Black Mirror Season 3, Episode 2: Playtest A.K.A Video Games are a bit scary, ain’t they?

Get ready to look suspiciously at your Nintendo, as we dive into the second episode of this season: “Playtest”

WHAT’S THE IDEA HERE?

Our increasingly intense connection with virtual reality and how that engages us on a human level.

Cooper (Wyatt Russell) is a young man travelling the world, on the run from something. His mom keeps calling and he will not answer. Their relationship is fractured after the death of Cooper’s father. He meets a young woman named Sonja (Hannah John-Kamen) in London, right before he’s going back home.

However, his credit card is hacked and he doesn’t have the money to get back home. To make a little money, he finds a job playtesting a new piece of technology for SaitoGemu, a video game company.

That tech is a new virtual reality experience and he’s made an offer. Live out their new survival horror game, an experience based on your own neural impluses, and they’ll pay him handsomely.

Spoiler alert: It does not go well.

HOW’S THE IDEA WORK?

While I know I’m not helping, I sometimes wonder if there’s a problem with the way we discuss Black Mirror. Yes, its unifying idea is that Charlie Brooker fundamentally distruts the influence that technology has on us, and the majority of the episodes are indeed full-bore condemnations of that influence.

But I’m not so sure that’s the mode that “Playtest” works in. This episode feels more of a kind with “Be Right Back” where it’s utilizing our relationship with technology to say something more about the human experience. It’s not a story about the problems video games, but rather one which uses them as a tool to talk about Who We Are Now.

After all, we have Westworld or Undertale, works which do explore effectively the problems with the way we process gaming as a mode of emotional engagement and as entertainment. I don’t see that here, so that’s not how I want to talk about it.

Rather, this is the story of a man who uses technology to confront his metaphorical demons through some rather literal ones.

This is a story that’s sold almost entirely on Wyatt Russell (that’s right, son of Kurt) and the character he manages to create.

Up front, I think this is a bit of a weaker script overall than Black Mirror usually has. There’s a few logic gaps I feel were less wallpapered over by the idea work than normal and the ending is taken about a layer too far to really sell the ideas here. There’s some smart and effective work still, the central character is strong and details are metered out at just the right pace.

But it’s a script that needed a little more oomph from the craft than normal, so thank goodness for Russell.

He’s charming and affable from moment one and he sells every turn his character has to take by the end. There’s a pain he slowly unravels from his frat-joy exterior. His pain at the choices he’s made, the little time we have to connect, and his regret is all real and palpable in the way he sells it. It’s an extraordinary performance.

In his hands, Cooper does become a great character. Like most Black Mirror characters, he’s not a bad person and not a saint. He’s full and flawed, someone who’s navigating a world we recognize as all too complex. Plus, he does horror protagonist super well.

That’s right, this is basically a haunted house horror movie. Of course it is. We’re told he’s playing a survival horror game and, from a horror standpoint, there’s no quicker way to work through a story about personal demons than a haunted house. If it wasn’t a haunted house story, you should be shocked.

The potential of the cliche is mitigated not only by Russell’s work, but also by Dan Trachtenberg’s direction. Trachtenberg, who announced himself as someone to watch with 10 Cloverfield Lane earlier this year, keeps the house dripping with atmosphere (which shouldn’t surprise viewers of 10 Cloverfield Lane) and the scares palpable. It’s the most believable set of jump scares I’ve seen in a while, and when he gets the opportunity to go really freaky, he takes it. Most of his CGI scares wear the longer you look at them, but he knows how to stage for the visceral reaction. Between that and his background in video game film (his calling card was a short based on the film Portal), he gives this story everything it needs to work.

OVERALL?

This isn’t Black Mirror at its sharpest, but that’s still a damn sight better than a lot of shows could hope for. Between tight direction and a lead performance to die for, “Playtest” is an intense story of the mistakes we make and the damage we do to ourselves and others. While an extra script pass really was necessary (there’s an insanely stupid decision to faciliate an unnecessary ending), there’s more than enough to chew on and more than enough to make you want to go make a phone call or two.

Grade: B+

SERIES RANKING

  1. Fifteen Million Merits – A+
  2. Be Right Back – A
  3. White Bear – A
  4. The Entire History of You – A
  5. White Christmas – A-
  6. The National Anthem – A-
  7. Nosedive – B+
  8. Playtest – B+
  9. The Waldo Moment – C
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