If there’s one theme that Black Mirror keeps coming back to, it’s the intersection between romance and technology. That reached a peak with the award-winning San Junipero episode of season three, not only for its queer storyline but for matching intriguing technological themes with genuine emotion.
To an extent, Striking Vipers is a companion piece that feels like a step backwards. In this first episode from the fifth season, writer Charlie Brooker gives us an exploration of queer romance via his favourite medium: video games. It’s an episode that succeeds on a thematic level, even if the relationships it depicts are disappointingly painted in broad strokes.
The title refers to a fictional Street Fighter-esque fighting game played in VR that “replicates all physical sensation”. Two men, long-time friends, rekindle their friendship over online bouts, that sees them battling as the sexy female Roxette and martial artist Lance. It’s only a matter of time before their curiosity leads them to push the boundaries of those physical sensations and play fighting turns to sex.
But where do we draw the line between virtual and real sex? Does virtual sex count as cheating? And, most of all, if you’re having sex with your buddy online, even if he’s acting as a woman, does this make you gay?
Brooker doesn’t quite answer these complex questions. His writing touches on themes of online identity and a spectrum of sexuality, but the narrative never ventures past ‘a bromance that went a step too far’. The lingering camera does keep you questioning the sexuality of these characters, but only insofar as to question the use of technology. When one of them asks what sex feels like as a woman, it’s quickly glossed over.
The relationship between the two men veers dangerously close to no-homo territory in its view of sexual curiosity, the queer romance hidden in virtual space. When they eventually meet IRL to assuage their homoerotic fears, they seem to go out of their way to reinstate the hetero-norm.
Indeed, the episode’s emotional detachment is a critique of traditional masculinity. When we first see these men, they’re portrayed through typically straight macho signifiers. They have sex with women, they smoke, eat pizza and banter as lads. Later they’re dads at a barbecue, drinking beer. Brooker is intentionally blurring the lines between queerness and the performative masculinity of ‘bro’ culture.
And that’s nothing new, particularly to anyone familiar with, say, Brokeback Mountain. Two seemingly straight men fall for one another, but only in secret hidden from the view of society. Though they move on to other relationships, they fail to connect with women in the same way and are left questioning, with lingering looks into the distance. It’s just “I fucked a polar bear but I still can’t get you out of my mind” doesn’t quite have the poetic ring of “I wish I knew how to quit you” does it?
Like so many episodes of Black Mirror, Striking Vipers is thought-provoking more than emotionally affecting. Yet on a thematic level, the episode does highlight the importance of gaming and technology as an exploration of identity and sexuality. Gaming is particularly potent for many LGBT+ people, offering solace where real life fails them. It’s a chance to escape a world that is sometimes less than kind, to explore a place where it’s safe to be ourselves – or somebody else.
Gaming is about role-play so why shouldn’t sexuality or gender play a part in that? Whether through fixed characters or character creation, gaming allows us to create a new personality or identity. We can form an alter ego, pose as a masculine fantasy, gender bend, or express our feminine side. They offer a chance to take on a powerful, confident persona where maybe we’re not able to in reality.
Sure, we’re a long way off the technology Striking Vipers depicts, but gaming already provides a safe space for people to explore their identity and learn about themselves. You just can’t fuck a polar bear.