Editor’s note: This review contains spoilers. If you have not yet watched the episode (or the entire show), please go watch it already.
Imagine you submit yourself to a world where you cannot differentiate the real from the artificial, where you can still feel physical sensation including pain, where you need to confront your greatest fears, what do you think you would see? A monstrous-looking spider? Someone you trust trying to stab you?
These are the questions I ask myself after seeing Playtest.
Cooper (Wyatt Russell) is in London, after a round-the-world trip, having fled his mother back in New York, avoiding her phone calls and struggling to come to terms with the death of his father from dementia. His bank card is rejected and Sonja (Hannah John-Kamen), a young British woman he has hooked up with, suggests he earn some money by playtesting a new video game with an interactive augmented reality (AR) system. The game is a survival horror experience in which the player needs to endure terrors for as long as possible when visiting a creepy manor. A chip, which has access to the player’s memories and fears, is inserted into the player’s neck, so that he or she can see visual simulations.
Just as Cooper jokes about the conventions of the horror movie genre, we can speculate that the game will soon descend into a nightmare and drive Cooper crazy. But it turns out that all of the psychological torments happen only in his head, and he lasts no more than a second before his brain is fried by a malfunction caused by the interference of his cellphone signal when his mother calls again.
What does this ending tell us? Is this story preaching to us that we should switch off our phones when told? That our dishonesty is our own greatest threat? That we should not ignore calls from our mothers? That AR video games are so dangerous that they can possibly lead to death?
I think, however, that instead of teaching us a moral lesson like many other Black Mirror episodes, Playtest is rather a story about fears of reality.
Cooper’s trip to London, in the first place, is a getaway from reality, and his disinclination to respond to his mother’s calls is a form of reluctance to face it. After his father’s death, Cooper is afraid of ending up like his father who forgot his loved ones. Worse still, Cooper never knows how to truly communicate with his mother, thus stone-heartedly keeping her at arm’s length.
Playtest is not only a story about a person becoming too immersed in his virtual reality, but more importantly about him confronting his subconscious nightmare which is reality itself. Katie (Wunmi Mosaku), an employee of the gaming company, keeps emphasising that nothing Cooper sees can cause him any physical harm. What she (intentionally) does not tell him, however, is that the visceral horror, tailor-made to one’s own memories and fears, triggers emotional threats which are much more nightmarish and treacherous.
Cooper manages to laugh off the eerie-looking high-school bully as well as an over-sized spider with a human face. Then, Sonja shows up, saying she has set him up to do the playtest before stabbing him. But this turns out to be an unexpected fight after which Cooper, feeling physically pained and irritated, utters his safe word. Things get out of control when he realises he is trapped in the game and his memories are being overwritten. He becomes what he dreads the most: a man with no cognitive functions. Eventually, the horror experience ends with him confronting his most demonic reality, which he has been evading all along: his mother, who, it is revealed, is also afflicted by dementia.
Cooper’s fear of his family tragedy and the episode’s portrayal of VR video-game development are carefully linked in Playtest. When it comes to stories regarding virtual reality, one often repeated theme is exchanging our mundane life for the more alluring artificial world. Playtest, however, suggests that our reality is itself an abandonment of reality. When virtual reality, in this story, becomes a means to help us face our own tragedy and vent our fears, it is not necessarily more artificial than the authentic reality.
So what would you see if you were in the ‘game’?
Janet Lau is a graduate of the Department of English and Department of Education (Class of 2016). [Click here to read all entries by Janet.]