**Spoilers for Black Mirror season 5 episode 1 to follow**
Black Mirror season five’s first episode is one of many in the Netflix series to focus on video games – but according to creator and writer Charlie Brooker, it’s hardly the point of the story.
“Obviously I play a lot of games, and because they are fictional interactive worlds, we quite often draw on that,” Brooker says of Striking Vipers, the new episode starring Anthony Mackie and Yahya Abdul-Mateem II as two old friends who make a sexual connection through a VR fighting game.
“I think it’s interesting, because there’s a game in the story but it’s not about games, really. It’s kind of more about porn, and relationships.”
Friends Danny and Karl (Mackie and Abdul-Mateem) have lost touch a bit over the years, but a new version of Striking Vipers – the video game they obsessively played during the heyday of their friendship – seems like a great way to reconnect, especially given how immersive it is.
In the revamped game, no matter what character you’re playing you feel every punch, kick and….kiss, the latter of which the pair discover, almost by accident, during their first bout. Eventually the pair are illicitly meeting up in the game constantly, having sex through their avatars while Danny’s wife Theo (Nicole Beharie) worries that her other half may be having an affair.
Eventually Danny breaks things off to Karl’s chagrin, later being tempted back, then attempting to find the real parameters of his and Karl’s relationship by meeting up in person, sparking an IRL fight between them.
The story concludes with both Danny and Theo indulging in extra-marital moments on one day a year, Danny in the game with Karl and Theo in the real world, leaving an ambiguous note for how both sets of relationships will survive.
The inspiration behind Striking vipers
Charlie Brooker with co-showrunner Annabel Jones
“Striking Vipers came about through a couple of things,” Brooker tells me when I ask how the idea for the episode was formulated.
“There was a convoluted idea I’d had about a team-building exercise in a workplace, where they make everyone stage a musical, in a sort of VR environment, where the roles are randomised.
“So you might be Olivia Newton-John, she might be John Travolta. But you don’t know those are the roles you’ve been assigned. You don’t know who’s playing who, and they fall in love in the musical, and it’s reflected in real life.”
The other plank of the story, meanwhile, came from Brooker’s long experience with computer games.
“I was having a conversation about video games and the amusing sex noises people make when they play Street Fighter-type games, and they sit there going eurgh, ahh, oorrrh!” Brooker said.
“And it sounds like a sort of sado-masochistic affair going on. Those two thoughts went ‘doink!’ And that’s where Striking Vipers came from.”
How was Striking Vipers filmed?
Striking Vipers was the first film of series five to be conceived, written and filmed, even before December 2018’s special choose-your-own-adventure episode Bandersnatch, which was originally supposed to be part of the line-up before spinning off into its own release.
Shot in São Paolo, Brazil, the episode presented a number of challenges to Brooker, co-showrunner Annabel Jones and their production team, especially when it came to the all-important fighting game scenes (which starred Guardians of the Galaxy‘s Pom Klementieff and Ludi Lin as Lance).
“Most of it is live-action, all the stunts are real, but with a few animations helping us through the transitions,” Jones said.
“So that’s a big ask, as is trying to make the aesthetic evoke classic video games while still giving it a contemporary feel.
“It’s quite difficult landing, that – you want it to feel real, because for these characters it is very real when they’re in that world. Hence for them their confusion and conflict.”
“There’s a fighting sequence in it that had to feel like it had come out of something like Tekken,” Brooker said. “Where it was like the real-life incarnation.”
“It’s interesting that I haven’t seen many of those movies. They made a Street Fighter movie, didn’t they, and they made Mortal Combat, the movie. And I don’t think they’re regarded as cinematic classics. I saw Mortal Combat the movie on a ferry once, during choppy seas, which was not a pleasant experience.
“I don’t know if they gave people in those hyper-real abilities. It’s the closest we’ve come to a superhero sequence, in a way. It was a fun challenge, but it was very technically demanding.”
Anthony Mackie and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II in Black Mirror season five (Netflix)
Speaking of superheroes, one of the biggest draws to the episode will be the casting of Avengers star Anthony Mackie (aka the Falcon) in the lead role, alongside Aquaman baddie Abdul-Mateem – though apparently, the caped crossover was a coincidence.
“One Marvel and one DC, so it’s quite a crossover,” Brooker said. “It was a happy accident. Quite weird, that, really.”
“I know this sounds disingenuous, but you don’t really think about what other roles the actors have done,” Jones said. “Because you’re only thinking about whether they feel right for your film and that character.
“And often, you’re having a conversation with the actor about how they’re responding to the material and whether you feel as if they’re understanding the character and the world. And whether you’re both trying to make the same film.
“So it’s often about those conversations, and everything else…well, you can’t think about everything else. Because you’re not really interested in it. By default we sort of end up with two superhero characters, absolutely not by design. We didn’t even realise!”
“Then again, I suppose you could hurl a rock and you’ll hit somebody in the Marvel extended universe,” Brooker mused.
“But you’ll have to throw the rock a long way, probably across the sea. Which probably makes YOU a superhero…”
Does Striking Vipers crossover with other Black Mirror episodes?
Fans will be quick to notice that the VR gaming system used in Striking Vipers is almost identical to one shown off in an earlier episode, season four’s sci-fi themed USS Callister, right down to the “exit game” voice command used to leave it.
“But they feel like very different films, don’t they?” Jones said. “Callister compared to this – and that’s not really about games either.”
“No, it’s tyranny, power, sci-fi and fandom [in USS Callister]” Brooker agreed. “Really, the video game worlds are just a useful backdrop.”
Other game-themed episodes like Playtest and Bandernsatch also seem to have a link to the new film – though according to Brooker and Jones they feel Striking Vipers is closer to San Junipero (pictured), another episode about a same-sex relationship in a virtual world.
“Certainly there are parallels with San Junipero, so if you were going to pick any of them you’d probably make it a sister city to that. But it’s not, like, directly related to it,” Brooker said, while noting that another classic video game had inspired the earlier love story in a very different way.
“In San Junipero I was thinking of Grand Theft Auto Vice City, like a sandbox world set in a sort of heightened version of the 80s,” he said, “in which there are no rules and you can sort of go off and do whatever you like.
“So in terms of inspiration there’s probably always going to be things to draw on.”
“But San Junipero, most of San Junipero took place within that VR world,” Jones added. “And that felt like the real world.
“And it was a story about two old people coming back and re-living their youth, so it did feel genuinely like the 1980s. And they found they were able to have a romance because the prejudices of those times had disappeared.
“Whereas in Striking Vipers, we’re very rarely in the VR world. That’s just a facilitator. And the real conflict and real relationships are sort of taking place outside of that in the real world.”
And sadly, the real world is a game that’s a little harder to just exit.
Black Mirror season five is streaming on Netflix UK now