The fundaments of “Playtest” is pretty much ideal. The director is Dan Trachtenberg, the same guy behind this year’s fantastic 10 Cloverfield Lane. He manages to channel the same claustrophobic sensory hype of the movie but skews closer to traditional horror. Trachtenberg makes sure to skip easily between the calm of our world and this coked-up one made of terror and psychological trauma.
And then there’s Wyatt Russell (of Everybody Wants Some!!) as Cooper, playing the best approximation of The Dude but in a haunted house. Cooper is a mostly happy-go-lucky fellow, backpacking across the world, doing cool things, meeting cool people, and picking up the odd-job here and there. One of those odd-jobs he takes as he attempts to make it back home to repair his relationship with his mom is actually as a playtester for legendary video game designer Shou Saito (Ken Yamamura).
Shou actually made his name on a classic horror game that actually happens to be set in a digital version of a mansion on the company’s grounds. Cooper ends up there after agreeing to playtest a beta version of an augmented reality game set in that very same house. In fact, his mission is very simple: just spend the night in the mansion. It’s pretty simple; safe, even, since nothing can actually hurt you seeing as how it’s all AR.
Through this, however, we are treated to a series of genuinely horrifying sequences. There are a good amount of jump scares, sure, as you’d expect (Cooper even comments on that fact at some point), but it also takes one of the few joyful, good people of the Black Mirror world and builds tension on his broken past and aspirations for redemption. The game, you see, changes itself to prey worst on your past and your insecurities.
There’s the obvious warnings of what the recent uprising of virtual reality means for our attachment to our world, on what we get out of an artificial world meant to wholly replace our real one, but it only dabbles in it. It only dabbles, in fact, horror as well, swiftly stepping in and out of shock, gore, and simmering-turned-boiling dread. The whole episode is, one some level, just a joke, though a beautifully layered one that plays with perceptions and expectations.
The closing moments actually wouldn’t be out of place in an SNL skit pointed at Alec Baldwin’s Word with Friends addiction. It’s so perfectly and directly abrupt that when it happens, you can’t help but laugh. Here’s a whole episode of an insightful and affecting series that ends up being a goof. How can you not laugh? The alternative, after all, is your Tinder date turning into a skinless monster stabbing you through the chest.