Friday, December 8, 2017

"Black Mirror" Backtrack 2: "Playtest" and Bespoke Fear

Spoiler warnings apply. Please do not read on unless you have watched "Playtest" or don't mind full spoilers.

The second episode of Black Mirror's third season is catnip for gamers -- and an unsurprising turn from series creator Charlie Brooker. The big-name geek has put a major stamp on video game culture, from chronicling its history to defending its demographic. At this point, the only thing that surprises me about Brooker's gamer status is that he himself has not created a video game.

(NOTE: If I am wrong, please tell me because if he's made any I'll go buy them now.)

Sadly, even in the Year of Our Lord 2017, there's still this extremely special mentality that video games create behaviors. Yes, there are cases of young people saying "I saw it in a video game so I did it," but (sorry, PTA moms) that's an issue with the family and not the game. There's a Penn & Teller Bullshit! episode that busts this pretty hard. But that's slightly off the path of this episode.

As ever, each episode of Black Mirror comes with its set of overstated reviewer issues that completely miss the point... while there's a lot to say about our own psychology sitting right there under the surface.

Missed Point 1: "This is a commentary on how emotionally numb we've become."

I can't speak for anyone else, but if I've become numb to horror and violence it's because this year has sucked a lot.

It's true that we see Cooper laughing at some terrifying things -- giant spiders, the high school bully, a giant bully-faced spider -- but laughing is not an uncommon fear response. People who game with me or go to haunts with me will probably hear me laugh more than scream.

Laughing, crying, and screaming are all valid fear responses. And leaving out the fact that scientists are actually digging into the idea that laughing at fear might be a survival instinct, these are all cathartic acts. Which makes sense -- comedy and horror are very close siblings and serve similar purposes.

The idea that Cooper and others need or want augmented reality horror isn't necessarily a sign of numbness, either. If horror is catharsis, big horror is big catharsis. More on that later.

Missed Point 2: "COULD THIS BE THE FUTURE OF GAMING!!!!????!!!"


The sight of Matrixed-out gamers in sci-fi isn't an uncommon sight: people who want the realest and the best to the point that they will mod their own body to get it. And while I'm sure you can find some gamers who'd be willing to do that, I doubt you'll find any designers willing to run with that.

The mushroom of "Playtest" is, let's face it, a Really Really Dumb Idea. I can name one person in my life who would absolutely go for it, but even the hardest-core adrenaline junkies I know would nope right out of any piece of machinery that could plumb your brain for fear -- assuming it could even exist. Which is irrelevant, of course, because Black Mirror has no interest in predicting future tech. And yes, I'll keep saying that until people understand.

"Playtest" does make some major statements about fear and the human psyche and escapism. But, funnily enough, it's much more about the powers of the human mind -- and how, in the end, technology can never replicate what we can do to ourselves.

So what are the true high points of "Playtest"?

Charlie Brooker Really Likes Resident Evil

Without sarcasm, this is probably our main takeaway from the episode.

Reclusive designer Shou Saito is a match in almost every way for real-world game designer Hideo Kojima (of Resident Evil, Metal Gear, and the upcoming Death Stranding). He's off working with an eclectic group at his own company -- SaitoGemu in "Playtest," Kojima Productions in the real world. He looks extremely similar. His EDGE cover advertising Harlech Shadow V: The Fear Within looks a lot like the PlayStation Magazine cover for Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. (See both below.) Hell, isolate some of the kanji in Kojima's name and it can be read "Shou Saito." For gamers who know their stuff, this would be like seeing a movie about a dude named PDQ Warcraft writing books about giant squids.

Throw in that the Harlech Shadow interiors look awfully similar to more recent Resident Evil games, and the fact that our protagonist's surname is Redfield, and... yeah, Brooker really just wanted to make a Resident Evil episode for real.

Why is that a takeaway? Well, one, because Resident Evil is awesome. But two, because Brooker has form when it comes to video game nowse. His earliest writing gigs involved reviewing video games for PC Zone, and he's done some amazing documentary work on the history of gaming. So when someone with his decades of experience decides to dedicate his video game episode to a very specific creator and a very specific franchise, he's making a statement about that creator and franchise's importance in the art form.

And that's sort of a big deal. It's not a thing many gamers (if any) would argue with. It's really a "gimme," if anything. But there's something quite nice about seeing a gaming fan not only do the thing, but do it well -- I can't imagine many other creators nailing an off-brand quite like this.

Though listen around. There are some references to other games of note scattered throughout, too.

Humans Crave Bespoke Horror

An easy thing to forget when looking back on "Playtest" is the intent of SaitoGemu's experiment. And, in all fairness to us, we're sort of invited to forget it.

The true point of the experiment is not to make realer gaming. It's to make more personal gaming.

To latch into that, it's important to remember just how little of the episode actually happened. Starting from Cooper's mom calling him, we are operating within Cooper's mind. So the graphics quality tests, the failure of his "safe words," and the like are not part of the true experience -- or, at the very least, we will never know if they are. Obviously any game designer wants the highest possible quality graphics. But believable AR is already within reach without plugging things into our neck.

The mushroom might be able to affect what a person sees, but it also delves into memories to create something that looks and acts in a way that will create the desired result. It's not a less pixelated blood spatter Cooper -- or any gamer -- wants: it's a scare that truly hits home.

That's hard because, well, who knows? That's why jumpscares are so popular: they get the reaction most of the time because it's a cheap trick. Psychological horror depends on understanding psychology. And while some games are aces at that, it works better if the game "knows you" somehow.

Supermassive's Until Dawn is about as close as we'll currently get to Saito's dream project: a survival horror game that cross-checks, questions, and literally psychoanalyzes you to make sure it's delivering quality scares throughout the game. And it's pretty damn effective, altering scenes based on whether dogs or needles skeeve you out more.

But why, I've been trying to explain to people who don't dig horror, do we want it to be more personal? Why do we want that fake knife closer to our throats? It's hard to explain, because understanding the answer relies on being okay with horror. But for those of us who crave something that speaks directly to us, it really is the catharsis. The realer our fear, even if we know it can't hurt us (er, especially if we know it can't hurt us), the realer the satisfaction of facing it, the realer the burst of adrenaline when we face it down.


Our Realest Fears Are the Mundane

One of the most interesting things to me about this entire episode is that we have no proof that the mushroom had anything to do with the shape of Cooper's nightmare. The seizure that caused his death was absolutely caused by the interaction of the mushroom and his phone's signal... but it sure looks like the tech didn't even finish installing.

In other words, what we were seeing wasn't the mushroom acting on his brain. We were seeing the dying moments of a gamer. It's the only way to explain Cooper's experiences of visceral pain and psychological trauma beyond what would be ethical for a creator as self-respecting as Shou Saito.

Technology's only influence on Cooper's experience in this episode, arguably, is the death itself. Everything else was the result of his tortured mind putting things into terms he can understand as a thrill-seeker and gamer.

And the order of events makes sense, too. The "experiment" starts with an innocent game of Whack-a-Mole, with Cooper laughing downright childishly as he engages with the cartoon character -- a youthful, happy video game fan. We move on to the "real" house of Harlech Shadow, where he interacts with various monstrous versions of his feared high school bully. From there, he moves on to a mix of memories of his recent fling and struggles with trust issues -- which, as we go on, we start to see a reason for.

Then there's the "access point" in the upstairs bedroom -- bedrooms, according to Jung, being representative of our place of innermost thoughts and feelings (yep, you better believe I'm gonna whip out the Jung). What do we see there? A loss of sense of self. A fear of turning into his father. A shattering of his self image as we see the mirror shattered. A loss of control as the "perfectly safe" and "non-invasive" tech turns against him.

And then, our fake-out ending. A brief respite where he goes home, and then comes face to face with the one final thing he's been avoiding. We're never quite sure what pulled his family apart, what made him avoid his mother so assiduously and made him resent his father so much. But in those last moments, we see that actually losing the connection with his mother -- not being able to return to her on his terms -- is the most devastating thing in his life. And, of course, the separation makes up his final act.

Harlech Shadow as we witness it is Cooper's life flashing before his eyes. And while Shou Saito is modeled after one of the most talented game designers in history, there's probably no way he could make anything nearly so personally affecting.

What Is the Lesson?

Call your mom.


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