Spoiler Warning: This article discusses the plot points of Black Mirror Season 3.
The new season of science fiction anthology Black Mirror is out on Netflix, and it contains a fair few shout-outs to video games. The second episode, Playtest, stands out in particular.
The protagonist, Cooper, is a thrill-seeking American traveller who embarks on a world tour following a family tragedy. In London, on the last leg of the trip, he hooks up with local woman Sonja and opens up about his reluctance to face up to the emotional consequences of his father's disease and death. The next day, his credit card is drained before he can make it back home. He returns to Sonja who shows him a too-good-to-be-true offer: play test a new game for a substantial payout.
The fictional studio Saito Games is renowned for horror games, and so secretive that journalist Sonja persuades him to covertly snap some behind-the-scenes shots to sell for even more profit. Cooper takes up the offer and manages to snap a pic of Saito Games' tech before he's hooked up to it, but then it all goes horribly wrong.
Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker is a longtime gamer and even claimed that he did not graduate from university because the subject of his dissertation was video games (not considered an acceptable topic at the time). Early in his career, Brooker was a games journalist and after moving on to television continued to cover the medium with his Gameswipe and How Videogames Changed the World. TV features.
It's safe to say he knows what he's talking about, but does his portrayal of Saito Games cast a prophetic shadow on the future of horror gaming?
Augmented Reality is already here
Augmented reality (AR) isn't some high-tech fantasy. Fitting in with Black Mirror's '10 minutes into the future' sci-fi style, it's technology that we already have, just turned up to 11. Augmented reality integrates digital images directly into our vision, blurring the line between the game and the real world. Currently, AR typically uses the camera on your tablet or phone to overlay content over what the camera sees, allowing you to turn real life into a video game level. AR headsets have also been developed, the most famous of them being the discontinued Google Glass.
AR content varies, of course. Pokémon Go is probably the first thing people think of when it comes to AR, but it's not all about cuteness. Horror-themed AR experiences are out there, one of the most popular being Zombies Everywhere. Developers are even working to turn your house into a survival horror game, populating the darkness of your own home with monsters.
Check out modern day AR horror in the trailer below:
Virtual Reality also needs to be taken into account when thinking about the future. VR can produce a much more detailed and vivid experience than AR, because it doesn't need to map out and react to the real world around the player, and doesn't need to be easily portable.
But there are plans to combine AR and VR technology, with Google rumored to be throwing some serious money behind it. This would blend real and virtual environments to the point where the user would no longer be able to tell what is real and what is computer generated. So far, only psychoactive drugs can achieve this level of mind-screwery. It's not for nothing that Saito Games' implant is compared to a mushroom.
The logical conclusion of all this is that, as we escalate the technology in search of ever-deeper immersion in virtual worlds and seek to integrate that virtual world as seamlessly into our real life experience as possible, a headset just isn't going to cut it. The tech will become smaller, more powerful and much more personal - we're talking about direct integration into our brains and nervous system of the kind Black Mirror is so fond of showing.
The 'mushroom' in Playtest is just one example. Another episode, titled Men Against Fire, features soldiers fitted with AR implants that help them navigate the battlefield, but also display the enemy as zombie-like monsters.
Neural networks, computer systems that learn and adapt in a similar way to organic brains, are also a real thing. So far they are not used in commercial games, but we all know how disappointing or limited computer AI can be when we play against it. Once sophisticated learning becomes a possibility for video game AI, there's certainly going to be a demand for it.
There's more to horror games than jump scares
Just how well does the experience in Playtest actually measure up as a game? Arguably, we don't see any of the actual game at all, the whole series of events could be a fantasy taking place inside the dying Cooper's head as his brain is fried within 0.4 seconds. As such, we could take what we see as his own internal expectations and fears running through his head during the seizure. But before this triple fake-out, we can take a look at what a real-life game based on Saito Games' creation might look like.
First of all, we're not looking at anything like a complete video game. There's no real play involved, no objective for the protagonist or any way for Cooper to make meaningful choices that affect his experience. Instead, it seems like he just waits in a spooky mansion for the neural net to study his brain and come up with ways to scare him.
Neural nets can experiment with different combinations, sticking with what works and refining their output. In this case, it digs up deep-rooted fears and traumas in Coopers brain and combines them - hence why the spiders and the spooky figure with the face of his school bully end up combining into a monstrous apparition. His mistrust, fear of intimacy and betrayal, and possible apprehension about being caught for his sneaky photo are expressed in the figure of Sophia turning up and confessing that she stole his money and put him in danger. This culminates with his greatest fear - losing his mind to Alzheimer's like his father, confronting his mother.
For all of Shou's talking up survival horror games for making you feel 'alive', I doubt that even the most hardcore horror fan would relish such a personalized experience drawn from real family trauma and deep-rooted existential dread.
In fact, I'd say that a reason why horror games like Resident Evil and Silent Hill are so appealing is precisely because we can experience horror in a safe way without it getting too personal. Sure, there are sudden frights and repulsive monsters, but they take place in the context of the game's world and story, and titillate our senses on a primitive level.
These games are cathartic, but they're made to distract us from, not remind us of, the things that really scare us in our day to day lives, except on a symbolic level. Furthermore, in traditional video games there's always a way to 'win', which turns out to be a little too optimistic for Brooker's satire.
AR tech and neural networks definitely have their place in the evolution of the 'safe' survival horror genre that we enjoy today. I could see certain private locations being used as 'haunted houses' for AR horror games (Pokémon Go-style free-roaming might freak out the public a bit too much), with advanced AI that learns from experience and adapts to player tactics, making monsters or traps that work out better ways to surprise and scare.
But there really are things to be afraid of
Black Mirror implies that the real mortal terror comes from your own mind. According to the episode's conclusion, Cooper is killed by interference from his cellphone, but the cause of that is his own twofold selfishness - his fear of talking to his mother and confronting his demons, plus the greed that motivates him to turn his cell on to take a photo. For all it's artifice, Playtest is a horror story with a simple morality tale at its heart.
Playtest doesn't just deal with Cooper's fears though. With technology escalating the way it is and the gamification of real life (notice how Cooper's life revolves around using phone apps to travel, find companionship and work), we're fascinated as a society for our tech to become smarter, closer to the real, and also more responsive to our needs and desires. The shadow of this is the possibility that as we become more and more intimate with technology and it becomes smarter, eventually it'll grow to learn our worst fears as well as our deepest desires.
Sonja tells Cooper about the singularity, the mythical (for now) event where A.I. surpasses human intelligence, and elevates itself to god-like omniscience. The horror story here relies on a future super AI turning hostile. If this happens on a level where we're so bonded with technology that it's implanted into our bodies and affecting our senses to the point where computer generated senses are indistinguishable from reality, then it could potentially be the ultimate surrendering of ourselves.
Video games as we know them today, with which we voluntarily suspend our disbelief to feel the excitement of virtual experiences in a fake world, are just the shallow end of this pool. Black Mirror projects an ill omen of the monster that may lurk in the depths.
Video Game Easter Eggs in Black Mirror's 'Playtest' episode
Plenty of games like Super Mario Bros. and Street Fighter are casually mentioned throughout the episode, but some are a little more subtle. Did you spot these?
- Cooper's Surname in the end report is listed as Redfield (Resident Evil)
- Katie’s 'Would you kindly open the door?' (Bioshock)
- Fake issues of UK gaming publication Edge magazine are scattered around
- Harlech's Shadow Mansion resembles the original Resident Evil location.
- Reclusive Japanese developer Shou Saito bears more than a passing resemblance to Hideo Kojima of Metal Gear Solid and Silent Hill P.T. fame.
- Sonya's game collection is impressive, and has a fair few titles that hint at themes in the epsiode's story such as: Resident Evil: Code Veronica, Manhunt, Silent Hill: Homecoming, BioShock 2, Dead Space 2, Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes, Resident Evil Revelations, Dark Souls II, Until Dawn, Portal 2, Thief, and more.
Can't wait to hear what he thinks.