Black Mirror's 'Striking Vipers' is a Skin-Deep Exploration of VR Sex
Netflix's fifth season of 'Black Mirror' follows two best friends who find their relationship complicated by a virtual reality game.
Photo by Netflix
This article originally appeared on VICE US.
Black Mirror's "Striking Vipers" opens at the bar, where Danny (Anthony Mackie) roleplays picking up his girlfriend Theo (Nicole Beharie) for the first time. She's coy and feigning indifference, as he pretends to introduce himself and offers to buy her a drink. The jig is up when his best friend Karl (Abdul-Mateen II) rolls through with his own date, pulling Danny and Theo on the dance floor. It's a taste of the episode's deeper dive into identity—how social masks enliven attraction. Of course, technology presents opportunities for even more realistic roleplaying, further blurring the lines between what's "real" and "fake," what's acceptable and unacceptable.
Now in its fifth season, the modern day Twilight Zone still plays with large plot twists and ominous suggestions about the ways technology amplifies our bad behaviors. Showrunner Charlie Booker has found ways to refresh the series as technology progresses, drawing on his experience in gaming for choose-your-own-adventure episode "Bandersnatch." "Striking Vipers" also draws on this background, delving into the world of VR.
Warning: Spoilers for this episode of Black Mirror are ahead.
The episode fasts forward to Danny's 38th birthday. He's grown into the kind of father who wears sensible glasses and grills at his own birthday party. The best friends have become somewhat estranged over time, but Karl gifts him a VR edition of Striking Vipers—the same one-on-one combat game they used to play together on a console. It's unmistakably Mortal Kombat-inspired, with a similar countdown, wide angle, and fighting movesets. It also has strains of Street Fighter, with its Asian playable characters. The virtual rigs are tiny and futuristic, attaching at the temple and immersing the user in the world of the game. (As with other Black Mirror episodes, their eyes white out when they're in the virtual universe.)
The episode explores what happens when we're able to adopt new bodies in the virtual realm—what we'd do with them in the privacy of a virtual, one-on-one setting. Karl and Danny pick the same playable characters for every match: Karl chooses Roxette (Pom Klementieff) and Danny selects Lance (Ludi Lin). Their first fighting match is tense, full of aerial acrobatics and faster-than-life revolving kicks. It ends with Roxette straddling her opponent, and the two sensually kiss. In the rig, sensations are felt as real ones, which makes each kick hurt like a real one—and each sexual act induces real pleasure. Danny immediately logs off and attempts to navigate a spell of awkwardness where both men try to play off their virtual hookup as a drunken mistake. But they eventually return to the game. And every time they do, they end up having sex.
The setup gives "Striking Vipers" a great opportunity to explore black queerness, which rarely get screen time outside of works that are explicitly centered around it. Existing narratives often focus on the trauma of black queerness (some of the best television today, like Pose, delves into such painful questions). But "Striking Vipers" had the opportunity to tell a different kind of story—one about what happens when lifelong camaraderie blossoms into romance. The best friends are uniquely compatible. When Danny attempts to cut off the virtual tryst, Karl explicitly tells him that no other partner matches up; he's tried virtual sex with the game's CPU opponent, along with other strangers (and, apparently, a polar bear). Karl insists that, even though others have the same avatar, nothing matches their relationship.
But the episode mostly uses virtuality and queerness as a lens to challenge what we consider "infidelity." Danny is so sexually fulfilled by his and Karl's virtual relationship that he withdraws from his wife. She calls him out, asking if he "wants her" anymore. Karl justifies that it isn't cheating because "it's not real, it's like porn or something"—a proposition that Danny disagrees with. It all culminates in the best friends kissing in real life in an effort to affirm or reject their actual chemistry. The pair concludes they aren't interested, and are initially relieved. But it's a little hard to believe, and even harder to parse. Why take so much time developing the notion that the avatars are only good sexual partners when they're controlled by Danny with Karl, just to end with the reaffirmation that appearances do really matter?
"Striking Vipers" has many other opportune moments to explore queerness in more interesting, nuanced ways, but doesn't really dig into them. When Danny calls off a virtual gaming date with Karl, he goes back and forth on whether to sign his text with an "x." Their in-person dynamic never really strays from the strict social rules of heterosexuality, suggesting that texting also offers a kind of buffer between technological and personal self. It would be interesting to learn more about which pieces of technology demarcate the sexual, virtual relationship versus the non-sexual "real" relationship.
The episode similarly doesn't dig into what it means for Karl to always choose to play as Roxette, and whether there's greater subtext about his identity and sexual preferences, touching on discourse around gay men picking female playable characters.
And perhaps more troublingly, "Striking Vipers" also never concerns itself with the optics of using Asian bodies to perform sexual acts that would be uncomfortable to perform in real life. The history of the appropriation of Asian and Black cultures are interconnected, tangled, and difficult to parse. It's a spectrum that includes Awkwafina building her career off of using a blaccent and Nicki Minaj inhabiting the disposable pan-"Oriental" image of Chun-Li. The latter seems predisposed for consideration in "Striking Viper," given Chun-Li is also the only female playable character in Street Fighter—which means Karl's player of choice is a strong analog. Is that out of scope? Maybe. But for a show that supposedly uses technology to make grand, insightful observations about the nature of human impulse, it seems like a weird detail to omit.
With all of that in tow, "Striking Vipers" seems a little nakedly—pun intended—obvious, a little stale. There's already so much speculative narrative that provides much more moving (or disturbing) views of what happens when technology mediates sex and sexuality. Her delivered a technological love story that disregarded the body altogether, while Ex Machina told a version of lust that gave bodies to physical machines. Even the animated Netflix show Tuca & Bertie has an episode that explores internet sexuality, ultimately allowing a male character to solicit sex through a female avatar (though this show uses the set up for humor).
The last thing a Black Mirror episode should feel—or any work of speculative fiction, really—is predictable and even antiquated, but "Striking Vipers" only gives a surface-level view of a subject that had much greater potential.
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