The third season of cult drama Black Mirror, writer and executive producer Charlie Brooker’s dark and satirical skewering of our tech-obsessed culture, arrives on Netflix today. This latest collection of six hour-long dramas includes “Playtest,” a disturbing look at the potential dangers of augmented reality video games.
“It’s certainly near-future,” Brooker says. “What I was thinking about when writing it was the Microsoft HoloLens,” referring to the company’s experimental new headset that blends video game imagery with the real world.
The episode will feel familiar to anyone who actively follows games or tech. It involves a big Japanese corporation, and an irresistible chance to try the latest alternate reality experience: a survival horror game that’s part Disney’s Haunted Mansion, part phobia therapy. It’s striking how plausible it all feels even as things spiral into terror. Would any of us really be surprised if Google was experimenting with some sort of brain implant deep inside its most secret labs?
“It’s not far off,” Brooker warns. “Obviously we exaggerate it in our episode. He literally pretty much gets it injected into his neck which, as far as I’m aware, hopefully couldn’t happen tomorrow.”
“Playtest” stars Wyatt Russell, son of Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn, and unusually for Black Mirror, it’s essentially a straightforward haunted house story. Russell plays a clueless American backpacker whose game tester gig turns into a mind-bending nightmare.
“It partly came about because I wanted to do a haunted house story,” Brooker says. “Compared to some of the episodes, it’s quite a romp. It’s not like a message episode. I kept calling it our Evil Dead 2, which I think slightly annoys Dan [Trachtenberg], our director, but he’s even geekier about games than I am. It was very deliberate that we wanted to reference old-school horror.”
Yes, that Dan Trachtenberg, director of 10 Cloverfield Lane and and former co-host of the video games and pop culture web series The Totally Rad Show with Alex Albrecht and Jeff Cannata. He also made the short film Portal: No Escape. He is all about the geek.
The geekiness of the episode – and it is geeky in the way that riding a hoverboard, wearing a Metroid T-shirt and Pokémon baseball cap all at once is geeky – makes it a fun “spot the reference” challenge for gamers. The episode includes glimpses of old consoles and home computers and even playfully borrows the “Would You Kindly” line from Bioshock. “There’s a ZX Spectrum in there if you squint, and [Russell’s character] is called Cooper Redfield which is a nod to Chris Redfield from Resident Evil,” he says, adding that it was Trachtenberg that insisted on the Bioshock reference. “There’s a couple of things along those lines throughout, and obviously the game he’s playing is kind of inspired by Resident Evil, Silent Hill, that sort of world.”
Brooker himself, despite being a former games journalist, isn’t sure he’d try the AR tech depicted in the show if it became real. Even if that was the only place to play a new version of his favorite game of all time, Doom. “Scary games I find genuinely too unsettling to play,” he says.
“I’ll go nocturnal for the duration of the script writing and break up the writing process with little video game breaks, so I’ll write two scenes then I’ll go and play a game for an hour or so,” he says. “So I’m often playing games in the dead of night and I can’t take it now. If I’m playing a survival horror game, it’s too tense, it just gets actively unpleasant, so I probably wouldn’t. I’m not good with jump scares in real life; I’m a real wuss.”
This dawned on Brooker while playing Condemned: Criminal Origins, the nasty, violent Xbox 360 game from 2005. “You’re collecting dead birds and hitting mad tramps with a plank and losing your mind as well,” he says.”It’s so so horrible. I thought why am I doing this for fun? That was a bit of an epiphany.”
As if looking for something with the potential to scare him even more profoundly, he’s recently begun to dabble in VR at home. But so far, it’s been his two-year-old, who snuck into the room during a session and grabbed him by the leg, that’s responsible for the biggest fright. “Absolutely terrified me. I was completely oblivious,” he says. “That’s slightly worrisome, that aspect of it.”
Despite the shock, he still considers it a game changer on a par with Doom or Space Invaders or Mario 64. The games he turns to now contain less horror and far more beagles, weirdly.
“I’ve been playing Invisible Inc., XCOM, Fallout – I was playing that for light relief. What does that tell you about my mindset?” he says. “I really liked the new Doom, I’m a sucker for Mario games. My four-year-old plays Mario, he’s obsessed with it. Weirdly the last game I completed was the Peanuts Movie tie-in game. I played it that with my son.”
If his massive Netflix success leads to his inbox filling up with writing opportunities, which game would he choose to adapt for movies? “Redoing Doom or something like Day of the Tentacle would be fun, a more comedic story. Jetset Willy: The Movie!” he laughs, referencing the quirky and uniquely British 1984 platform game. “Eternal Darkness, that was a good game. Because it had that fourth wall breaking sanity meter. Portal would be a good one,” he says. Given Trachtenberg’s connection with J.J. Abrams, perhaps that last one isn’t so far-fetched.
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