Welcome to Polygon's 13 Days of Halloween series! Between Oct. 19 and Oct. 31, Polygon will publish 13 opinion pieces about different films, shows and specials that exemplify what Halloween means to us. Whether that's the scariest movies you haven't seen yet or a look at a popular Treehouse of Horror episode, this is our tribute to the world of the strange, creepy and downright horrifying that exists within popular culture.
Imagine a world where you’re not sure what’s real or what’s artificially generated, but you can feel pain and be psychologically tormented. Now imagine that you’re voluntarily submitting yourself to someone wreaking havoc on your mind, not in the name of science, but to be a part of a video game simulation? Would you join the next wave of technological advancement in gaming if it meant that you would lose your mind in the process?
These are just of the questions being asked in "Play Test," the video game-themed episode from Black Mirror’s third season. Cooper (Wyatt Russell) is on a trip around the world, running away from his problems back home in New York. As a way to earn a little extra money, Cooper joins a service called Odd Jobs that lists companies willing to pay people for providing off-the-cuff services or taking on projects that they don’t want to hire contractors for. One of the jobs that Cooper takes is as a play tester for a prestigious game developer in London working on a top-secret new title that promises to advance the way video games are played and conceptualized.
Essentially, players are hooked up to a futuristic looking VR contraption, but with a bit of a Matrix twist. Instead of holding a controller and using a computer for a bit of relaxation, a chip is inserted into the back of the player’s head, and then they’re plugged into a simulation. The chip has access to the player’s thoughts, feelings and fears, cultivating a specific gameplay experience and environment for them. In Cooper’s case, for example, that means everything from spiders to ex-girlfriends make an appearance in his playthrough. Even though he knows it’s fake, he can’t stop his body from physically reacting to what appears in front of him — he’s petrified, he feels pain, and the simulation stops being a game.
The game that’s played in the episode is a survival horror title that takes the player’s deepest fears and uses it against them while they reside in a Victorian-style manor. Everything about it screams terrifying, but there’s something so exciting about the possibility of this becoming a reality that it’s hard not to want to jump into the world, even knowing how it all ends.
The reason "Play Test" works as well as it does is because creator Charlie Brooker is a fan of video games. This isn't just a timely, filler episode to keep the season going, but actually feels like what the creator has bee building up to all along. All of Brooker’s favorite aspect of playing games, in addition to the rise of virtual reality, can be seen in "Play Test." Despite the negative connotation the future of gaming technology has in the episode, there’s an underlying level of deep admiration and appreciation for the industry and its tools as a whole.
There’s a sense of wonderment at every turn that technology has progressed to the point where these types of deep neurological experiences can be had. As concerning as new technology can be, as outlined in the episode, when it’s applied to a playful experience like a game, our childlike curiosity overtakes everything else. Brooker does a fantastic job of capturing that with the story, and director Dan Trachtenberg translates it flawlessly on the small screen.
Like every Black Mirror episode, the point of "Play Test" is to remind us that despite the shiny future technology promises us, there’s a little bit of dystopia lying in each advancement. In this specific episode, the question being asked is: Where do we stop blurring the lines between reality and virtual before it completely destroys our minds?
The theme that Brooker examines most often is also the most fascinating: our voluntary leniency to relinquish control to a machine. In the episode, Cooper doesn’t think twice about not having control over what’s happening to him, because a small part of him believes that he can overwrite the computer if need be. Not to mention that Cooper doesn’t see computers or machinery as being problematic despite warnings from people he’s met that any untested machine could have dire consequences. In Cooper’s mind, computers are designed to help us and video games are designed to relax us, so there can’t be any actual consequence derived from either.
But Brooker isn’t interested in the safety of the already known. He would rather explore the experimentation side of video games that he’s always found intriguing. In 2009, Brooker penned an opinion piece for The Guardian talking about why he loved to engross himself in various video games and, much more importantly, why he thought they were the future of entertainment.
"They're engrossing and exciting, playful and challenging, constantly evolving, constantly surprising," Brooker wrote. "They're interactive and, thanks to the rise of modern multiplayer, infinitely more social than mere television."
Would you join the next wave of technological advancement in gaming if it meant that you would lose your mind?
This is what makes "Play Test" the best episode of the season and, quite frankly, one of the series’ best overall. It combines everything that Black Mirror stands for: the embracement of technology and our excitement about where its headed with the dystopian fear we have about every new advancement.
Other episodes in Black Mirror this season do a better job of exploring the downsides of being constantly connected to the online world and passing judgement on how the online world is ruining other aspects of our lives, but none are as exhilarating — or as terrifying — as "Play Test." Part of that is because even though we’re still far off from this technology existing, the element of sci-fi that exists in other episodes doesn’t necessarily fit here. Everything that occurs in "Play Test," from a technological perspective, feels like it could eventually happen. Not now, not in 10 or 15 years, but it feels like that’s where we’re going with games.
I don’t know whether to be giddy with excitement or filled with dread at the thought of it. Instead it’s a combination of the two. In doing so, Black Mirror has managed to do exactly what it sought out to when it first aired and Brooker has created a marvelous piece of television in the process.