Black Mirror: 3.02 Playtest

The second episode in the new series of Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror is directed by Dan Trachtenberg who has had his feature film debut this year with the excellent 10 Cloverfield Lane. Playtest stars Wyatt Russell as American traveler Cooper arriving in Black Mirror's spiritual homeland of London. There he meets Sonja, played by Misfits' Hannah John-Kamen. Hannah's a Black Mirror alumni, having previously acted in the season 1 episode '15 Million Credits'.

Short on cash, Cooper signs up to test a revolutionary new gaming system at a secretive game design company. The company has a new Interactive AR System, a VR overlaid over the real world, involving a small medical implant. The implant processes the digital experiences and overlays them over the real world.
Of course, once the Whack-A-Gopher demo is completed, we're reminded that this company specialises in horror games. This is a special kind of horror game, personalised to the individuals brain and their fears. It's at this point that Cooper's reluctance, his fear, to get in touch with his recently widowed mother comes into play; the reason for his escape into travel and thrillseeking. She decides to ring Cooper's mobile, just as the neural net in his brain is being initialised.

Trying not to give too much away, the episode doesn't go as might have been expected. Neither an imagined maternal murder spree, nor a clever VR misdirection as in Frederico Heller's Uncanny Valley. What does follow is pretty good rendition of an immersive haunted house story, heavy on the personal horror. Bit by bit Cooper’s bravado falters. It’s here than Trachtenberg’s experience of closed room tension pays off as we experienced in 10 Cloverfield Lane. The tension builds well, with small, purposefully silly jump scares transitioning to something more psychological.
In our own world, VR is making a comeback, mostly for games through products like the Playstation VR and Samsung Gear VR. Augmented reality, usually involving viewing through a phone to see virtual overlays onto our own world has not done as well. The limitations are technical; the phone-based AR systems aren’t immersive and drain battery fast, and the home based VR systems aren’t particularly mobile. While a medical implant is some years away, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility. But for now, games like the Paranormal Activity VR Game are as close as we get to this technology.

Back to Playtest, the episode was very well presented; the direction was great with fantastic tension, Wyatt Russell was excellent conveying charm and terror as required. Story-wise I'd have hoped for more of a social message than merely looking at the potential horror of neural implants and AR/VR. The ending though, felt like a cheat, an Atonement style negation of everything we'd seen and believed that we had learnt. This was a strong episode, but one that left me dangling at the end, robbed of the hard-won emotional engagement.

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