This article is a recap of Black Mirror’s season five episode “Striking Vipers.” It contains spoilers and discussion regarding the episode’s plot.
Watching Black Mirror’s “Striking Vipers” zoomed me back to childhood, plugging dirty quarters into the Street Fighter II game. This was at the arcade, in a mall in Orange County, California, both of which are probably abandoned now.
Every single time, I (and, I’d eventually learn, so many other gay tween boys) would pick Chun Li.
Li was the only woman in the game. She didn’t have a fireball or a rising uppercut like Ken or Ryu, and instead used speed, quickness, and the spinning bird kick to defeat her foes. Playing as Li was a fantasy, allowing me the freedom to be someone — in this case, a Chinese Interpol officer who mastered martial arts, thighs as thick as her torso, with the sole mission to avenge the death of her father — who I could never be.
Written by series creator Charlie Brooker, “Striking Vipers” builds on that idea, asking: If the fantasy of being someone else gives you a certain sense of freedom, what happens if you chase that freedom in your own life? The episode plays with ideas of pleasure, violence, role-playing, and how this all complicates our own realities, with best friends Danny (Anthony Mackie) and Karl (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and a fighting game called Striking Vipers serving as our case study.
The two, while playing against each other as characters in a video game, find themselves in an intimate relationship that never would have happened otherwise. What results is an exploration of how our imagined realities end up affecting our real lives.
“Striking Vipers” works because it understands the taboo of video games and role-playing
While a Black Mirror episode can be hit or miss, the series’ core feature is how well it understands familiar pieces of technology, like dating apps, or our tendency to digitally document everything, or kid-monitoring services for parents. Then it takes that familiarity and exploits it to the extreme.
As “Striking Vipers” opens, Danny and Karl, two young men, play with what at first appears to be a regular fighting video game. Karl plays as a female character named Roxette; Danny plays as Ryu-like Lance. Karl’s a lot better than Danny and beats him easily. They play until the early morning, at which point the episode flashes forward 11 years. During that time, the boys changed — Danny’s a married dad now — and fell out of touch, but are able to come back into each others’ lives by playing the newest version of the game, which now has an immersive virtual reality component.
VR allows Danny and Karl, who still play as the same characters they chose more than a decade prior, to physically feel every punch, hit, and kick being thrown. And as Danny and Karl find out, it allows them to physically feel pleasure too.
Their video game characters are played by Pom Klementieff and Ludi Lin and are purposely cheesy, indicating that they’re not actual humans but two bros who have taken on two very attractive, virtual bodies that don’t belong to them. Bros who, by the end of one rough-and-tumble round, end up having sex with each other, each one still embodying these characters.
Danny and Karl have different reactions to that initial, intimate encounter. Danny becomes more aloof with his wife the more attracted he is to the game — and to Karl. Karl, who is introduced to us a ladies’ man, is more aggressive in their IRL relationship, but as he plays Roxette, he experiences their sexual encounters from a female perspective.
The setup of the episode is fascinating in that it takes something that many of us have done before — whether it be choosing a representative character in Street Fighter or Overwatch or creating a personal avatar in The Sims — and then daringly introduces human sexuality into the fray. What would sexuality look like if someone were given uninhibited freedom to experiment without real-life judgment or boundaries? For Danny and Karl, inhabiting other people in VR allows them to explore the intimacy that they never would allow themselves to try in real life.
“Striking Vipers” is like “San Junipero” without the heart
The premise of “Striking Vipers” made me think of Black Mirror’s wonderful third-season episode “San Junipero” (at least, when I wasn’t thinking of the childhood fortune I spent on mastering Chun Li’s special moves). Like the characters in “Striking Vipers,” “San Junipero” leads Kelly and Yorkie get to play semi-artificial, digital-only versions of themselves. They relive their youth, explore love, and live free from the shackles of age, pain, and society in the magical party town of San Junipero.
Unfortunately, “Striking Vipers” doesn’t carry the same emotional weight of its predecessor.
The final scene that Karl and Danny share together on screen is where this becomes most apparent. The two decide to meet up in real life and see if what they feel in-game translates offline — the game and their encounters have been consuming their lives, and they want to see, once and for all, if there’s anything beyond the game. They confront each other in a moment of anger and anguish and lust. Karl and Danny kiss, but they both say they feel nothing, even though there’s a glimmer in Danny’s face that hints that he’s lying.
As they broke apart, I found myself feeling nothing too.
The problem is that the episode fails to make us really care about this friendship, even as it constantly has characters reminding us that the pair are close. “Striking Vipers” shows the carnal pleasure of the sex, but glosses over the actual intimacy of the pleasure shared between Karl and Danny.
Viewers are left to speculate that perhaps Karl letting Danny take control sexually is what’s thrilling to him. Even when Karl spells out that he’s had sex with other players, and that none has come close to what they shared, he doesn’t actually delve into the emotional connection they have. And the episode doesn’t show it either, dancing around their jealousy, admiration, brotherhood, and power struggles with each other.
Instead of developing the personal relationship between the two men, the episode makes wild stabs at general ideas, like video game addiction and porn addiction; the connection between violence and men’s sexuality; the pleasure of role-playing; the ideas of dominance and control; fluid sexuality; and open and modern relationships, among others.
These ideas also lack depth, unfortunately.
The result is that Karl and Danny feel like they exist just to raise points and get us to the end of a thought-provoking argument, rather than as people in a meaningful story. It’s neat that a television series wants to assert sexuality is a spectrum, and that male aggression and carnal sexual pleasure are adjacent, but based on the lacking execution of “Striking Vipers,” you’d maybe be better off reading a personal essay about the same things. Or perhaps just playing a video game.
The fifth season of Black Mirror is now streaming on Netflix.