Six Characters in Search of Free Will

Last week, we traveled back in time, before the dawn of escape rooms, to what was nonetheless a perfect example of escape room horror: the Twilight Zone episode “Five Characters in Search of An Exit.” Now, let us jump forward, past the present, into the near-future. A clear thematic descendant of “Five Characters in Search of An Exit,” Black Mirror‘s speculative “USS Callister” takes the “everyone is a toy” premise of “Five Characters” further than the Twilight Zone episode carried it (the Black Mirror showrunners have even described the episode as “Adult Toy Story).

In contrast to “Five Characters,” the setup of “USS Callister” is not especially simple. We begin in a clear Star Trek homage as the starship USS Callister‘s crew, helmed by Captain Robert Daly (Jesse Plemons), celebrates a victory. Abruptly, the show cuts from this slick, primary-colored setting, to a world much drabber and closer to our own. Daly is revealed to be the unassuming founder of a virtual-gaming company called Callister, and a fan of the retro sci-fi television show Spacefleet. Each of his crew members from the opening scene reappears in the Callister office as a different coworker; all, at best, seem indifferent to Daly’s existence.

Enter newly hired programmer Nanette Cole (Cristin Milioti), who is as big a fan of Daly’s work as Daly is of Spacefleet. She and Daly awkwardly hit it off, until the company’s co-founder, James Walton (Jimmi Simpson), waltzes in and steals Cole’s attention. Next thing we know, Daly returns home to sign into his VR game and reappear on the USS Callister‘s bridge. There, we see a side of him that was not immediately obvious before: he is power-hungry, violent, reveling in belittling the crew.

The next time Daly is in the office, he steals Cole’s thrown-away coffee cup and takes it home, where he uses her DNA to create a sort of virtual clone of her. This clone, despite Daly’s desire to play god, is not a mere plaything; she is fully sentient, retaining all of the original Cole’s memories, feelings, and personality. When she awakes on the USS Callister, miniskirted and vintagely coiffed, she is terrified. Without Daly present, the other crew members explain the situation, that she is stuck forever in a modded version of the VR game the original Cole programs: Infinity. They are all digital clones, all stuck.

Walton describes the situation as “an eternal waking nightmare from which there is no escape,” but Cole tries to escape regardless, running through the ship’s halls until Daly transports her back onto the bridge. She refuses to play along with the Spacefleet roleplay premise, so he uses his God-like powers to torture her until she agrees to cooperate. Still, that first flight from the bridge is not Cole’s last attempt to wiggle free of Daly’s clutches. Her schemes just get more strategic. Even when she learns that the reason Walton plays along is that Daly has Walton’s son’s DNA on a lollipop in his minifridge, Cole sees this as further motivation to take Daly’s toys away from him.

After another fumbled escape attempt that provokes Daly’s sadistic ire, Cole finally hits upon a winning plan. She spots a wormhole out the ship’s window, representing an incoming update patch to the game. Cole suggests flying straight into the wormhole, thereby deleting all of their code, killing them. Freeing them. First, however, it’s necessary for someone out in the real world to destroy the DNA hoarded in Daly’s minifridge.

The plan is for Cole to go on a mission to a planet’s surface alone with Daly, where she distracts him. Meanwhile, the crew beams up the device that Daly uses to control the game and contact the outside world. The crew is able to contact the real-world Cole, and blackmail her with the cloned Cole’s knowledge. They compel her to order a pizza to Daly’s apartment so that he’s forced to temporarily exit the game, then, while he’s occupied, to: 1. steal all of the DNA in the minifridge, and 2. replace the nodule he uses to connect to the game with a decoy that does nothing.

Cole distracts Daly by luring him into a lake.

The end result is that the crew of the USS Callister is able to successfully fly into the update patch wormhole without Daly’s interference. Contrary to their prediction, this does not erase their code; they are not killed, but they are free. They are transported from Daly’s personal, modded version of Infinity to the greater Infinity, which lives in the Cloud. Meanwhile, Daly, in his attempt to chase after them, has gotten himself stuck in his own game.

This is a much more optimistic ending than that of “Five Characters.” The characters not only are able to transform themselves from playthings to game-players; in doing so, they escape the confines of their limited world—within reason. While they are no longer imprisoned within Daly’s computer, able instead to roam the Cloud-stored game universe, they are still technically bound, forever, to the starship.

If we classify this as escape room horror, with a requirement of the genre being that someone must escape the room alive, then we are working with a more ephemeral, existential understanding of what constitutes a “room.” The characters’ ultimate goal is not to escape their physical surroundings, but to escape the game rules that have been put in front of them. The horror herein is not about literal claustrophobia, but about the gnawing psychological claustrophobia that comes from an absence of free will. They are not escaping from the ship; they are escaping from hierarchy. It is the perfect distillation of escape rooms as a team-building exercise, driving home that there is no “dictator” in “team.”

A review of the episode in The Atlantic pointed out that whereas so much of Black Mirror‘s storytelling is about “the terror of being connected,” “USS Callister” goes in the opposite direction. What begins as a seeming cautionary tale against the horrors of video games becomes, instead, an ode to collaborative approaches to gaming. The fact that the crewmembers still have each other and an infinite universe to explore is presented, unequivocally, as a happy ending. It’s a happy ending that anyone who finds joy in shared game experiences like escape rooms, multiplayer video games, or tabletop role-playing will no doubt find resonant. Hell is not other people; it is other people having undue power, and stripping us of our personhood.


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