As technology advances, media companies are looking for ways to further content immersion. With augmented reality and virtual reality, we’re being drawn further into the media we consume, and the hope is that this immersion will make the experience of playing a video game more real. But, is there a point where escapism through these gadgets goes too far? That’s the question asked in the second episode of Black Mirror‘s third season, which takes the desire of escapism to deadly conclusion.
“Playtest” dives into these questions by following Cooper, a globe-trotting American who seeks to avoid dealing with a tragedy in the family by touring the world and diving into an immersive new augmented reality survival game that uses his own brain chemistry to scare the s–t out of him. While I didn’t think the episode was one of Black Mirror‘s strongest, it does feature one of the show’s most viscerally disturbing scenes; plus, it felt like something that grew out of several of creator Charlie Brooker’s passions.
Brooker loves video games and used to review them for a living. “Games are the equivalent of Esperanto-language movies — except they’re better than movies,” wrote Brooker in a column for The Guardian in 2009. “They’re engrossing and exciting, playful and challenging, constantly evolving, constantly surprising.” That love of video games does feed a lot of the UK-set episode.
While in London, Cooper hooks up with a woman named Sonja, an avid gamer who is also fascinated by the singularity (“When computers learn to outsmart man like women did years ago,” as she describes it). After Cooper loses all of his money, Sonja pushes him to accept a job testing a secretive game made by one of the industry’s most innovative developers. He’s spent the entire trip avoiding his mother’s calls, so he can’t really ask her for money, making this game a last resort (and another way to avoid his mother).
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The setup in the first 30 minutes is a bit slow, but it does help plant the seeds for what’s to come when Cooper starts testing the game. The game developers, Saito and Katie, implant a gadget at the base of his skull that is responsible for showing him the images that will frighten him. It’s not enough to give you a cumbersome headset; games now need to be implanted on your body to take you even deeper into the world. It’s frightening to think that a game could use your own memories and experiences against you. But, it’s not surprising that Brooker would take an episode of his show in this direction since he once called video games the “most rapidly evolving creative medium in human history.”
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