Escapism gives way to horror in this episode about an augmented reality video game
Credit: Laurie Sparham/Netflix

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.”

NEXT: Is it scary?

To test out the game, Cooper is taken to a mansion where he’ll spend the night being frightened out of his life. The scares he sees are small: a large spider, his high school bully. But then, they start to get twisted. He imagines Sonja showing up and trying to murder him. Their struggle is visually striking, especially when he rips off the skin of her face to reveal a her very red skull, which is particularly disturbing. Once he overcomes that obstacle, he starts freaking out and begs for the game to end. Katie instructs him to head to a room upstairs to begin the deactivation process. But, at this point, his escapism has taken a turn for the worse and he refuses to open the door because he’s scared his mother will be waiting behind it.

Eventually, he musters the courage to enter and finds out there is no deactivation process in the room and that Katie is unable to unplug him because the neural net has taken complete control. This fear probably stems from Sonja’s offhanded comment about the singularity earlier in the episode. However, then Cooper starts to realize that the neural net is erasing his memories, which is an idea inspired by the fact that Cooper’s father recently passed away from Alzheimer’s. Watching Cooper slowly lose his mind in this claustrophobic room was a visceral experience that definitely rose my heart rate and was the scariest part of the episode. By the time Saito and Katie burst into the room, Cooper has completely forgotten who he is.

However, the episode quickly zooms out to reveal that Cooper is still seated in Saito’s office and has only been playing the game for about a second. They let him go, he takes the money and heads home, where he discovers that his mother doesn’t remember him. That’s when the episode reveals that Cooper is still sitting in the room to which he was first taken. If this layered structure reminds you of Inception, that’s probably intentional. The Christopher Nolan movie is one of 105 things that has inspired Brooker. You can also see that movie’s influence in the episode’s subject matter. That movie was about thieves entering a guy’s dreams and manipulating his father’s memory to take his money, and here you have this game drawing on Cooper’s memories to torment him.

When we return to that initial white room, we find out that Cooper has only been plugged into the game for 0.4. seconds. During that time, he started seizing and calling for his mother, and as he seized, his phone started ringing with a call from his mother. But, he never gets it because he dies. Later, we find out that he had such a negative reaction to the experiment because the cell phone signal messed with the game.

In the end, Cooper’s attempts at escapism led to his death. Had he answered his mother’s phone call before when Sonja told him to, she might not have called during the experiment and he’d still be alive. To be fair, he also wouldn’t have died if he had followed the rules and hadn’t turned on his cell phone to sneak a picture to make some extra cash.

Episode Grade: B

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