the secretive game would be worth a lot. He is met at the secluded building by Katie (Wunmi Mosaku), who gets him to sign some forms – giving Cooper just enough time to retrieve his confiscated phone and send a picture to Sonja – and injects the system into back of Cooper’s head. Katie then starts the playtest – a cute mole appears infront of Cooper, and he plays a game of Whack-a-Mole, although everything he sees is only in his head, there is no physical mole to whack!
This ends the playtest, but luckily for us Cooper enjoys it so much, he agrees to take part in a second even more immersive one. After meeting the reclusive developer Shou (Ken Yamamur), it is explained that the new game system will scan his thoughts and fears, and he will have to survive the night in a mansion with his thoughts. His only contact will be with Katie through an ear piece. Again, everything he sees will be created virtually as part of the game – there will be nothing else physically in the house with Cooper. Or will there? As the night goes on, Cooper comes to question what he really fears, both in the game and in his life, as – predictably – things get darker and darker.
The second of this batch of Black Mirror episodes is written by series creater Charlie Booker, and delves into his love of video games. It is also his most outright horror focused output since the Big Brother zombie mash-up Dead Set. And, in the same way “Nosedive” brought in a big name director in Joe Wright, “Playtest” is helmed by 10 Cloverfield Lane and Portal: No Escape director Dan Trachtenberg. Those two pieces of work show that he is perfectly suited to the Black Mirror universe, and this episode in particular.
As mentioned in my review of the first episode “Nosedive”, I’m a huge fan of the way Black Mirror can create engrossing worlds. The social media takeover in the opening episode was a great example of that, but “Playtest” does it in a more traditional way. This time there’s no technological advance causing huge social change, instead we have a rather familiar story of a young man travelling the world after the death of his father. Black Mirror’s specific brand of techno-paranoia soon tightens the scope to an isolated farmhouse, and then a single room, but the world of “Playtest” feels so close to our own – probably because it is.
The set-up is probably the most enjoyable time of all of the Black Mirror episodes so far, and as a long time fan of The Twilight Zone, I didn’t mind the ending. No spoilers here but I know a lot of people felt it cheapened what had come before. For me though, the middle section of the story was actually a bit disappointing. The idea of the action all being in Cooper’s head was stated early on, and that takes some of the weight out of the scares and jumps that follow.
Similarly, if you – the viewer – know you are watching something that is meant to scare you, it tends not to. Even when the nature of jump scares is directly referenced, you still need a bit more. There’s also one moment that is similar to a (much lower budgeted) Rimmer-monster in a recent Red Dwarf episode, which was an unfortunate piece of timing for me. However, in the same way that season 2 episode “White Bear” felt a bit hollow for a good part of its running time, that is, I suppose, the point of the episode.
Still, even if I was slightly underwhelmed by the middle chunk and the more overt horror of the episode, I still found it very enjoyable. Wyatt Russell does a good job with what could be a tricky role. The early, free-spirited, travelling Cooper could become annoying, and he walks the right side of the line with it. When the playtest begins, again his role narrating everything he sees could become clunky, but he gives it just enough charm to make it work.
Maybe because of my love for The Twilight Zone, I really liked the ending, and in turn I really, really like this episode. It’s a great addition to the show. I’ve got to go now, I really should call my parents.
All 4 seasons of Black Mirror are available on Netflix, and the first two are on All4.
Until next time, stay gold, Ponyboy, stay gold. See you soonish.
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A previous version of this article appeared on TheSnootyUshers.com in 2016.