How Black Mirror Embraced Its Horror Potential with Playtest

Though Black Mirror is no stranger to delving into the horrors of our world, season 3’s “Playtest” represents the anthology’s truest foray into Horror with a capital “H”.

Black Mirror Playtest
Photo: Netflix

Monster specialist Grant Walker of award-winning VFX studio Framestore was excited when he received an offer to work on an episode of sci-fi anthology Black Mirror’s third season. But the nature of the job, for an episode called “Playtest”, proved to be an unexpected one.

“I thought: ‘they want to make monsters for Black Mirror? I don’t get it,’” Walker says.

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Through two seasons and six episodes on Channel 4, the monsters of Black Mirror were largely metaphorical and unseen, signals and dispatches from mobile devices in a dubiously fictional world. Then the show was picked up by Netflix, which quickly commissioned a six-episode third season. Among those six episodes was “Playtest,” an hour starring Wyatt Russell (Lodge 49), Wunmi Mosaku (Lovecraft Country), and Hannah John-Kamen (Ant-Man and the Wasp). When that episode premiered on Oct. 21, 2016 it looked quite different from any other Black Mirror installment before it.  

In “Playtest,” the monsters of Black Mirror became literal with a grotesque human-spider hybrid and a shrieking flayed-faced zombie terrorizing Russell’s character Cooper Redfield as he playests the latest virtual reality videogame from a legendary game studio SaitoGemu. Though it all may be happening in Cooper’s head, the monsters created by Framestore are no less real to the viewer. That makes “Playtest” something truly unique in the Black Mirror canon. This is the one installment of the show’s 22’s entries that is undeniably, unapologetically horror. And four years to the day after its premiere, it still stands tall in the Black Mirror canon among the creative individuals who crafted it.

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“I wasn’t expecting to do it. Then it just kind of just snuck in there, and it ended up being the highlight of my year,” Walker says of his BAFTA-nominated work on the episode.

“Playtest” director Dan Trachtenberg came to the project directly after the release of his film debut, thriller 10 Cloverfield Lane. Like Walker, he was pleasantly surprised that Black Mirror was set to expand its genre influences. 

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“I remember that was the big draw for Charlie (Brooker). He was really excited about making essentially Evil Dead 2. And I was excited to continue to do that kind of work and I felt like I was sharpening a tool that I hadn’t yet fully sharpened,” Trachtenberg says. 

Trachtenberg and creator Charlie Brooker bonded over a shared love of both horror and videogames and quickly got to work fine-tuning Brooker’s concept into a lean horror machine. 

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“What evolved the most was probably Wyatt Russell’s character,” Trachtenberg says. “Initially, the character was much more of an ugly American. There’s still that quality to him, but there’s a lovability and a naivete to Wyatt’s performance that informs the gravity of some of the things that he’s dealing with. In initial drafts, it was more like one of the horror movie terms of the unlikable person who is put through a gauntlet to learn to have values.”

The first third of “Playtest” serves to set up the improbable circumstances that would lead a young American man to a creepy manor in the British countryside to playtest a VR horror videogame from a Japanese gaming giant. It all starts with Cooper out on a sprawling world tour, traveling to India, Dubai, Spain, and more before arriving in London at the tail end of his journey. When it’s time to finally return home, Cooper discovers that his bank account has been hacked and he’s unable to buy a return plane ticket. Thankfully SaitoGemu is in London working on its latest horror game and it’s willing to pay for some willing playtesters. That’s how Cooper makes his way to the opulent and spooky Harlech House where lead designer Shou (Ken Yamamura) and the team are hard at work creating the next great VR horror adventure.

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If this seems like a lot of exposition before Cooper engages with the horrors of the haunted mansion, there’s a method to Black Mirror’s madness. Much of what Cooper experiences prior to entering Harlech House informs the horrors that he sees. One prominent example includes Cooper watching a movie on his flight about a monstrous spider and then encountering a terrifying spider of his own later on. There’s also a poster for Red Sonja, which foreshadows the moment that a specter of Cooper’s sex buddy Sonja (Hannah John-Kamen) enters the simulation and has her face torn off, revealing the crimson skull beneath. 

When (Cooper) kills that evil Sonja and slams her head onto the knife and through his shoulder that is (the position that) they woke up that morning. It’s kind of like in dreams, the way things are affecting you while you’re sleeping and then they show up later inside what you’re imagining,” Trachtenberg says.

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The rest of “Playtest’s” dream sequences are positively bursting with similar dream imagery and Easter eggs that fans have done an excellent job of documenting over the years. Trachtenberg is fond of some of the subtler ones.  

“There’s a typical, classic creepy girl in the painting in a creepy house, and the girl in the painting is the girl that he’s sitting next to in the airplane in the beginning. Everything you see in act one populates in act two and three,” the director says.

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Once the horrors of “Playtest” get going, however, there is nothing subtle about them. And that’s where Framestore’s work comes in. Walker and his team were charged not only with creating a small, realistic spider that sets off the hallucination, but also a monstrous version with the human visage of his childhood bully Josh Peters.

“I played around with quite a lot of different iterations of where to put the face, and how to change the anatomy of the spider and the body,” Walker says. “The mandible things, they were coming out of his mouth at one point, and then they returned into part of his mouth opened up in the way that it does. I don’t know if people notice it or not, but those legs are hands with long nails. They’re like fingers. It’s got a belly button underneath it and other weird stuff that you might not ever get to see.”

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The undead version of Sonja was a combination of practical and visual effects, with Walker’s team serving to make the terrifying red skull “gooier” for the most part. 

“That was a tricky one. It was one of those ones when you spend a lot of time actually just massaging the integration so it feels tangible as opposed to kind of making this standalone thing and investing time in an amazing asset. She wasn’t quite so shiny, so we built our own CG version, and some shots were CG and layered on the top.”

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The effects for Spider-Peters and Red Sonja had to be particularly on point as they are a product of Cooper’s brain and not merely SaitoGemu’s VR technology. As attentive viewers of Black Mirror know, “Playtest” actually “ends” roughly 20 minutes in when Cooper receives a phone call from his mom in the secure playtest area. The signal from his phone, which was supposed to be off and secured in a suitcase, fries the “mushroom’s” connection to Cooper’s brain and kills him almost instantly. Everything that follows is the product of his dying brain and not the work of SaitoGemu’s machine. This information, of course, isn’t revealed until episode’s end and as such Brooker maintains that it’s one of the most misunderstood endings in Black Mirror history. 

“If there’s misunderstandings of it, I’m probably to blame, which may be why Charlie is cleaning it up,” Trachtenberg jokes. “But frankly, every reaction video that I’ve watched I feel like people usually do get it. There’s even a clip where someone put what actually happened, where they cut out the entire second that they just show that scene as if that’s all that happened, which is fun to watch.”

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The best episodes of Black Mirror are never about how technology will torment humanity. They’re about how humanity will use new technology to continue to torment ourselves. And nowhere is that more apparent than in “Playtest.” The episode sets up a scenario in which a VR experience will go haywire, but then in reality it is Cooper’s brain that betrays him, not the machine. It’s Cooper’s conscience that takes him on this terrifying freak show of monsters and murderers and then dies before the game even begins. It’s the proverbial “flashes before your eyes” moment in which that flash is a literal horror movie.

“I do find it interesting how devastating that notion is for so many – that it could all happen in a split second,” Trachtenberg says. “We definitely went back and forth so much on the ending. And I certainly don’t love too many twists as well, I just felt the initial twist was the expected one and I wanted there to be something more. I really wanted to drive home that it’s his fault in the end and tie in the fear of inheriting what his father had.”

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Though the monsters of “Playtest” offer up the biggest scares, it’s approach to horror is deeper, more existential. Cooper’s real biggest fear is forgetting who he is, just like his father did before his end. And the mechanism that ultimately kills him isn’t any malevolent entity within the game or SaitoGemu, it’s simply his inability to connect with his mother during a difficult time in their lives. 

Cooper is quite the keen observer of his surroundings in Harlech House, despite being dead.  During one moment in particular, Cooper opens up a cupboard door to find a bottle of (non-alcoholic) wine and before he closes the cabinet he says aloud to his handler Katie (Mosaku) “He’s going to be right behind this door when I close it, isn’t he?” referring to the shade of Josh Peters. And of course, Cooper is right – just a little delayed, as the spider version of Peters that launches itself across the kitchen shortly after he closes the cabinet.

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Characters in horror movies being self-aware about the “rules” of horror is nothing new in our highly metatextual pop culture landscape. But identifying the “cupboard” rule is still quite impressive. According to Trachtenberg, acknowledging the legacy and tactics of horror is an important part of any horror enterprise.

“There’s a scene in I Know What You Did Last Summer with these two characters talking in a car. The frame they’re on is the extreme side, and the entire other two-thirds of the frame of negative space is the window; and you just know that someone or something is going to jump inside that part of the frame. It’s about riding the wave of tension then releasing it. (With the cupboard scare) the audience has the sensation of, ‘Uh-oh, it’s going to happen here?’ Then Cooper calls it out and the audience thinks, “Oh there. That’s what it is.’ Now that they’re not expecting it, we can actually still surprise.”

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“Playtest” could have been a lot more meta than just as a mere horror critique. At one point, Brooker planned to have a “Nightmare Mode” version of the episode available on Netflix’s streams, in which viewers could revisit it and get a new horror experience. If that sounds like the choose-your-own adventure nature of the eventual special Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, it’s because it is … right down to the focus on videogames. 

Trachtenberg says Netflix wasn’t ready to take on the technological burden of such a concept in 2016. 

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“Charlie is a huge gamer, as am I. We talked a lot about, ‘wouldn’t it be awesome if we could pull off alternate endings or an alternate beat, or could there be connections to other episodes that you only see if you clicked on this button or whatever. I think he really tried with Netflix at that moment and there just was no technology for it.”

Being on the bleeding edge was something of a trend for “Playtest.” Many Black Mirror episodes are known for their uncanny predictive abilities (right down to the truly insane real life rumor of a British Prime Minister allegedly sexually defiling a pig). “Playtest,” meanwhile, preceded a run of truly excellent horror games (including one literally called “P.T.” for “Playtest”) and a modest increase in the popularity of VR technology. But four years on from the episode, Trachtenberg doesn’t feel as though culture is fully embracing the tech’s potential.

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“VR was around when we were shooting. And it’s gotten much better since but I think we all felt like AR was definitely going to take over. I still feel that eventually. You just have to try it to know how amazing it is. But still … I would have thought that would have taken over sooner.”

Perhaps that’s the real legacy of “Playtest.” It’s the one episode of Black Mirror that wasn’t cynical enough about our reliance on technology…despite killing its lead character with a phone 20 minutes in.