Tuesday, November 08, 2016

The Root of Fear is Madness: On Black Mirror's "Playtest"

[NOTE: This is the second in a series of reviews of Black Mirror Season 3. These posts DO include spoilers. Stop reading now if you don't want to know!]

The second episode of Season 3 ("Playtest") is what I imagine many people who have heard about Black Mirror but never actually watched the series would expect the show to be like. "Playtest" is a straightforward horror film and, for that reason, I wanted to turn it off about halfway through.  I hate, hate, HATE horror films. I do not find the experience of being afraid exciting or thrilling or enjoyable in any way whatsoever. In fact, I don't think that anyone enjoys being really afraid. (So, if you say you enjoy haunted houses or roller coasters or bungee jumping, that is evidence enough for me that those things do not truly frighten you.) Real fear paralyzes, incapacitates, terrorizes. It cannot be reasoned with. It is immune to grit or determination or willpower. And it is intensely, radically idiosyncratic.

"Playtest" is, in part, about that idiosyncratic element of what frightens us, something we might call the fundamental own-ness of our fears. The story revolves around a new virtual reality game being beta tested by the eponymously-named company Saito Geimu (a Japanese transliteration for "sight game"). The game immerses you in a too-real experience that is designed to frighten, during which it "learns" the nooks and crannies of your subconscious mind, and then employs the deepest, darkest things it finds there to (literally) dial you up. For the playtester Cooper (Wyatt Russell)-- who isn't really a "gamer," just a dude looking for a side-hustle and some easy cash-- the virtual experience starts out with giant spiders, things-that-go-bump-in-the-night, and apparitions uncannily resembling his childhood bully, but it ends with a terrifying descent down the Escher-esque stairs of madness.


In the process, Cooper learns (and we learn along with him) that his "root" fear is Alzheimer's disease, a particularly cruel species of madness. We know from the opening scenes of "Playtest" that Cooper has left something painful and mysterious at home and run away to travel the world "looking for some fun shit to do." He dodges phone calls from his mother throughout, so we also know that his mother is somehow involved in the mystery and pain he left behind. But we don't know until the end that Cooper spent the previous two years as a caretaker for his father, witnessing the slow degeneration of his father's Alzheimer's-stricken mind, nor do we know that his mother has since begun her own battle with dementia. These are Cooper's ghosts, his boogeymen. They sit and wait, unacknowledged, unspoken, deep in his subconscious mind, and they carry with them a terror that threatens to unravel him. Of course, the Saito Geimu game finds them, unchains them from the psychological cell in which Cooper has kept them and, eventually, makes Cooper's root fears virtually real... which, because the experience of madness is as much a vacuum-sealed phenomenon of the mind as the experience of virtual reality is, makes those fears really real.

This is as good a point as any, I suppose, to say that I think "Playtest" is the weakest episode of all three seasons of Black Mirror. It's formulaic, it's not especially imaginative, it tarries too long in all the wrong places and not enough in any of the right ones. The triple-shot of gotcha! twists at the end feels sloppy and mawkish and, like its protagonist, "Playtest" doesn't seem to know who or what it is (or wants to be). All that notwithstanding, I think "Playtest" does manage to stumble upon a number of inspired insights.

My sense is that "Playtest" was meant to be a kind of cautionary tale about gaming culture (on the side of both gamers and game designers), warning us against our obsession with virtual realities and more or less cinematically "playtesting" the consequences of our inattention to the distinction between IRL experience and technological simulations of experience.  In fact, when I finished this episode for the first time, the friend I was watching it with said "that was totally about gaming culture!" And I was like, naaaahhhh.

"Playtest" is about Alzheimer's disease.

It's also about the lived-experience of madness generally, or the lived-experience of degenerative brain diseases, more specifically. And it's about what appears to be our "hard-wired" cognitive and affective attachments to the integrity of our own minds, And it's about the universally human fear of the disintegration, disorganization, or degeneration of that absolutely essential lump of gray organic matter inside our skulls, the most inscrutable and mysterious place in the whole universe, the seat of those even-more-mysterious and -inscrutable things we call "the Soul" and "the Self.". And it's about how the fear of "losing" one's mind is contagious because it might be hereditary, how family-caretakers are especially susceptible to that fear, because their up-close-and-personal contact with the afflicted gives them pause and good reason to worry that madness itself may be cooked-into their psychology and biology, lying in wait in their genetic code, their lineal roots, ready to unleash its fury at any moment.

Here is what I think is the perhaps-accidental genius of "Playtest": it metaphorically associates a "root" fear, in the psychological or cog-sci sense, with "root" in the computer-science sense. (I'm leaving out another obvious metaphorical association, i.e., ROOT-- in the sense used by particle physicists, astronomers, and data-mining specialists-- because trying to talk about that association here would be evidence of my reach exceeding my grasp.) The fact that the virtual reality game depicted in "Playtest" not only tests the limits of one's fear but also learns the idiosyncratic "data structure" of one's fear, the internal workings of its various causal/operational fear-value nodes, is as conceptually compelling as it is allegorically so,

Like families, hierarchical data structures are also organized as "trees," which have "roots" which organize and determine their operations. Recursive data trees have a "root" node with "children," i.e., derivative nodes consisting of a value and a list of references to other nodes. ("Ordered" trees have values assigned to each node.) Looking at the whole tree, one can talk about the "parent node" of any given node but, in general, any given node in a data structure only includes a list of its children,so its effective forces are proximate and local.  (Think of the manner in which members of your nuclear family influences/determine you in ways that your great-great-grandparents, for example, likely do not.) If we transpose this onto the extended metaphor of "Playlist," we can see that the episode is trying to tell us not only a story about how Cooper's-- and specifically Cooper's-- deepest fears work and how to trace them to their "root directory," but also how, when that root directory is compromised or corrupted, the whole structure (Cooper himself) falls apart.

This is also how Alzheimer's disease works: it scrambles and corrupts the "root directory files" of the mind. Having seen it unfold in members of my own family, it is literally terrifying to imagine the lived-experience of that disorientation, dislocation, and discombobulation. For some of those afflicted with Alzheimer's- and not just Alzheimer's, but all sorts of mental illnesses and degenerative brain diseases-- the dis-integration of the mind  happens quickly. But for many, many more, it is a brutally slow process. "What is the word for this thing in my hand?" becomes "what day is it?" and then "who are you?" and bit by psychological bit morphs into the tragically sad, alarmingly terminal, and eventually fatal "who am I?". It's as if one is being peeled away, neuron by neuron, from all of the grounding structures that make experience make sense: family and friends, recognition and association, subjectivity and intersubjectivity, even space and time.

If you take away all the high-tech VR bells and whistles from "Playtest," it's just a sad, sad story about corrupted familial, psychological, social, and technological roots: the kinds that destroy families, destroy minds (and/or brains), destroy persons, and destroy worlds. The last 15 minutes will be painfully terrifying to watch for anyone who has seen Alzheimer's or dementia up close, as I presume it will be for sufferers of any number of mental illnesses.  But I think the final 15 minutes also manage to depict the lived-experience of a whole constellation of afflictions that fall under the general umbrella we (frequently and much too casually) call "madness" in a manner that is so detailed, so concrete, so uncensored, so sympathetic and, yes, so virtually real that I cannot imagine anyone not finding in it the thread of a trace back to the root directory of their own fear.

Other Random Episode Notes:
  • Full disclosure: I watched roughly half of "Playtest" with a friend and then, due to a series of unfortunate events, had to interrupt it and start over the following night, So I don't think I really got the full "experience" of this particular episode. However, for the benefit of my fellow fraidy-cats out there, I will say that although "Playtest" is scary, it's not unbearable to watch. (The real terror comes hours, days, maybe even weeks later.) You can do it. 
  • Why doesn't the game being playtested in "Playtest" have a name? This seems like a huge opportunity lost.
  • When Cooper is going through the pre-playtest exercises, his guide Katie (Wunmi Mosaku) places a set of symbols on the table in front of him and OMG they're the same symbols that were used in "White Bear" (Season 2, Episode 2)! I love this little meta-breadcrumb first, because it's a super-satisfying inside-baseball reference that only devotees of Black Mirror will get and, second, because "White Bear" was also about many of the same themes as "Playtest": fear, disorientation, madness, loss of identity, and how absolutely cruel it is to torture someone with their own mind.
  • The fact that Sonja (Hannah John-Camen) shows up in Cooper's visions at the "Playtest" house is wickedly hilarious in its own (very dark) way. I mean, who doesn't have a deep but unassailable fear that their online Tinder "match" is going to turn out to be a stalker, crazy, homicidal, or some combination of those?
  • Imho, "Playtest" is basically The Shining if you replace all of the supernatural elements of the latter with the tech-y stuff of the former. Also replace the fragile-wife psycho-drama of the latter with the mommy- and daddy-issues of the former.
  • It is believed that Alzheimer's disease is (or may be) hereditary. So, yeah, just go ahead and apply my "root" analysis above.
  • I am not a gamer and so I have very limited knowledge of gaming culture. However, what I do know inclines me to insist on calling it a "culture" and not a "subculture." There are entire worlds that exist only in digital space. 
  • The guy who plays Cooper in "Playtest" is Kurt Russell's son IRL, so if you were (like me) thinking why does that dude look so familiar?, now you know.

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