Playtest (Black Mirror)
|Black Mirror episode|
|Episode no.||Series 3|
|Directed by||Dan Trachtenberg|
|Written by||Charlie Brooker|
|Featured music||Original Score by|
|Original release date||21 October 2016|
|Running time||57 minutes|
"Playtest" is the second episode in the third series of the British science fiction anthology series Black Mirror. Written by series creator and showrunner Charlie Brooker and directed by Dan Trachtenberg, it premiered on Netflix on 21 October 2016, together with the rest of series three.
The episode tells the story of Cooper (Wyatt Russell), an American stuck in London during his travels around the world, who accepts a one-time job offer from a video game company, SaitoGemu, to be able to afford his return to America. Hannah John-Kamen co-stars as a journalist Cooper meets in London.
Cooper (Wyatt Russell) is travelling the world following his father's death from early-onset Alzheimer's. While in London, Cooper spends a night with tech journalist Sonja (Hannah John-Kamen). The next day he discovers that his identity has been stolen and the money for his return trip has been misappropriated. He spots a local job opening with video game company SaitoGemu, known for their survival horror games. Cooper gets the job; Sonja urges him to take a photograph of the company's games technology.
Cooper meets Katie (Wunmi Mosaku) at SaitoGemu's building, where he is directed to a white room to test a new technology. Katie instructs Cooper to turn his phone off for security reasons, but he switches it back on while she is away in order to send Sonja a picture of the technology. Katie implants a miniature computer called a "mushroom" into the back of his neck. The initialization process is interrupted by a call from Cooper's mother, which Katie cancels.
Cooper proceeds to play a game of Whac-a-Mole, his senses altered by the mushroom's augmented reality technology. He meets the company's owner, Shou (Ken Yamamura), who talks Cooper into a second test, in which the mushroom implant will probe his brain to develop a personalised horror experience. Katie leaves Cooper at a mansion, the Harlech House, with only an earpiece to communicate with her. He explores the mansion and endures some minor jumpscare events. Sonja unexpectedly appears at the mansion, then becomes violent and stabs Cooper. He fights back and kills her, whereupon her body, the knife and his wound disappear. He demands that Katie abort the test. She begins interrogating Cooper with basic questions, and he realizes that he is losing his memories. Cooper smashes a mirror in the "access point" room and attempts to remove the mushroom with a shard of glass. Katie and Shou appear and restrain him, saying the technology cannot be shut off and will reduce him to a childlike state, and drag him away before he "wakes up".
When Cooper wakes up, he is back in Shou's office where they started the second experiment; according to Katie and Shou, only one second has passed since the test began. Shou apologizes for the pain he caused Cooper, and they remove the mushroom safely. Cooper leaves and uses his reclaimed funding to return home to his mother, but she does not recognize him and repeatedly dials his number on her phone. It is then revealed that Cooper has been in the white room from the first test all along; all events subsequent to him receiving the mushroom were simulated. When Cooper's phone rang during the upload, the signal interfered with the game and caused his death. Katie records that in his final moments, Cooper "CALLED 'MOM.'"
"Playtest" was the last episode of the third series to be filmed. It was written by series creator Charlie Brooker and directed by Dan Trachtenberg. Conceptually, Brooker was inspired with an idea where a person is given augmented reality implants to play a virtual Whac-A-Mole game which became faster and never ended, causing the person to go crazy and be placed with numerous other subjects all traumatised by moles. However, this only proved to be enough material for a fifteen-minute episode. Brooker came up with adding in a haunted house concept, where the augmented reality technology would dynamically change what the person saw in response to their fears. The extra twist at the end of the episode was not in the original treatment, but Brooker decided to add it after conversations with Trachtenberg. He also admitted that the extra twist was partly inspired by Daniel Mallory Ortberg, who wrote in an article: "Next on Black Mirror: what if phones, but too much?". Trachtenberg also revealed that the casting of Wyatt Russell as Cooper led to the character's arrogance being toned down so that the audience is "rooting for him to learn a lesson".
Some ideas for the episode were changed or unused. In one draft, Cooper was told he was a character in Black Mirror as a way of breaking the fourth wall. Brooker also wished to have a Nightmare Mode, where different scenes would be shown to the viewer when they watched the episode a second time. Cooper's relationship with his mother was changed, from her being neurotic and doting to Cooper taking her for granted.
Initially, production would have taken place in Tokyo, a key hub for video game development, while filming the scenes in the house in the UK, but they found it difficult to explain in-story why such a house would exist in or near Japan. Instead, they decided to make the episode take place in London, a location they had ready access to but had not really featured in the series to that point. The sets for SaitoGemu was created from an abandoned school building, while shots within the Harlech House were shot from the home of a 91-year-old woman. Additional shots of the House for special effects were made by rendering the home within the Unity game engine.
In the early Harlech House scenes, Russell was encouraged to experiment with Cooper's reactions; for instance, a 14-minute take of Cooper insulting Josh Peters, his childhood bully who appears as a hologram, was filmed. Trachtenberg wanted the penultimate scene, with Cooper returning to his home to find his mother thinking he is dead, as a one shot take, given the drastic change in tone it gave the episode. As subtle hints that most of the episode was taking place in a virtual space in Cooper's mind, many facets of the "real-world" scenes were incorporated as background elements within this to reflect how Cooper's memories had been used against him by the software, such as a poster for the film Red Sonja that appears in Sonja's apartment within the virtual space.
Hannah John-Kamen appears in this episode as Sonja, after appearing briefly, in an unrelated role, in the series one episode "Fifteen Million Merits". In an interview in October 2016, Charlie Brooker revealed that they were initially going to have the song John-Kamen's character sang in "Fifteen Million Merits" playing on the radio in the background in the episode but were unable due to a licensing issue.
The episode contains a number of video game-related references, as both Brooker and Trachtenberg were former video game journalists before becoming names in the television and film industries.
The video gaming magazine Edge helped Brooker to create a number of fictional covers of their magazine for the episode. Trachtenberg included several of his favorite video games as props on a shelf in Sonja's room. When Cooper is told to enter a room with the access point by Katie, she tells him "Would you kindly open the door?" The "would you kindly" is a phrase from BioShock, used by the antagonist to facilitate mind control of the player-character. According to Brooker, Trachtenberg insisted on including this reference within the episode. Cooper's last name is revealed to be Redfield, which Brooker used as a nod to the characters of Chris and Claire Redfield from the Resident Evil franchise.
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