MAJOR SPOILERS FOLLOW
Netflix dropped Black Mirror: Bandersnatch on December 28th to a flurry of interest and publicity. The episode is one of the first of its kind: an interactive movie. Viewers receive a brief tutorial on how to make choices during the film and are then plunged into it. A viewer/player has ten seconds to decide between two choices at various points. Depending on what is picked, the action changes, just like one of the old Choose Your Own Adventure books—which just happen to be mentioned in the episode.1 As there are roughly choices every three to five minutes, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of ways things can play out. There are at least ten endings, a few of which happen quickly, and others which take longer and reveal more of the story.
Many articles have already been written discussing the mechanics of the film/game. I’m not here to talk about those. Instead, I want to focus on the main story, written by Charlie Brooker, one of Black Mirror’s creators.
The story begins in 1984. Stefan is the protagonist, a young man who’s a budding game designer. He’s about to show a demo of his first game, Bandersnatch, to the owner of Tuckersoft. Bandersnatch is based on a fantasy novel by the author Jerome F. Davies which is a famous Choose Your Own Adventure book, albeit one obviously aimed at adults. Stefan’s game, like the book (and like the film/game we’re watching) forces players to make choices at strategic points in order to continue. While visiting Tuckersoft, Stefan meets Colin Ritman, a famous game designer who is impressed by Stefan and his game demo.
As the story progresses, we see Stefan visit his psychiatrist (we see him taking medication in the first scene) and discussing the death of his mother. He feels it’s his fault, and his father’s, because she missed an earlier train while waiting for him to find his toy rabbit, which his father had hidden away. Five-year-old Stefan refuses to come with his mother to see his grandparents, so she goes alone, her train derailing.
Back in the present, after doing some record shopping on Colin’s advice, Stefan works on his game alone in his room. Frustration at deprogramming all the bugs and setting up the dozens of choices takes its toll, and eventually he snaps at his father. His dad’s response is to take him to see his therapist. Depending on the path chosen, he either sees her and gets an increased dose of medication, or he follows Colin whom he sees nearby. If the latter, then Colin takes him home, doses him with a hallucinogen and lectures him about free will. Soon they end up on a balcony, and Colin states, “One of us is going over.” He’s not worried about dying because, like Pac-Man, he will merely get another chance the next time around. To progress in the story, you have to choose Colin, and then Stefan wakes up to find himself back in the car with his father, going to the therapist. So, while not dead, Colin vanishes from the remaining portion of the story.
Stefan delivers the game on the specified date, but it’s still not running correctly. He pleads with his boss for more time, and gets the weekend. While working, he plays a documentary video that either Colin or Colin’s assistant gives him about Jerome F. Davies. Davies murdered his wife while working on the novel Bandersnatch. What Stefan hears on the TV causes him to believe that he’s not in control of his decisions, and he begins to fight the choices that he’s given by the viewer. He pleads for a sign, asking if someone’s there. He’s given a sign (which one depends on you), and he freaks out, eventually killing his father. If the viewer makes the correct choice, Stefan has time to finish designing the game, and it’s released several months later to rave reviews. Alas, Stefan is in jail for murder, presumably like his inspiration Davies.
That’s one of the two major endings. In the other one, Stefan finds the key to a locked room and discovers a safe there. If he enters the correct password, he finds his rabbit, and we then see him as a child with his father, who tells him to take the toy back where it belongs. We then see him finding it as a child, and his mother asking him again if he’s coming, although they’ll have to take the later train because they’re late. If the viewer says yes, then five-year-old Stefan and his mom go to the train together, and both end up dead.
The dichotomy between these two possible conclusions is clear. To get the “best” ending for the game, the viewer/player is forced into a bloody murder. However, if Stefan sacrifices himself and ends up dying with his memory of his mom, his father survives, but the game is lost and presumably never released. I believe this is a deliberate choice on Brooker’s part. He’s showing us that as game players, we’re often forced into making immoral decisions which may advance the plot, but involve the sacrifice of the game characters. This isn’t a new insight, of course, but it’s definitely one worth pondering.
The true protagonist of the story isn’t Stefan, but the viewer/player. We can make decisions that give Stefan a happier ending, but then we feel cheated. Contrariwise, we can decide that we want the five-star game rating, but Stefan and his father suffer as a result. Personally, I felt terrible that I made Colin jump to his death, even though it was revealed as a dream, because I liked the character. Just like the novel Bandersnatch (named after a fuming-furious monster in Lewis Carroll’s novel Through The Looking–Glass, one which is impossible to catch), the illusion of free will eventually forces us to realize that we’re just as trapped by the various choices as Stefan is. Someone else has designed the scenario that we’re caught in, and the choices we make are not our own. And, as usual in Black Mirror stories, the technology present has simply enabled us to indulge in our worst impulses.
I do want to take a moment to praise that technology. I’ve read a few COYA books, and played some similar video games, both from the story’s era and more recently. Almost all of them were quite clunky. You’re either flipping back and forth in the book, or you type your answer and wait to read the response, or you’re waiting for the decision tree to load so that you can go on with the game. This episode has none of that. The longest pause comes while the choices are displayed (ten seconds), and there’s dialogue to take your mind off of the waiting. Once the choice is picked and the timer runs out, the next bit of film loads with no pause. It’s as smooth as silk, and I never noticed a hitch, freeze or mistake. It’s truly groundbreaking. I think Netflix really has something with potential here.
Having said that, when Brooker stated in an interview that he realized that Bandersnatch needed to use this format to tell the story he wanted, I don’t think he was exaggerating. The very interactivity of this tale is what makes its commentary work. Like Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, we’re drawn into the narrative by our own complicity in it.
I don’t know how rewatchable or replayable Bandersnatch is, alas. Nevertheless, it’s a milestone in developing a new way to tell a story. Roger Ebert famously complained about videogames not being art, but I think if he had lived to see and play Bandersnatch, he might well have changed his mind.
Five out of five stars.