Black Mirror’s second new episode feels more like a traditional one when paired against ‘Nosedive‘, but does that necessarily mean that it’s better? Unfortunately, as far as ‘Playtest’ is concerned, the answer is most definitely not.
We’re immediately introduced to Cooper (Wyatt Russell) at the start of the episode; a travelling American who’s reached the UK, and is looking to explore all the things that backpackers do when they cross the pond. After a brief encounter with a fairly nondescript woman (Hannah John-Kamen), Cooper discovers that his bank card no longer functions, and is left with no money to return to the USA. Desperate for some quick cash, he signs up for a job app on his smartphone, and discovers that a nearby games company is looking for people to playtest their new ideas. Eager to earn some easy money, Cooper signs up, and soon finds himself experiencing things not too beyond what we’re currently got in the form of VR.
From an ideas perspective, ‘Playtest’ is relatively solid. For the first twenty minutes of the episode I was constantly expecting something to come into the plot that twisted things up a bit. While the episode certainly develops into something a little more sinister, it never really gets going like you’d hope it would. Sure, insidious technologies come into play and the divide between reality and the virtual world is explored, but it’s never really taken far enough to justify itself. For example, this seemed like it would be the first Black Mirror episode that fully delved into stereotypical horror and gore, and while there’s definitely some tension throughout, it fails to explore the concept beyond anything that has came before.
Cooper himself is a fairly relatable character, but his ladyfriend, Sonja, feels completely shallow and redundant. Even when her significance to the plot is fully revealed, she’s gone as quickly as she came. Which is a real shame, because her relevance feels like it could become the interesting hook that would draw you in to ‘Playtest’, but in the end, she’s nothing more than a means to an end – if that.
Fortunately, just like ‘Nosedive’, this episode holds up in terms of its visual and audio prowess. The soundtrack as Cooper is approaching the games facility is ominously retro, with music loaded with deep synths creating a genuine atmosphere. The horror imagery once the plot fully gets underway is also convincing, and although it’s intentionally cliche, it still does its job reasonably well. Even the script made me laugh a couple of times; particularly when it comments on the tropes of the horror genre itself.
Once you reach the end, however, and the credits begin to roll, you won’t find yourself shocked at how much ‘Playtest’ affected you. Instead, you’ll likely be rolling your eyes at how convoluted and disappointing it becomes – especially when it deals with some interesting and creative concepts. There’s just too many plot holes and laughable narrative twists that keep it from becoming an episode I’d ever return to.