Black Mirror has always been a show that’s walked that fine line between dystopian bleakness and near-future technological disasters. As Charlie Brooker has said himself numerous times, Black Mirror is: “more what the consequences are, and it doesn’t tend to be about technology itself – it tends to be how we use or misuse it.”. With this quote in mind, Black Mirror’s first episode (or third depending on your geographic location) is an interesting, thought provoking look at gaming technology and love but lacks that cutting edge to make it feel like a traditional Mirror episode.
The episode begins in a nightclub with best friends Danny and Karl. After a heavy night drinking, they stay up all night playing video games, only to be awaken by one of the girls, asking then to keep the noise down.
From here we then cut forward 11 years later. Our characters are all leading separate lives. Danny has settled down with his family while Karl is living the single life and scoring dates with younger girls. As a birthday present, he gives Danny a new game, “Striking Vipers X”, and a VR headset for his 38th birthday. As Danny closes out his birthday, we see several interesting contrasts between the two friends, both seemingly unfulfilled in their current circumstances.
Karl and Danny both find themselves awake in the middle of the night until Karl invites him to play Striking Vipers. After attaching the necessary components, he’s whisked into the game and the two fight. A flurry of slickly choreographed punches and kicks ensue until the two virtual fighters stare each other down and begin kissing. Freaked out, Danny and Karl both leave the game and try to keep their mind off what happened.
Putting the incident down to drinking too much, the two enter the game and fight again. Only, they don’t fight. Instead, they embrace one another and kiss in-game. From here, the episode devolves into numerous run-ins as sombre music kicks in and the two grow closer together whilst becoming more and more disenchanted with their own lives. When Danny misses his wedding anniversary, he calls off game time with Karl, lading to Theo confronting her husband over his recent changed behaviour. Caught in two minds, Danny makes a choice and decides to be faithful to Theo. He breaks things off with Karl and we cut forward 7 months.
Things seem to be back to normal for our two characters but after a fateful birthday dinner, Karl and Danny find themselves in the game again, having mind-blowing sex. When they meet in real life, with the rain pouring down around them, they kiss to see if they have a connection. They do not. This leads to the final jump forward in time as Danny has seemingly told Theo everything which sees them coming to a mutual agreement. Danny continues to have sex with Karl in-game while Theo goes off and presumably hooks up with strangers in a bar.
Striking Vipers is certainly a thought provoking episode and despite it’s unusually uplifting tone throughout large swathes of the episode, there’s some pretty deep questions around morality, ethics and relationship boundaries. Is it cheating if you hook up with someone virtually? Where are the boundaries between homosexuality and heterosexuals? It’s certainly an interesting idea but I almost feel like it would have been more powerful had Danny and Karl hit it off in the real world too. Perhaps he leaves Theo for a better future with Karl but they don’t have the same spark outside the game, leaving them both stuck with nothing after sacrificing everything for a fantasized pipe-dream.
Of course, there’s enough here to ponder though and in true Black Mirror style, there’s some nice stylistic ticks and interesting compositional techniques throughout the episode, especially the 2D shots of the two guys fighting inside the game. Still, it lacks that deliciously sinister undertone that makes Black Mirror such a unique and dark anthology series. Despite that, there’s enough here to make Striking Vipers a decent offering but also a far cry from some of the better episodes over the years.