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.


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?


In Playtest, a sur­vival­hor­ror ti­tle from a game de­signer named Shou Saito blurs the bound­aries be­tween fic­tion and re­al­ity

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