by Josie Kafka
When Cooper, an obnoxious dude-bro of an American, needs money to fund his European walkabout, he agrees to pilot test a new game from a secretive designer. Then, things happen.
This episode was odd. I don’t think they stuck the landing, and the pacing was off. The first half established Cooper’s character to an almost absurd degree, and the second half was bogged down by one too many false endings. But it had its strengths, and I might almost recommend watching these episodes out of order, with “Playtest” as a palate cleanser after the upcoming horrors of “Shut Up and Dance.”
Black Mirror usually succeeds at presenting both fascinating tech and compelling characters. In “Playtest,” though, the tech is a combination of banal (when I thought it was just a really good virtual-reality system) and then rather unbelievable (once we find out what really happened).
The show continues to excel at characterization, though. Actor Wyatt Russell manages to bring humanity to a character type I dislike: the dude-bro who asks the sort of questions that make you want to hand them a card with “You can google that, you know” on one side and “Is that really the important thing, anyway?” on the other.
The most touching part, for me, was finding out that Wyatt’s deepest fear wasn’t the loss of his memory—which is where I thought the episode was going—but the horror of losing his mother to the same dementia and death that claimed his father. For all his bluster, Wyatt was a good guy. The sort of man to reassure a scared child on a plane. The sort who, of course, didn’t deserve the fate he got. (More on that idea in the next episode review.)
It takes a while to get there, though. And finding out that everything from the moment Wyatt gets the implant was nothing but a dream leaves me with very little to say. The horror mansion was creepy. The disintegrating Sonja was creepier. The surveillance-cam footage was disorienting. And the multiple endings felt both obvious and overdone. (Review done!)
I wonder if this episode is meant to act as a bridge in the Black Mirror world. Since all the episodes exist in the same reality, the sort of high-intensity VR we see here, in its development stage, gives us a sense of how the world might move towards the practical application of that VR in something like “White Christmas.”
Bearing that in mind, perhaps the most interesting thing this episode has to say is: Why would you trust a game developer with your brain? By extension, why would you value game tech in such a way that it impacts the whole world, far beyond recreational activities? Those are questions that some people are asking already, as in this New Yorker profile of Y Combinator guru Sam Altman. He might be trying to save the world. We might want to ask if we want him to be the one to do that.
• I’ve read some criticisms online that point out that the “game” aspect of the game isn’t very gamey. I don’t really game, so—okay.
• Interesting that this episode raises the specter of the singularity with the books in Sonja’s apartment. The mind’s “inability to comprehend [technology]” (as Wikipedia describes Kurtzweil’s definition of the singularity) seems like a nice way of describing what happens to Wyatt.
• I loved the montage of Wyatt’s travels. It was so cliché and aware of its own clichéness.
Three out of four games.
Josie Kafka reviews The Vampire Diaries, Game of Thrones, and various other things that take her fancy. She is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)