As the entertainment year winds down, Black Mirror fans are watching Netflix suspiciously, hoping for announcements about the fifth season of the technological-terrors show. Back in October, a Bloomberg report claimed that new episodes would arrive in 2018, including an interactive choose-your-own-adventure episode. (Reached for response to the unsourced report, Netflix immediately sent back a cheeky choose-your-own-press-statement email.) And a few days ago, a hastily deleted tweet appeared to leak a release date of December 28th for at least one new Black Mirror episode. But there’s been no official word about what season 5 might look like.
Interactive fans now have a new way to vicariously experience Black Mirror, though: Asmodee Games has just released Nosedive, an officially licensed board / card / app game inspired by a season 4 Black Mirror episode. The game, designed for three to six players, invites players first to tempt each other with potentially valuable or terrible lifestyle experiences — anything from being elected president to living in the family basement — and then to rate the experiences they get from other people, which helps generate a “social score” for each player.
In the world of the Black Mirror episode “Nosedive,” people can rate every interaction they have with other people on a single social media app. It’s an imagined expansion of the customer ratings systems used by companies like Uber and Yelp, complete with the possibility of vindictive users abusing the system. And just as with Uber or Yelp, a one-star rating has the potential for real economic effects: low-score people in “Nosedive” may lose their jobs, be ineligible for loans, or just become pariahs. The episode also mocks influencer lifestyle, with the highest-ranked users carefully creating marketable illusions of blemish-free, pastel lives for themselves, to impress other users and keep their approval ratings high.
Nosedive the game has two phases. In the Lifestyle phase, players draw a hand of Lifestyle cards and build them into stacks, using tokens and a small board to determine how many cards they’re placing, and whether they’ll be face-up or facedown. The Lifestyle cards range from one star for unenviable experiences (like “An unpaid internship” or “A six-minute lunch break”) to five stars for show-offy ones that suggest a lavish public-facing life (“10 million followers,” “Your own private island”). There’s some strategy to the process of creating the stacks: placing a card facedown might be a way of hiding a trap (like “Double Damage” or “Lose 1 point” cards that hurt players), or concealing the most enviable cards and curating a stack for yourself.
After three rounds of building stacks, each player selects one, starting with the person with the lowest Social Score. Nosedive comes with a free smartphone app (available for Android or Apple) that’s integral to the game: it keeps track of players, sets their starting Social Scores, and enables the second phase. For the first phase, it just determines who picks their Lifestyle stack first — which, again, suggests some strategies, since whoever’s lowest can afford to take risks in building stacks for themselves, knowing they’ll get to go first.
The Lifestyle phase of the game feels pretty arbitrary. The Experience phase is more fun: using the app, players assign each other experiences, usually selecting from a number of terrible choices like “Euthanizing your spouse of 5 minutes,” “Spending eternity reliving your own death,” and “Getting egged on Halloween because you forgot to buy candy.” Then each player gets to look at all the experiences they were assigned, and pick which is best and which is worst. Here, the strategy mostly involves knowing the other players — would your best friend be more horrified by a vivid precognitive dream about their own death, or “Receiving an anonymous hate cake”? But it also helps to suck up to the people with the highest social scores, giving them the best experiences, because their opinions count for more if they rate your experiences highly.
And that’s pretty much the game: the app keeps track of who likes your experiences and recalculates everyone’s social scores accordingly, and then a new round begins. After three rounds, the game ends, and the victory goes to whoever has the most points from their collected Lifestyle cards. The twist is that you can’t get points for Lifestyle cards with a star rating above your social score — as with the episode “Nosedive,” a sad sack walking around with a mere 2.5-star score isn’t deemed worthy of three-star Lifestyle experiences like “An Employee of the Month” reserved parking spot. So collecting great cards isn’t enough if you can’t also maintain a great social score.
The problem is that social scores are mostly outside the players’ control. There’s certainly a dystopic element to that, worthy of “Nosedive” the episode — hell is other people, and they can really mess with your social standing, without hurting themselves in any way. But Nosedive the game makes the process pretty arbitrary. You don’t control what experiences you have to choose from, and if one player gets sunny, positive ones (or even relatively neutral ones, like “Shoveling snow off the driveway”) and you’re stuck disbursing experiences like “Falling down a flight of stairs in front of your colleagues,” your score will plummet through no fault of your own. The Lifestyle and Experience phases are only lightly integrated, and there’s no way to alter your play style to make it more cooperative or cutthroat. Virtually all the game mechanics feel a bit arbitrary.
Nosedive’s saving grace is the opportunity for discussion the Experience phase brings. Players are encouraged to talk through how they feel about the choices they’re offered — which is worse, chipping a nail at an inopportune time or forcing a pill into your pet? — which can easily spiral into a “Would you rather?”-style social game. The app’s Experience choices are often outsized and bleakly funny. So is the game’s pastel-pink design, which directly mirrors the Black Mirror episode’s aesthetic — the high-rated characters live in a world of soft colors like this game’s largely pink look, but low-rated characters end up on the grimier, darker side of life. Styling Nosedive the game as a pink experience, when it’s all about first sabotaging other players with hidden cards, then trying to appeal to them with positive life options, feels vaguely subversive.
The Nosedive app is cleanly designed and easy to use, and it enables fully anonymous choices and easy, nearly instant score calculations. It seems like a great precedent for future Black Mirror games: fully integrated technology that’s core to the experience.
It just isn’t a rich enough experience. Nosedive just isn’t soul-crushing and grim enough to reflect Black Mirror the show. It’s not a very deep or complicated game, and one playthrough feels much like the next. Only the app choices significantly change the game, and only if the players themselves take the initiative to discuss their thoughts and experiences. In any given Black Mirror episode, the stakes are high and failure is racking and frightening. In this game, failure mostly feels out of your hands — unless you make a point of using it as a tool to have fun with friends. Maybe it’s best approached as its own kind of lifestyle experience.