An Audience With...
The creator of Black Mirror on his unorthodox approach to putting games on TV
Charlie Brooker discusses his unorthodox approach to putting games on TV with Black Mirror
The technologically focused, darkly comic TV series Black Mirror has established itself as the modern equivalent of creepy classics such as Tales Of The Unexpected, the kind of show that might just give you pause before turning the light off at bedtime. Black Mirror has touched on games in the past, most notably in series-one episode Fifteen Million Merits, but in the new series, due for release via Netflix on October 21, a story called Playtest sees a young man caught up in an augmentedreality survival-horror nightmare. The man behind the mirror, Charlie Brooker, tells us about the creation of the new series, his growing aversion to survival-horror games, and the challenges he and his team face when representing technology on television.
What’s the setup for Playtest?
There’s a backpacker called Cooper, played by Wyatt Russell, who’s travelling around the world and is a bit of a thrill-seeker – the sort of person who takes part in the Pamplona Bull Run, goes base-jumping and that sort of thing. He finds himself in London and meets a journalist called Sonja – played by Hannah John-Kamen, who coincidentally has just been cast in Ready Player One – and he gets involved in a test for a new videogaming platform made by a company that’s run by a slightly mysterious tech guru called Shou Saito. I don’t think it’s giving too much away to say that there’s a survival-horror theme, and it’s like an augmented-reality device – HoloLens territory, but much more advanced.
You’ve said in the past that you want to actively unsettle people with Black Mirror – did you pick survival horror for its tendency to do that, too?
I’ve always liked bizarre stories and things that would leave you shuddering. When I was growing up there were things like Threads on TV. People think Black Mirror’s bleak, but fuck me it’s got nothing on Threads. And I liked episodes of The Twilight Zone that left you with this weird existential chill. Often the BBC would put on weird and controversial one-off plays, too. So Black Mirror was slightly an attempt to hark back to that kind of thing. And really the technological focus kind of came second to that in a way. But Playtest is slightly based on the fact that I can’t play horror games any more. Or at least I can’t play them on my own any more, because they’re genuinely too unpleasant. Too tense.
But you’re happy to inflict similarly unpleasant tension on your viewers?
[Laughs] Well, I suppose when you’re watching a film or a show, you’re watching a character in dire circumstances and going, “Oh my god, that’s awful, how horrible”, but you’re sort of enjoying it. On some level you must be, otherwise you’d just switch it off. With survival horror… In my 20s I was probably playing games more while sitting in a room with someone else, whereas now I tend to play games as a reward in between writing. In a lot of our stories this season there’s a kind of loose gaming undertow – in Shut Up And Dance, for example, you could argue that they’re caught up in a game of sorts. And in Nosedive, human interaction has been gamified. There’s a gaming theme in a lot of the stories we’ve done this season, which is something I realised belatedly. It’s probably because what I tend to do is write a couple of scenes, and then go and play on the PlayStation or Xbox for a little bit, then I’ll go back to writing. So I reward myself with little gaming breaks, basically.
But I tend to go nocturnal when I write, so I’m often playing at two or three in the morning, and at that time if I’m sneaking around a creepy old fucking house, and something’s going to jump out and scare the shit out of me, it gets to the point where I’m actively not actually enjoying it to such an extent that I’m just upset. I remember when Condemned came out on Xbox 360, where you’re wandering about clobbering people with bits of old pipe and scrabbling around collecting dead birds and having horrible bare-knuckle fights to the death with crazed, homeless mental patients. It was just so horrible, and I remember playing that for a bit and just thinking, ‘Ugh, what am I doing?’ Having said that, something like The Last Of Us is also incredibly tense and nasty, and I played the shit out of that. So there are no hard and fast rules, I guess.
What is it about technology’s potential to induce misery and suffering that fascinates you?
Well, I think that I am just a worrier. I worry about all sorts of things – I could worry about getting food poisoning from the sandwich I just ate as much as I could worry that the iPhone is going to give me a brain disease. So in a way, I’ve got 360-degree worry, and I happen to be quite fascinated by technology as well. But really it’s more that it struck me that technology is miraculous now – there’s not a day that goes by that there isn’t some new development that’s quite bewildering. And the speed that you get used to things that would have seemed miraculous just five years ago is astonishing. Something like Pokémon Go, you’d have a hard time even understanding what that was a decade ago. That sort of thing opens up a lot of what-if possibilities for nasty things to happen, which are fun to explore in this kind of show. I’ve always enjoyed those uncanny, what-if stories, and the technological angle in our show just takes the place of the supernatural. Also, weirdly, it grounds it – it means those stories are, on some level, more
plausible now, because we’re all attuned to accepting things that are miraculous.
A few years ago I did this show called How TV Ruined Your Life, and we did one episode that was about technology. As part of that we mocked up a promo video for a phone that lets you call through time so you could ring yourself the next day to remind yourself of something. And we went out and showed this to people on the street, and asked them what they thought of this new phone that was coming out. And a surprising number of people just took it at face value; “Oh, that’s clever”. Not because they’re stupid, but because you could
kind of believe that. I’m sure there’s an app that would let you record a voicemail to deliver to yourself the next day, so it’s not that far away from reality. But we did also say that it had a laser on the bottom that let you boil a cup of tea in 15 seconds.
Do you ever worry that people could read an antitechnology sentiment into Black Mirror?
I think some people look at the show and think that we’re trying to sound a warning bell or something, and we’re not really. We don’t tend to moralise too much; we’re more concerned with the actual story. But it’s probably lost on quite a few overseas viewers who watch the show and obviously don’t know or care who I am… I imagine the British people who do know who I am are aware that I’m a bit dweeby and that I like videogames, and I’m not anti-technology. Whereas I think overseas viewers assume it’s written by a Unabomber type in a cage – some luddite who wants to smash looms and thinks that even the steam iron is an evil invention.
How involved are you in designing the look of Black Mirror’s futuristic technology and UIs?
I get really involved in the look and feel of all the gear and gizmos. I just find it fascinating. A lot of it is just about stripping back the interface – you simplify and simplify until it becomes really basic, and then it becomes more plausible. It’s when it’s too busy that it gets a bit weird. When anyone’s looking at a screen in any of our episodes, nine times out of ten we’ve had to comp it in afterwards, which is something that you probably don’t realise when you’re watching. It’s either the case that we need to time something right, or it’s an impossible see-through laptop or whatever that doesn’t actually exist yet. We’ve got a fancy driverless car in one of the episodes, and it wouldn’t actually go anywhere, so we had to use CGI. The phone in Nosedive, for example, is a beautiful bit of tech but fuck me did we cause ourselves a headache there. It’s a translucent phone, and we went through a lot of iterations. There was a point where I looked at a rough cut and I said, “We should be seeing the graphics through from the other side”. And they’re like, “But I thought we’d agreed that it’s like this…” And I’m like, “Um, no?” And then that doubled the amount of special effects shots we had to do. At a stroke, suddenly it became this massive thing! So it’s frustrating being just behind the future. You’ve got to haul pixels around in huge numbers just to make something bed in and feel real. In Playtest we’ve got something to do with polygons that was quite complex, but hopefully doesn’t feel that way when you see it.
Are you particularly conscious of representing videogames well?
I suppose I would prefer things to be more accurately depicted than they tend to be. What we don’t tend to do is stories where somebody plays a videogame and then becomes a maniac. Or gets so lost in a game that they don’t understand the difference between reality and fiction. Which is sometimes annoying, because those would be relatively simple stories to do. We were discussing this the other day, actually, because I’ve got an idea for another story for the next season, which we’re working on at the moment. It’s hard to explain without telling you what the idea is, but all narrative roads from the premise lead you to, ‘And then it turns out that the game has sent him mad’. And I kind of don’t want to do that, partly because I feel like that’s been done, but also because I feel that that’s not really the case.
“IN NOSEDIVE, HUMAN INTERACTION HAS BEEN GAMIFIED. THERE’S A GAMING THEME IN A LOT OF THE NEW STORIES”
Have you found that your approach to writing about or adapting games for the screen has gradually changed over time?
Certainly I would say that now you wouldn’t feel the need to explain what a game is and go, “Oh, look at this – you push this button and then that happens”. You still see news reports though, don’t you, that go, “You may think it’s just teenage boys in their bedroom, but today games actually make more money than Hollywood movies!” That hasn’t been a fucking surprise for the last 15 years, and yet it’s still trotted out. But I think in general there’s less need to explain what a game is and how it functions now, because, broadly speaking, the generation below mine has no problem at all understanding that. It would be like explaining how to walk down the street to somebody. If I were writing Playtest ten years ago… Mind you, ten years ago the basic concept of it would have made no fucking sense. But The Matrix was pretty high concept and everyone understood that.
On that point, a Pokémon Go Plus feels like something that wouldn’t be too out of place in an episode of Black Mirror.
Yeah. A few years ago we did a Channel 4 documentary [How Videogames Changed The World] where we counted down the most influential games of time. That list was broadly chronological, which I think threw some people because I don’t think they realised that – that’s probably our fault, as I don’t think we actually said it! When we put Twitter at number one, quite a few people were just pissed off, which was slightly the intention [laughs]. But we weren’t saying that that was the most influential videogame of all time. We were saying that this was one of the most recent, and it felt like a logical end-point – here’s this culture of gaming; look at the way games have developed in all these weird and wonderful ways, until you get to a point where what actually constitutes a game is so broad that it could be anything. You’ve got Invisible Inc, Uncharted and Papers,
Please. Where do you place Pokémon Go? And when you look at something like Twitter, it functions to my mind exactly the same as an RPG, of sorts, where you adopt a persona and perform a character with opinions and thoughts in order to be rewarded with points: followers, retweets, likes. It’s built into the system – it rewards you in the same way a game does, and it must give you the same dopamine rush as the sound effect that a little coin pinging out of a block in Mario World does. So I kind of feel like everyone’s played games now, whether they know it or not.
Black Mirror is infamous for its downbeat conclusions, but videogames often present the ‘bad’ ending as less desirable or even a punishment. Would you prefer to see games wholly embracing darker resolutions more often?
Well, if you think about something like The Last Of Us, that has a slightly ambiguous ending, and I think that
was a good way of doing it. It was quite a soulful ending that slightly altered your perception of the main character. But while I play a lot of games, I very rarely complete them. I wish that I saw more endings, but it’s either that I don’t have the time, or I’m playing something like Fallout 4, put it down while I’m busy, and then get to a point where I want to start something new. But in terms of it being a punishment, I know what you mean. That’s what’s slightly different about The Last Of
Us – it was so well written that you were engaged in the drama of the characters and story, whereas in most games you’re waiting for the cutscenes to end because the game is about you and not that cunt in the cutscenes. With The
Last Of Us, you were enjoying the story in parallel, really, so it didn’t feel like it was punishing you. Having said that, probably the best one I’ve ever seen was a Spectrum game called Stop The Express, which was one of the first games I ever completed. You had to try and get to the front of a runaway train by jumping and avoiding enemies. It was really hard and I got right to the end of it once, and it just says, ‘Congraturation! You sucsess!’ and then puts you back to the start again.
You brought in 10 Cloverfield Lane director Dan Trachtenberg to direct Playtest. How was that?
It’s quite a romp, that particular episode. They’ve all got different flavours this time around. Some of them are grimy and unpleasant, some of them are beautiful and unpleasant, some of them are serene and darkly playful. Playtest is sort of our Evil Dead 2. It’s hopefully a good, fun, scary romp. Dan is a major videogame fan – he did a very well-realised short film about Portal, and we’ve got a few not-particularly-subtle videogame references in there. If you squint you can make out a ZX Spectrum at one point, which is a weird thing to find popping up in a Netflix show. Dan brought his PlayStation over while he was in the UK and was playing through the night. He was actually genuinely concerned that Uncharted 4 was coming out pretty much the day we started shooting, and that it was going to cause him no end of pain that he wouldn’t be able to spend hours playing it. It was his birthday during the shoot, too, so we gave him a copy of the new Doom.
When we talked to you for E261’ s My Favourite Game, you picked Doom. How have you found the new one?
I really like it. But because we’re in the thick of production I haven’t had much time to play things recently. I’ve got Uncharted sitting there unplayed at the moment and I’m sort of putting it off because I’m guessing there’s going to be 40 minutes of cutscene opening at the start and I don’t think I have that much time to spare. Having said that, I have been playing No
Man’s Sky and Invisible Inc recently, both of which I appreciated. I probably like No Man’s Sky more than a lot of people. I’ve gotten bored of the infinite universe now, though [laughs]. When you land on planet number 62 and there’s an orangey brown version of that creature again, and that tentacley thing, and another big tree… I don’t want to shit on their achievement, though – I feel very sorry for them having this massive backlash. If no one had heard anything about it and it just came out at £20 rather than £50, then everyone would be pissing praise all over them.
You talked about playing games differently nowadays – do you play much with your son?
Yep. He’s fucking obsessed with videogames. It’s a bit of a problem, actually. It was my stupid fault – I introduced him to them. If we were in a supermarket and he was screaming in the trolley we used to pass him the phone and he would play this motorbike game for a bit. And one day I handed him an Xbox controller and said, “Look at this”. And it was Trials Fusion. It’s a very difficult game, but by pressing the accelerate button, you can make it do a bit. He finds it hilarious when the guy flies off the bike. My first thought was, ‘He’s literally laughing his head off as the rider breaks every bone in his body bouncing off the giant wind turbine’. But we completed Snoopy’s Grand
Adventure recently, which was a pretty good entry-level game for a four-year-old. It was just the right level of difficulty for a really young kid to get into, and when there was a bit he couldn’t quite do he’d get me to do it. And so we completed the whole game together! I’ve been looking around for other stuff like that. People probably complain that they’re too easy, but how else are you meant to get young kids addicted?
“IF YOU SQUINT YOU CAN MAKE OUT A ZX SPECTRUM, WHICH IS A WEIRD THING TO FIND POPPING UP IN A NETFLIX SHOW”
In Playtest, a survivalhorror title from a game designer named Shou Saito blurs the boundaries between fiction and reality