Warning: The following recap contains spoilers. If you don’t want to know anything about the episode, “Playest,” or if you’re adversely affected by the thought of brain-machine interfaces, leave the page now!
“Playtest,” as you’d guess from the title, is an especially creepy episode of Black Mirror revolving around a video game. But the video game du jour is an unholy augmented reality (AR) game that needs to be surgically implanted into your spinal column and uses a machine-learning “neural net” to figure out your deepest fears. (Note: our new deepest fear is this video game.)
The episode, which was written by showrunner Charlie Brooker, opens with the episode’s title written out in 8-bit video game text. From there, we meet Cooper, a young man who’s packing for an adventure. After passing by a picture of his family—young Cooper, his father, his mother—he quietly leaves his house and catches a cab. He gets a call from his mom, but he ignores it.
The next thing you know Cooper’s on a plane. After that, it’s a montage of everywhere a moderately wealthy 20-something would go on a whirlwind trip: Australia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and of course, Europe. In the UK, Cooper uses a Tinder-like app to meet up with a woman named Sonja. They get to know each other over a couple of beers—she’s a technology correspondent, he went on his trip to “get away from home”—and then Cooper asks her for some “suggestions on fun shit to do.” After some coquettish glances are shared, we cut to them snuggled up in bed the next morning.
The two get to know each other a bit more over a sexy breakfast full of Marmite—we learn that Cooper’s dad has a serious case of Alzheimer’s—and Cooper keeps ignoring calls from his mom. This becomes a big problem for him when he goes to the ATM and finds out he doesn’t have any money. After calling the bank, he realizes that his identity has been stolen. He wants to call his mom, but he can’t bring himself to do it, so he does the only thing he can do: return to Sonja’s and drink beer.
While hanging with Sonja, Cooper opens up an app called Odd Jobs, which, you guessed it, helps him find odd jobs. Sonja immediately recognizes a position for “Thrill Seeker.” Cooper—who had participated in the running of the bulls—seems like a good candidate. He says that the job is at a gaming company called Saito Gaming. Sonja pulls a magazine off a table and shows Cooper the CEO of Saito: Shou Saito. She says he should go because if he can get some BTS shots of Saito’s technology, that could mean big money.
Cooper rolls up to Saito, which is in an archetypal English manor, to some very awesome synth music reminiscent of Trent Reznor’s score in The Social Network. He’s greeted by a woman, Katie, who puts him in a room with some next-level gaming equipment. While she’s gone, Cooper quickly snaps a picture of the equipment with his phone, which he forgets to turn off (Katie turned the phone off originally). Then, after signing an NDA and having a “mushroom” implant shot into the back of his neck, Cooper is loaded into the AR game (which uses a headband that encompasses his forehead). Instantly a Whac-A-Mole type game pops up on the desk in front of him. The mole is incredibly realistic.
Katie then takes Cooper to see the man himself: Saito. Saito, who believes games “liberate you” and invoke a “release of fear,” invites Cooper to try a new creation: “The most personal survival horror game in history.” Katie explains that it’s a game that invades one’s brain, and it uses a neural net to find a player’s biggest fears. Coop signs up. (He did do the running of the bulls.)
After the game is initiated inside of his head, he’s taken by Katie to what is essentially an old haunted mansion. She then sits him down, puts an earpiece in his ear, and says later! (say “stop” if the game gets to intense). At first, the game seems mind-numbingly boring, and Cooper simply chills by the fire. But quickly, very creepy things start to happen. At first, it’s just a spider. Then it’s an old bully from school in a creepy witch costume. And soon, Cooper finds himself in the kitchen staring at the face of a gargantuan spider with the face of his high school bully on it. (Spider-Man gone so. Very. Wrong.)
Cooper thinks, even after the giant spider, that he’s got this; he’s not afraid. Then there’s a knock at the door. It’s Sonja, she’s come to rescue him from Saito, which is actually an evil corporation. Only, that’s not true. In fact, Sonja is just a simulation made by the game’s neural net—even though he can actually feel her. Not only can he feel her, he can also feel the knife she eventually puts through his shoulder. But wait, even though he could feel Sonja and the knife, they weren’t actually real!
That’s the last straw for Cooper; he says he wants out. Katie tells him that he must go to “the access point” in the house in order to end the game. But, twist again! The access point isn’t a real room, even though Cooper’s still locked inside of it. He begins to fear that he’s losing his memory like his father. It’s all too much, so he takes a piece of broken mirror to the back of his neck to rid himself of the “mushroom.” Before he can remove it however, Katie and Saito enter and tell some guards to drag him away and put him with “the others.” Buuuut, twist again! It’s not really Katie and Saito. In fact, Cooper is still in the chair in Saito’s office. Everything is totally cool.
Cooper then flies home, and walks upstairs to his mom’s room. There he finds his mom sobbing. It makes sense at first, but it becomes apparent that Cooper’s mom is trying to call Cooper even though he’s right there. And that’s because THERE’S A FINAL BIG TWIST. Cooper is not actually at home with his mom, he is, in fact, in the very first Saito gaming room where he played virtual Whac-A-Mole. And he’s having a seizure.
The seizure, caused by a malfunction in the game’s initializing sequence—due to Cooper’s mom calling his cell phone—kills Cooper. When Saito asks Katie what happened, she says that his phone rang, which is bad news because the call interferes with the game. Finally, when Katie sits down to write her post-mortem report (do those happen a lot when testing games?), she puts down in the Observations section: ” CALLED ‘MOM'”
Who did you want to call after watching “Playtest”? Was it your mom? (We know it was your mom, but still, tell us about it, what are we, chopped liver?)