It’s been bemoaned that the extreme accessibility of a practically endless stream of entertainment media has watered down the overall quality of available content, but there are shining examples to the contrary. Take British cyber thriller Kiss Me First (available on Netflix), for instance. The series takes viewers into the virtual multiplayer role-playing-game universe of Azana, where people from all over the world plug in and participate in a consequence-free pseudo-existence. This six-episode arc is aesthetically and narratively stimulating and offers a viewpoint on addiction to technologies of escapism that is responsible yet provocative.
The point-of-entry character into this universe is Leila (Tallulah Haddon), known in Azana as Shadowfax. Leila escapes into her virtual life to cope with the difficulty of caring for her terminally ill mother, and then to mute the grief of her mother’s death. She discovers a small coven of players in a mysterious, previously inaccessible sector of the game and tentatively joins the pack of self-described misfits. These characters hold the burden of trauma and come to Azana for solitude and companionship rather than the simulated ultraviolence enjoyed by the rest of the Azana players.
The hidden sector, called “Red Pill,” was apparently conceived as a peaceful place of lush beauty for like-minded gamers, but the small community is dangerously cultish. The leader, Adrian (Matthew Beard), bestows upon his chosen disciples a gift: a piece of technology, worn like a collar, that the player wears in the real world when they log into Azana, allowing the wearer to feel emotions and sensations to an extreme degree in both the real and VR worlds. Adrian has promised his followers an ultimate reward, a real-life version of Red Pill where they can all be together after abandoning the encumbrances of their “real” lives.
Shadowfax isn’t convinced and reaches out to other members of the group in the real world, including Tess (Simona Brown), known in Azana as Mania, a young woman disturbed by mental illness and cast out by her family. Shadowfax desperately tries to convince the group to abandon their allegiance to Adrian and seek help for the emotional turmoil that has brought them to follow a dangerous sociopath — especially after Adrian begins manipulating players to their death in an attempt to turn his followers against Shadowfax. As the idyllic honeymoon of Red Pill fades into a dangerous game with a murderous puppet master, the lines between reality and fantasy become blurred, prompting consideration about the nature of existence in a world of online avatars.
At least half of each episode is spent within Azana, a vivid fantasy world that illustrates the comfort and seductive appeal of this particular type of escapism, especially for these characters, who suffer from mental illness, grief, antisocial tendencies, or having survived abuse. By comparison, the real world is depicted as grungy and oppressively urban, with the glaring disquiet of true consequences in every scene.
Kiss Me First addresses mental illness and addiction, specifically to escapist technology, in a conscientious, genuine way, and offers a judgment-free exploration of a culture of self-medication through diversion. And while the show uses the problems associated with dependence on technology to fuel the story’s narrative tension, it also sends a positive message about the importance of real-life connection in the non-virtual world. The characters, especially Leila/Shadowfax, experience an emotional awakening in the end that suggests an equally strong second season, in which the temporarily vanquished Adrian promises fresh terror on the horizon.
Kiss Me First is a beautifully constructed thriller with intriguing characters who feel authentic, even when presented as virtual characters in a computer-generated universe. A charismatic thriller with room to run, the series offers commentary about finding pleasure and mitigating pain through the lens of society’s ever-increasing obsession with and dependency on technology.