Virtual Reality, in the World of Black Mirror’s episode “Striking Vipers."
The first episode in Black Mirror’s fifth season, titled “Striking Vipers," depicts Virtual Reality (VR) Technology in a way we have not yet seen, and probably will not for a decade at least. That doesn’t mean that it is not a worthy watch, and more importantly, a beautiful imagining of the technology… at least as beautiful as a show about dystopian futures where technology, for the most part, upends our lives can be. Also, the rest of this article may contain heavy spoilers to the Black Mirror episode, so beware.
The episode follows Danny, who shares an apartment with his long-term girlfriend, Theo, and best friend, Karl. Danny and Karl share a love of a fighting game called Striking Vipers, which eerily feels like a blend of the major fighting games we have today. For instance, Danny’s favorite character, Lance, could pass for a re-skin of Liu Kang from Mortal Kombat, Roxette, who is Karl’s go-to character, would have you thinking of Chun-Li from Street Fighter, and the entire arena design, effects, and character design is classic Tekken – they even have a fighting polar-bear character if you’re not yet convinced.
A decade or so passes, and the two friends grow up, and unfortunately apart, Danny and Theo are married and parents to a young child (and frantically trying to get another), and we witness what seems like a reunion between two old friends, Danny and Karl, at the former's birthday party. We also witness just how much technology in this realm has grown as well, as Karl gifts his old friend the new "Striking Vipers X" a sequel to their favorite game a decade ago, that has now made the jump to VR.
In contemporary times, or at least, in our reality, Virtual Reality systems use specialized head-mounted displays, or projected environments to present a realistic visual and auditory experience. Not so in the world of Danny and Karl, where instead of a bulky headset, they use a tiny button-sized disk that the user attaches to their temple, syncs to their game, and immediately lose themselves in the game world. For me, at least, it felt a lot like logging into The Matrix, or at least a Matrix 2.0 without all the mess of the wires plugging you in.
Portraying this technology in this manner is ingenious, and the portrayal of VR in this Black Mirror episode is much more refined and evades many of the issues modern implementation of VR. I can guarantee that watching “Striking Vipers” depiction of VR won’t have you thinking about resolutions, refresh rates, or clunky controllers, which may have been in the back of your mind when enjoying some of the other portrayals of VR in recent pop-fiction (I’m looking at you Ready Player One.) To truly enjoy “Striking Vipers” you would need to let your imagination run wild, suspend disbelief, and allow yourself to be immersed in a world where a button-sized, device can beam an internet-connected, alternate reality directly into your brain.
What follows, in typical Black Mirror fashion, is a wonderfully unusual exploration into VR technology, its implementation, and perhaps what it would mean for human interaction, with admittedly some artistic liberties thrown in. In all seriousness, however, the episode proceeds to breach a long-drawn-out debate regarding technology, intimacy, and faithfulness. This is introduced when,in a heated virtual battle between Roxette (Karl) and Lance (Danny), in which both characters are as mesmerized by the experience as you are, Roxette grapples Lance to the ground and kisses him. This is the beginning of an explicit virtual affair, complete with lying to the spouse and secret late-night rendezvouses.
It is quite a shame, but true to form, that Black Mirror poses more questions than it answers in this episode. For instance, is it cheating on your spouse if the relationship is entirely virtual? In Danny’s case, where do we draw a distinction (if there is any) between Danny and Lance? What if this virtual affair was over the phone? Or text? What is either partner was an AI? Where do we draw the line and label it an indiscretion? “Striking Vipers” does little to answer these lingering questions, adding on some more regarding sexuality instead (since Karl plays a girl character). This would have been an opportunity to explore digital identity and sexuality, but I am not particularly disappointed that it did not; instead choosing to leave these question hanging in the air for our interpretation.
Ultimately, this episode may not change how you particularly feel about VR, and if you're as fascinated with the technology as I am, it will not dampen your excitement. However, it may lead you to think of the potential of VR quite differently. If you have been fortunate to experience instances where VR has made you feel a more acute expression or an emotion, then you may understand what I mean. Also, as the technology evolves, driven by multi-billion dollar industries like gaming, and movie and film, we will undoubtedly see such scenarios as the one from “Striking Vipers” in real-life not too long from now.