This article contains spoilers for The Peripheral season 1 and Don’t Worry, Darling.
The first season of Prime Video’s William Gibson adaptation, The Peripheral has come to an end, an absolutely wild trip through issues of environmentalism, fascism, warfare, and technology that will likely take us ages to fully unpack. But the series has also been about video games in general and virtual reality in particular. Yes, it turns out that virtual reality can actually be a kind of alternate universe telepresence time travel, but virtuality remains pretty close to the core of the story throughout. Even the finale pivoted around the concept of a real life “save game” (or “reboot” as they call it in the episode).
When we first meet Flynne (Chloë Grace Moretz), she is moonlighting as a videogame grinder for wealthy clients who are stuck on a first-person shooter. When she enters a post-apocalyptic alternate future London, she believes it’s an exciting new game setting. Indeed, the setting has massive Watchdogs: Legion vibes (although we’ll leave it to you to decide whether the production designers were influenced by that game, or they shared an aesthetic just because of the massive debt all cyberpunk owes William Gibson in the first place).
More than that, the “stub” that Flynne lives in is treated by the “prime” timeline a lot like a simulation. It is a sandbox where they can test out new technologies and theories, with consequences that seem extremely real to the people within the Peripheral, but no consequences for the “real” world. In fact, with the only transportation between the timelines taking place through the robotic Peripheral bodies, the “stub” could just as easily have been a very realistic computer simulation as an actual alternate timeline for storytelling purposes.
But by setting Flynne’s alternate past in an actual universe of its own, rather than a hyper-detailed simulation, The Peripheral can sidestep a lot of the obvious tropes and narrative pitfalls of sci-fi around virtual and simulated realities.
Here are a couple of ways in which The Peripheral defies the usual sci-fi VR tropes.
There is No “God” to Fight in The Peripheral’s VR
Before we look further at The Peripheral, let’s look at some actually simulated realities. They are a popular sci-fi trope. They enable all kinds of fantastic settings and magical powers while still keeping ostensibly within the walled garden of “hard” science fiction. The idea that our own universe is a simulation is a popular obsession of tech bros and billionaires, and the argument has some merit. After all, if we develop the technology to create convincing simulations of reality, we’ll probably create more than one, and if there are many simulated realities and only one “real” reality, what are the odds that you’re in the right one?
But philosophy aside, the computer simulation is a popular place to set a story, and if you are the hero of that story, your natural antagonist almost always turns out to be whoever made the simulation.
Free Guy sees Ryan Reynolds play a self-aware NPC who leads an uprising against a dickhead videogame developer (who stole the code from someone who had a… just a sort of virtual goldfish bowl that honestly sounds like a much worse game?). The Black Mirror episode “USS Callister” sees another dickhead videogame developer uploading his colleagues into his Star Trek RPG to torture them. Don’t Worry Darling’s villain is Chris Pine as the creator of a fully realistic trad-wife simulator, and of course, The Matrix has humans fighting our favorite old-fashioned evil AI.
It’s easy to see why the creator of the simulation is the natural villain of these stories. After all, who doesn’t want to kill God? But there is a problem with that, namely, he’s God.
“USS Callister” is a great example of this (plus, it’s set at Christmas, so it’s a great time for a rewatch!). You challenge Robert Daly (Jesse Plemons) and with a click of his fingers he’ll wipe your face away, or turn you into a monster, or magic up your kid and chuck him out the airlock, and you are literally powerless to stop him.
But other executions of this are… less good. In Free Guy, rather than simply deleting the NPC you don’t like, Taika Waititi’s videogame developer chases him down the street with collapsing buildings.
Don’t Worry Darling is even worse. When Florence Pugh’s Alice discovers she is trapped in a simulation, she makes a run for the exit. The exit which, for reasons that are not adequately explained, Chris Pine’s videogame developer has no power to close, or to do anything except chase her with a bunch of NPCs in red overalls. At least, I assume they were NPCs and “Trad wife simulator security guard” isn’t an actual job in this universe.
Even The Matrix, which has all the same I-have-no-mouth-but-I-must-scream technology that “USS Callister” did, still leaves its enforcement down to a bunch of powerful NPCs in suits.
(The best one of these, by the way, is Realms of Fightinge, where the dickhead video game developers have inserted an invincible giant chicken into the game purely to screw over this one guy).
Of course, The Peripheral doesn’t have this problem because, as we’ve mentioned, there is no simulation, and so there is no God. The people behind the Stub can still do a lot of damage, in the final episode they work to accelerate the apocalyptic jackpot, but it takes a bit more work than simply pressing “delete”.
But the other trope that The Peripheral avoids is one it could easily not have.
If You Die in the Game, You DON’T Die in Real Life
“If you die in the game, you die in real life!” is one of those lines that always makes our hearts sink a little bit. It is there, in one form or another, in The Matrix, in Don’t Worry Darling, in Sword Art Online and too many Holodeck episodes of Star Trek to count.
In The Matrix, it is at least justified to the extent that the simulation is a prison, and you access it by plugging a USB into the base of your skull. In Don’t Worry Darling it makes much less sense. I simply would not buy a video game that killed me if I died in it, and it’s hard to see other people overcoming that objection just because it means they can simulate having a girlfriend who also reminds them of their mum. Okay, you’re not playing Call of Duty here, but we all know what percentage of fatal accidents happen in the home, right? A large one I expect.
And yes, one guy (a video game console developer who may or may not be a dickhead with simulated clones of all his workmates in his own virtual prison) has actually made a virtual reality helmet that will kill you if you die in the game, even if he is too much of a coward to play the thing.
But still, the one exception aside, it is always a bit unconvincing when the story throws the “Die in real life” twist out there.
That said, The Peripheral had every reason to use this trope. For starters, like The Matrix, it’s not just a virtual reality helmet, it’s a complex neural interface that connects you to a real location in what is basically another universe. Why wouldn’t bad things happening there damage you to the point where your meat body is left a drooling husk?
But no, when characters from the stub get their Peripherals beaten up, shot, or thrown off tall buildings, they wake up back home with nothing to show for it but a little psychological trauma. Sure, the future timeline may hire killers to come and shoot you in real life, but as long as you’ve got your fancy VR helmet on, you can go dancing in traffic with no ill consequences.
And the thing is, we know why those other stories include the “die in real life” twist. It’s to raise the stakes of the story.
“Oh no!” the audience cries. “Now when the gorilla throws the barrel at the plumber it could really hurt him!”
Except, death is a pretty rubbish stake.
When you’re watching the Mission: Impossible movies, and Ethan Hunt is hanging off the back of a Concorde by his fingertips with six pounds of Semtex in his underpants and a timer with only three seconds on the clock, you never, for one actual second, believe that he is going to die.
And that’s okay. You don’t need him to.
Because death is very rarely the actual stake in a story. We don’t watch Die Hard worried that John McClane will get shot- we watch Die Hard worrying whether he’s going to achieve the necessary level of emotional vulnerability to patch things up with his wife.
When Flynne, Burton and Conner are inhabiting their peripherals, we don’t need to be worrying whether they will live or die. Instead, we worry about how Flynne will be affected by her knowledge of the future, how Conner feels in his new body, and Flynne and Burton’s sibling relationship will develop.
We worry about how they will affect this future world they are inhabiting, and what they will do with that knowledge of the future when they return to their own world.
The world, the people they care about, and their connections to one another are the real stakes of the story. These are, in fact, the real stakes of basically any story you care to mention- even when lives are on the line, personal peril is very rarely the audience’s biggest concern. Ultimately, the threat of death is only a Peripheral.
All eight episodes of The Peripheral season 1 are available to stream on Prime Video now.