As a Black Mirror binge watcher, I was pleasantly surprised with Netflix’s secretive release of Bandersnatch. My curiosity peaked, however, when I realized it was a choose-your-own-adventure episode. Throughout the show, viewers are presented with choices, and the narrative advances based on their selections. With enthusiasm, I opened the Netflix app on my Apple TV only to receive a “device not supported” error. No problem - I opened the Netflix app on my smart TV. Same result. Okay, I opened the Netflix webpage from my laptop. It worked…until I attempted to stream my laptop display to my TV, at which point it informed me I wasn’t allowed to do this. Sigh. So, with laptop on lap, I clicked my way through about an hour’s worth of storyline.
The interface was quite slick. I think I was expecting the CD-ROM games of the 90s where the scene pauses while I click on a choice, then stutters while loading the new scene. In reality, it was seamless. The scene plays as a timer ticks down for your choice and continues without breaking stride.
There’s a certain charm to the initial choices, which do not affect the plot at all. Given a choice of which cassette to listen to on the bus, I chose Thompson Twins and enjoyed that it became the musical montage soundtrack for the ride.
If you haven’t seen Bandersnatch (please do so before reading on), it’s the story of a computer programmer, Stefan, who is creating a choose-your-own-adventure video game called Bandersnatch. Stefan has a goal: work for the software company Tuckersoft and release the game in time for Christmas. Stefan has a dark past - his mother died in a train derailment when he was five - and takes medication presumably for depression. The show is set in 1984.
The first choice capable of ending the story comes quickly. When the head of Tuckersoft offers Stefan his dream job working alongside his hero Colin with his own dedicated support team, Stefan must choose to either accept or counter-offer to go it alone and work-from-home. This being a Shining-style writer-descent-into-madness story, you can guess which option is the correct narrative choice. When you choose incorrectly, you’re given a quick fast-forward of the ho-hum way this plays out, then, like Groundhog-day, are returned to your alarm clock waking you up at the story’s launch. Try again.
Now, here was where my first glimmer of hope appeared. As the characters replayed the scene leading up to the accept/decline choice, it was subtly different. Both Stefan and Colin seemed to have some knowledge of their first go around. When Colin asks Stefan how he knew something he shouldn’t, he responds, “I don’t know. I just did.” It made me think of the Star Trek the Next Generation Episode “Cause and Effect” where the crew relives the same day over and over again, each time retaining some knowledge of their previous iteration. In the end, they use that knowledge to break the loop - discovering they’re not the only ones trapped in it.
Unfortunately Bandersnatch just as quickly abandons this concept. What it does retain, however, is an increasing awareness from Stefan that his decisions are not his own. Given a choice to bite his nails or pull his earlobe, you can see Stefan wants to bite his nails but visibly fights his hand when you select pull your earlobe. Depending on your choices, this can play out in an over-the-top Truman Show style scene where Stefan becomes aware you’re controlling him and you divulge that it’s a Netflix interactive show from the future. When his therapist tries to logically convince him they’re not on a TV show, the fourth wall falls and they abandon their characters to provide a scene more typical of a TV show. Some reviewers didn’t like this meta-scene, but I thought it was snarky and fun.
I’d say the first half of Bandersnatch actually felt like a Black Mirror episode. I found myself making choices based on what I thought would be more interesting narratively. A key choice, for example, is whether Stefan should go with his father to the doctor or bail and follow Collin. The sensible thing to do is get Stefan some medical help, but the plot is more interesting if he follows Collin. The resulting scene feels right for the narrative, and is dark, with elements of Inception in it. I think right up to the end of this scene I felt like I was watching and participating in a story.
Afterwards, the story quickly devolves into endless loops. Every time you chose a dead end the story repeats the scenes up to the ill-fated choice and you try again. After a dozen of these it becomes tedious, and you quickly realize that there is no satisfying ending to be had. Collin’s character put it perfectly, describing how Poc Man tries to escape his maze only to re-emerge on the other side, still trapped.
One of my criticisms of Black Mirror is that often the writers don’t know how to end an episode. This is certainly true of Bandersnatch. It doesn’t need to be a happy ending, but it does need to be a fulfilling ending. If you search on the web, you can find flowcharts of all the possibilities. To some effect, I felt like the ending scene should be from the ending of 1983’s War Games.
A few observations:
Forbes has a good write-up on what the best ending is in Bandersnatch. I’d call it the Butterfly Effect ending. They also comment on the theory that we, the viewer, are really in the White Bear episode of Black Mirror, where we are punishing Stefan for his crime. The decision-tree symbol which keeps reappearing in Bandersnatch is the same used in White Bear.
Tuckersoft’s rainbow logo is channeling Activision’s 80s logo. I like it.
The show did succeed in making me feel uneasy about choosing for Stefan, especially as he became more aware that he was being manipulated.
I’d like to see more interactive shows like this. It’s a bit gimmicky, but with the right story I think it could be compelling.