The future of gaming has captured the public imagination for decades. “Playtest,” among the more downright horrifying installments of Black Mirror, lives leagues from the sleek, techno alien world of Tron, however. There’s a crucial distinction to emphasize here: The experimental program on which the premise of “Playtest” hinges — a hallucinatory fear-simulator testing how long you can last before crying uncle — is not a virtual-reality game. It’s an augmented-reality game, like Pokémon Go, except it’ll give you worse nightmares.
By tampering with reality instead of completely overwriting it, the Charlie Brooker–scripted episode hews closer to something like David Cronenberg’s mind-bending thriller eXistenZ. It aims to disorient the player and, by proxy, the viewer. Once no one can tell what’s for real, the writers pour unadulterated fear into the permeable divide between life and the game. As our man Cooper (Wyatt Russell) is told before he subjects himself to an experience far beyond what he could imagine, this particular game “layers itself on top of what you see.” When you can’t trust your eyes, when you can’t keep your mind safe, and when there’s no way out — that’s where things start to get bloodcurdling.
Cooper’s a thrill-seeker, we’re told. He’d have to be, given that he agrees to what any rational-minded human can see is a one-way ticket to a personal hell. While dodging calls from an estranged mother, Cooper jet-sets around the world to pursue every adrenaline rush he can find, from BASE jumping to treks into the most far-flung jungles. His walkabout eventually leads him to an English pub, where he makes the acquaintance of Sonja (Hannah John-Kamen). Cue light banter, a little bit of flirty eye contact, and smash cut to the two of them lying naked in bed. After he mentions that he’s on the hunt for some quick cash, Sonja gets Cooper jazzed about an odd job with a sophisticated, highly secretive video-game company.
And at first, it seems like a pretty good gig. He’s walked through their ultramodern Google-but-cooler offices, and before the main event, they let him try out a little game of augmented-reality Whack-a-Mole. But Katie (Wunmi Mosaku), the stone-faced employee who walks him through the exercise, gives off an unmistakable vibe of portentousness. The little “mushroom” sensor that’s surgically implanted on the back of his neck enables Cooper to see and hear non-corporeal holograms, but its main function is to creep the hell out of viewer at home. There’s something sinister going on, and when Katie offers Cooper a much larger payday to play guinea pig for the company’s most ambitious project to date, it’s as if he’s already sealed his fate.
That’s why the sparing approach that director Dan Trachtenberg (who proved his spine-tingling chops with 10 Cloverfield Lane) takes once it’s time to cart in the horror works so fearsomely well. Cooper is straight-up abandoned in a mansion haunted by his own id, and from the first moment he’s left to himself, we’re petrified with anticipation. Katie explains to Cooper that his subconscious mind will populate the house with frights — a literalized take on “projecting” — and likewise, the audience fills in the eerie gaps that Trachtenberg leaves undefined.
Trachtenberg wields empty space and the expectation of fear with a frightening ruthlessness, but once he does decide to take some shots, every one is a bull’s-eye. It’d be no fun to name them here, but the frights conjured by Cooper’s mind unsettle due to their slightly askew, dreamlike quality. They come from weird, partially liminal spaces, splitting the difference between the intimately personal and the more universal, sometimes in hideously matter-of-fact forms. (Trigger warning: spiders.) Katie explains that the video game draws on Cooper’s own phobias and memories to spook him, and it doesn’t take long for that complicated relationship with his mother to rear its ugly head.
As the game starts to toy with the dilation of time, Trachtenberg and Brooker really do a number on Cooper and the audience. They pull the rug out, and just as you begin to think you’ve gotten your bearings, you realize you’re standing on yet another rug about to be yanked. Brooker’s script repeatedly trades one stripe of unfathomable horror for another, cycling through possible outcomes in a structure that mimics the branching paths of a video game.
Russell, displaying the same crunchy ease that he showed as the resident pothead in Everybody Wants Some!!, pulls off a difficult performance. Beyond simply reacting with abject terror to everything around him, he has to ground his character in a real pathos behind his Zen-bro shtick. As the program tunnels deeper into his subconscious, he’s defined by a overwhelmed feeling, and the cucumber-cool Russell transitions into it smoothly. At the outset, he very nearly makes the superhuman levels of incredulousness necessary to the episode’s premise work for him. And once the horror-survival game’s afoot, he runs the gauntlet without a single chance to catch his breath.
“Playtest” concludes with two flourishes of irony, one situational and one verbal. That the first works and the second doesn’t is frustrating, especially as it attempts to put a cutesy button on an otherwise haunting episode. Katie spells out that the “mushroom” tech piles layers of reality on top of each other; Brooker essentially does this process in a horrifying reverse, with matters getting worse in every version of Cooper’s perception. And for perhaps the most miraculous feat of all, Brooker and Trachtenberg make this head-spinningly convoluted concept feel quite lucid. As Cooper’s nightmares melt into each other, culminating in a moment of senseless violence, the viewer is completely at the mercy of that little mushroom. When it’s all over, we’re left to dream up our own iterations of this sick game.