Image courtesy of Netflix
So you’re still knee deep in that holiday vacation with your good thoughts of family get-togethers, gifts, and Ho Ho Ho’s. And in comes Charlie Brooker, welcoming you back to the machine that Charlie Brooker built. You know the one, the Black Mirror series that half broke your brain and reminded you that with each passing day, the iPhone tucked under your pillow was ready to kill you while you sleep.
This time around, Brooker hasn’t given us an entire season, but rather a single episode called “Bandersnatch”. This one allows viewers to choose the pathway of the story at certain points like a video game, where you’re given a choice between two singular options in typical “Choose your own adventure” book fashion.Plot wise, it features a young programmer (Fionn Whitehead) slowly going insane at the idea of not having control, and you’re free to choose the worst options at every point, or the safest ones; the choice being mostly yours, the viewer. After a first watch this morning, I took the opportunity to round up some quick thoughts that entered my mind with this one, such as, who the hell would choose Sugar Puffs over Frosted Flakes?Minor spoilers, for my episode anyway, ahead.
Let’s be honest. This was the first and most important decision, and the idea of choice was ruined at this point. I mean, we all chose Frosted Flakes right? We’re not monsters there. It’s also funny how several little decisions like these are sprinkled throughout this story, leaving you wondering if you were destined to get a terrible Black Mirror-ish ending thanks to some sick filmmaker's love of sugar puffs.
Frosted Flakes vs. Sugar Puffs
The strangest thing about "Bandersnatch" is the lack of a middle and end. We’ve been pretty damn spoiled with on-demand foresight. We know our place in any story (press, timeline, repeat). And we know when to break-away or sit tight for a conclusion. "Bandersnatch", removes that option. Forget the pause for that numbered timeline that put your ADD’d mind at ease. At a certain point, you won’t know if you’ve watched this for 40 minutes, which probably turned into 60, and perhaps two hours. With films that already have enough issues with maintaining viewer engagement, an interactive story stealing time in this way is as beautifully meta as the “time” theme it’s rocking with.
The lack of a run-time feels weird but effective
Speaking to the point above, I’d like to guess that I spent about 80 minutes with "Bandersnatch", and I’ve come across three different endings that could have resulted from a half a dozen different decisions. And that’s the biggest strength in any interactive story. That it’s almost maddening in the sense that you don’t have the blueprint, so you keep trying to figure it out. Sure, the decision themselves feel binary, but the ride is never strictly from point A to B, more like ABC and D. Half the fun is figuring out all the notes you missed, and even writing this now, I wanna go back. How many films, regardless of how dull, can have the benefit of saying that?
Bandersnatch is pretty damn rewatchable
In the past, we had this thing called FMV video-games (full motion video), where you’d watch some shit play out with real actors, things would pause, and you’d be presented with a choice (The Wing Commander series apparently being the only good version of this according to my editor.) The decision-making method Netflix uses feels about the same to this, only with better direction/actors, 4k resolution, and HDR goodness. It’s also interesting how this only works well with a mouse, or controller (didn’t work with my Apple TV today), making the similarities even more apparent. There’s still something about the whole package that feels decidedly less trashy. Perhaps it’s the multi-million dollar studio thing, but if studios can combine great stories with proper interaction, this can be an evolutionary step next to the series of missteps we’ve had here.
This feels like every video-game I’ve ever hated
This still feels like your typical Black Mirror, dystopian, techno-hating-paranoia-having plot through and through. You’ve got the socially awkward kid Stefan Butler (Fionn Whitehead), who lives with his single parent dad. But he’s got a goal; to be the next great ambitious video-game designer by adapting a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure novel called “Bandersnatch” into a PC game. Thankfully, he gets the opportunity with a well-known publisher (Asim Chaudhry), and in regular Black Mirror left turns, the ordeal drives him to the point of madness.
Bandersnatch is stupidly self-aware
The Black Mirror-isms don’t stop there. Throughout the ride, references to past episodes like “Nosedive”, “Metalhead” and “San Junipero” come in one after the other like a love letter to the series. And then there’s the commentary on the illusion of choice, and free will, that chooses to mock the very damn thing creator Charlie Brooker utilizes to tell this story; interaction. It’s like, we get it already, Brooker, you get it, and so do we.
It’s an overused word, but what else is there? Just think about it, you’ve got this video-game programmer creating an interactive adventure, when his life is a series of binary choices. As a viewer, we’re interacting within these binary rules (A or B), and we’ve been lead to it, because articles like this promoted this experience on a binary level (watch or don’t watch). But at a certain point, our guy Butler begins to break the fourth wall, and questions his place in his own adventure as we alter his. How much control does he really have? How much do we have? Is the fact that we’re watching and talking about this show like every other person any less maddening and binary than Butler’s own situation? Hmmmmm.
Bandersnatch is so Meta
We’ve been down this road before; 50 years before to be exact, when the interactive movie was first introduced through Kinoautomat, an interactive short by Czech cinematographer Radúz Činčera who literally asked audiences to weigh in on specific decision points. More recently, Netflix tried their hand with titles like Buddy Thunderstruck: The Maybe Pile, and Puss in Boots: Trapped in an Epic Tale. Hell, the interactive movie company, HelloEko has been doing for a bit now with Telltale Games doing it within the video-game space (to their own demise). That’s the thing, they’ve all been hit or misses, mostly in how restrictive the genre of film is. When given a choice between killing someone or going with the boring flow, more audiences will go for the kill; the most immediate pleasure point. Where’s the fun in interactive entertainment that isn’t driven by a varying degree of conflict?With “Bandersnatch,” almost every track encourages you to do something insane (murder included). Stefan Butler himself is such a flat dude along with his father which makes that easy. The same can be said about the people around him, and there comes a point when Butler’s own therapist admits this fact to Butler, and we’re given the choice to force a batty set of circumstances on our guy. The beauty of “Bandersnatch” comes in its ownership the ridiculous, often becoming as crazy as viewers want it to, while acknowledging the foolishness as a part of two deeper questions. What do our decisions say about us? And how much control do we really have on with those decisions? Granted, films can rarely embrace the full blown, upside-down craze of a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure title like Dungeons and Dragons. But by virtue of having the nutso DNA of a Black Mirror theme, “Bandersnatch” works in the only way our conflict hungry selves can enjoy.
Interactive storytelling isn’t new, and Bandersnatch gets this
Think about the discussion around that “The Red Wedding” episode from Game of Thrones. The pure shock of it rocked social media, and catapulted the series to a viral stratosphere. Now imagine if “The Red Wedding” episode didn’t happen for some. Imagine heading to Twitter to describe your experience, only to have it be re-mixed as something completely different from another. I spent a brief 10 minutes checking out my TL around "Bandersnatch "and found out about endings that were far crazier than I’d imagined (our guy from 1984 discovers “Netflix”). This isn’t regulated to some niche gaming forum. This is a mainstream TV show being adopted by folks who may never pick up a modern video game. There’s something special about that.Follow Noel Ransome on Twitter.