Maybe I’m the only one left who hasn’t binge watched all 6 episodes of the new season of Black Mirror, but I watched episode 2 last night. The new season is on Netflix, after moving from its original home on Channel 4, (where currently only the Christmas episode is available to watch).
Episode 2 is titled ‘Playtest’ and follows Cooper, a globetrotting American currently in London, who takes a job testing a new game when he finds himself low on cash. The thrills in store are more than he believed possible, but things start to unravel when Cooper’s mind begins to work against him.
The concept of the new game, recommended by his London hook-up Sonja, is much like a virtual reality horror – where the game uses your own memories and psychology to work out how best to scare you. So, Cooper is taken into a creepy old house, alone, with only an earpiece to put him in communication with the woman conducting the test, Katie, where she repeats the mantra “Nothing you see can harm you,” as all the projections are audio visual only. Alone, in a creepy-ass house, with an implant in your head that is going to try to scare you. I can’t have been the only one asking why the hell anyone would do that to themselves…? But, that’s horror kids.
Things get progressively more strange as the game goes on, with the projections going beyond what Katie had promised they would. Communication with her falters, and Cooper is left without any support, but it’s then revealed that this was just another tactic of the game. The layers become more confusing, and Cooper’s mental state deteriorates as he stops being able to differentiate what’s real, and what is being put in his head.
Even when it seems it’s all over, and Cooper finally goes home to patch things over with his mum – one of his biggest nightmares going into the game – he gets pulled out of the virtual reality again with a seizure, and zipped into a body bag. So much for “Nothing you see can harm you.”
There are numerous things that are somewhat unclear by the end of the episode. Was the creepy old house really the main part of the game, or was that virtual reality in itself? And I think there’s still some room to question whether the projection of Sonja in the house was really a projection at all.
I came away from the episode a little in the dark on the message behind it, perhaps partly induced by the meaning of episode 1, ‘Nosedive’, being so obvious and clear. I wondered if it was a comment on when a game stops being a game – with the advent of VR gaming coming to the fore, where do you draw the line, and where does a realistic thrill become too close to reality? Another possible meaning I thought of might be connecting and communicating with people, using the example of Cooper’s mum. The usual Black Mirror theme of technology helping to create a dystopian reality just isn’t quite as prevalent in ‘Playtest’ somehow.
The best interpretation that I’ve read though, comes from this review by David Sims. He suggests that the meaning is perhaps less about the specifics of ‘this technology is producing this issue in society’, and more geared towards knowing that this will likely be our downfall, but not knowing quite how this will come about. The illusion of technology we currently are under: nothing you see can harm you.