Playtest suffers from the exact same thing as Nosedive: Interesting and totally relevant premise; however, it never gets around to making a point that hasn’t be made. In general, it doesn’t say or mean anything at all.
And much like the previous episode, Playtest takes it’s sweet time getting to the actual plot of the episode, which is so brief that I’m not sure why the episode didn’t begin with our main dude entering the virtual haunted house.
- Directed by Dan Trachtenberg
- Written by Charlie Brooker
- Running time 57 Minutes
Official Premise: “An American traveler short on cash signs up to test a revolutionary new gaming system, only to discover the thrills are a little too real.”
Actual Premise: What would happen if we took virtual reality and survival horror to it’s natural conclusion?
Right on time with the release of Playstation VR (Virtual Reality), this episode is about to go in on the dangers of virtual reality, right? Right!?
Of course not! Instead we get a sloppy story about regret and Alzheimer’s! Just what I wanted.
Exhibit A: Insufferable Pacing
It takes the episode a full 25 minutes to get to the part we all want to see: this part being him truly testing out this super revolutionary software.
Exhibit B: Not Getting the Obvious Questions Out of the Way
In light of games like Outlast and the more similar Amnesia: the Dark Descent, this should in all honesty be a piece of cake to dissect. The first and most obvious question to ask would be:
Why is survival horror so insanely popular these days?
Because well…why is it? Why do many of us enjoy being terrified in this very specific manner? Why do we like being put in hostile environments defenseless?
Initially, I thought the more appropriate question would be in regard to virtual reality itself; however, the episode takes great strides, from literal video game references to the spooky mansion, to emphasize the horror aspect.
These are all simple but thought provoking questions, none of which are even remotely addressed in this episode about psychology, virtual reality, and survival horror.
But what we do get is a gratuitous Whack-a-Mole sequence. Thank you, Black Mirror.
Exhibit C, D, E, F, G, H: Scenes that Go Nowhere and Have No Discernible Impact on the Episode as a Whole
Let me just go ahead and make a list of gratuitous and drawn out scenes that go nowhere:
1. The Whole Pre-Travel Bit: We see our dude packing. He walks past a picture of his family. I don’t need to see a picture of his family to assume he has a mom and dad. His sneaking would’ve been relevant, if he didn’t explain it later in clunky exposition.
2. The Travel Montage: why did this happen?
3. Airplane Scene: “Put the headphones away sir.” “Oh, thanks!” What?
4. Tinder Date with Chick: It’s like whoever directed this episode forgot it was a show and not a movie. We don’t have time for this. Small talk is not what I’m here for.
5. Post-Coitus Scenes
It is here where I reach the conclusion that whoever wrote this episode is out of touch. Our dude gets a tinder, finds hot chick, goes on chill date, sleeps with chick, then suddenly they act as though they’re boyfriend and girlfriend the next morning.
- First, she’s too down to earth and flawless to be farting around with randos on Tinder. Now, if she turned out to be luring tourists to the virtual death trap then this would make sense, but no. She’s just a single, laid-back, beautiful, financially and emotionally stable, young woman who hooks up with dudes on Tinder for more than just sex. She also cooks them breakfast and gives forehead kisses. Oh and she’s also a gamer. What?! Talk about suspension of disbelief…
6. The Dreaded Whack-a-Mole Scenes
It’s just Whack-a-mole, nothing happens. Not to mention, this dude is early to mid 20’s. He says he’s played the game like a hundred times. No sir, you have not. You just know what it is. Everyone does.
- Speaking of everyone, who exactly does Black Mirror think their demographic is? On the one hand, they choose a 20-something male lead, but then portray games like Whack-a-Mole as being relevant. They use this scene as way to introduce the viewer to virtual reality, but much like Instagram in Nosedive, it’s not a difficult concept to grasp.
- Either A they think their demographic is old out of touch people, or B they think Americans need everything spelled out for them. B would actually explain my overall issue with this entire season, the total disregard of subtlety.
Exhibit I: Great Value Amnesia
Let’s talk about the virtual haunted house scenes and how they chose to be infinitely less than what they were.
This is something else that leads me to believe these writers are out of touch. How can you do virtual reality survival horror in this setting and not evoke or at least give a nod to games like Amnesia: the Dark Descent? It is because of games like this, that these scenes are a lot less terrifying than what they could’ve been.
For those who don’t know, Amnesia is a first-person survival horror game wherein you journey through a castle that also happens to have monsters hanging around. Here’s the catch, the character you play as Daniel has a phobia for the dark, but light draws the attention of nearby monsters. Amnesia utilizes a gaming mechanic called a sanity meter that drops when Daniel is in the dark and when he looks at a monster. As this gauge empties, Daniel starts hallucinating: he hears things, paintings become deformed, he sees things that aren’t there, and he ultimately faints, leaving him vulnerable to monsters. That’s horrifying, and if you don’t believe me, take a look.
Survival horror aside, Playtest doesn’t even scratch the surface of psychological terror. They visually manifest the dude’s fear of spiders and a repressed memory of a school bully. This idea of tailor-made fears is not original however like many concepts it can be done in many different ways. Playtest does it without a twist or even a sense of irony. They even allow us to bask in these scenes with the spider and the stranger, as though they just blew our minds.
Exhibit J: Bypassing Superior Narrative Alternatives
The other notable scene in the virtual haunted house involves the Tinder Chick. She busts in saying that he’s in danger and they have to get out of there. This would be a great twist if he wasn’t hallucinating. If they followed through with this then the rest of this episode could’ve been about escaping this virtual reality horror.
Can one escape from virtual reality unscathed?
Before watching the episode, I honestly thought that he would do a virtual reality session, only to go on and continue to see things from the virtual world, even after going back into reality.
I had a hunch that Black Mirror would imply that because virtual reality is psychological manipulation of sorts, it has an insidious effect on reality that we underestimate or overlook. Something to that effect, but I guess that’s too basic… I guess they had to go “deeper.” I guess they had to go the Inception route.
Exhibit K-Z: It Was All a Dream…seriously
In the end, it turns out that our dude was in a reality, in a reality, in a reality, lodged in the real reality where he died from cellphone interference during a technological…screw this episode.
What Probably Should’ve Happened
The episode should’ve began at the game company. The background we get on the character is solely provided through the manifestations of his psychological fears in the VR. Not only would that allow the writers to be more archaic and symbolic, it would also make for a compelling watch.
How much can you learn about someone through their repressed fears, memories, and desires alone? A whole lot, I would reckon. A lot more than the fact that he was bullied in school, hates spiders, and feels guilty about not helping his parents who have Alzheimer’s.
No finding yourself sequence via slideshow, no tinder post-coitus scenes, and certainly no whack-a-mole. The dark ending should not have been death, but the repercussions of virtual reality, the most obvious being that he can no longer differentiate between the virtual and the real. Maybe he even mistakenly ends up doing something bad, like killing the chick the way he does in the haunted house. I don’t know.
The possibilities are endless because this particular relationship we have with VR today is distinct. It’s real. In 2016, it’s no longer a Back to the Future kind of fantasy. The fact that Black Mirror somehow made this concept boring, tedious, and ultimately pointless is kind of ridiculous.