Playtest (Black Mirror)
|Black Mirror episode|
Cooper (Wyatt Russell) experiences SaitoGemu's holographic technology.
|Episode no.||Series 3|
|Directed by||Dan Trachtenberg|
|Written by||Charlie Brooker|
|Featured music||Original Score by|
|Original air date||21 October 2016|
|Running time||57 minutes|
"Playtest" is the second episode of the third series of 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 around the world, following his father's death from early-onset Alzheimer's. His mother calls him frequently, but he ignores this as he feels that he can no longer connect to her after his father's passing. While in London, Cooper spends a night with tech journalist Sonja (Hannah John-Kamen). The next day he discovers that his credit card has been stolen, and the money he needs for a return trip misappropriated. While waiting for the bank to rectify the situation, Cooper returns to Sonja and browses through "Oddjobs" with her, an app for short-term job listings; he spots a local opening with successful 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 while he's there, hoping to land a scoop.
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 surreptitiously switches it back on while she's out of the room in order to send Sonja a picture of the technology. Katie returns and 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 being altered by the mushroom's augmented reality technology to facilitate the experience. With the test successful, Cooper is invited to participate in a beta test of a further technology. Cooper meets the company's owner, Shou (Ken Yamamura), in his office, where he demonstrates that the mushroom implant can probe the recipient's brain for information, which is used in horror games to develop a personalised scary environment. Katie takes Cooper to a mansion, the Harlech House, leaving him alone with just an earpiece with which to communicate with her. He explores the mansion and endures some minor jumpscare events interspersed with nervous conversation with Katie; however, Cooper soon finds his earpiece malfunctioning.
Sonja shows up at the mansion unexpectedly and tries to convince Cooper that the game is dangerous. He initially thinks she is another hologram, but soon she stabs him with a knife. Cooper fights Sonja and manages to kill her, but not before he rips the skin off her face. Cooper, deeply distressed and in physical pain, suddenly notices that the knife and his wound have disappeared, as has Sonja's body. Katie resumes talking in Cooper's earpiece, telling him he needs to go to the "access point" in order to stop the test. He does as ordered, only for Katie to reveal that there actually is no access point. Katie begins interrogating Cooper with basic questions, and he realizes that he doesn't know the answers and is losing his memories, a reflection of his own fear of his father's senility. Cooper desperately removes the earpiece, but still hears her voice. He smashes a mirror in the "access point" room and attempts to remove the mushroom with a shard of glass. Katie and Shou appear, saying the technology has gone too far into his brain and cannot be shut off, and will reduce him to a childlike state.
Cooper wakes up, 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, saying the game was not designed to go that far, 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 starts dialing his number on her phone. Cooper wakes up again, and it is then revealed that he has been in the white room from the first test all along; all the events subsequent to him putting on the mushroom, meeting Shou, the mansion, returning home, all were part of the "playtest". When Cooper's phone rang during the upload, the game was fatally interfered with and Cooper dies in the white room after a 0.04-second test, shouting for his mother in his final moments. Katie notes that he "CALLED 'MOM.'"
"Playtest" was the last episode of the third series to be filmed. 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".
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.
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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