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.
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.”
“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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