Hype for Black Mirror’s new interactive episode started a few weeks ago when some Netflix users discovered a hidden ‘coming seen’ episode on the streaming site. Rumours flew around the internet – what was is Bandersnatch, will there be more, and what exactly does an interactive episode mean?
Readers beware – from here on there be spoilers for Bandersnatch. This is also more of a ‘here’s my experience with Bandersnatch rather than a review, as I will be talking explicitly about the choices I made during.
Interactive it certainly is, though perhaps the best way to describe Bandersnatch is exactly the way the game within the game is described – it’s a Choose Your Own Adventure. I’m not a gamer myself (my most played and enjoyed games are either the Lego series, Kirby or Spyro) but I am married to one, so I got a bit of background on the Choose Your Own Adventure genre of games. One that stands out from the rest is The Stanley Parable – which is described as an ‘interactive storytelling and walking simulator video game’. They key thing about the Stanley Parable is that the freedom of choice within the game is not merely an illusion – you are free to choose the options you desire, which is sometimes (most of the time) against the will of the supremely pissed off narrator. Throughout the game, you (as Stanley) make choices which can end in several different endings – I’ve been reliably informed that there are roughly thirteen different endings. Every choice you make leads to one of these endings, but the narrative weaves itself back in and out of different pathways, which basically means you are never told to ‘go back’ or ‘game over’ – rather, your choices may lead you to the same point that you would have got to anyway, just in a different loop so to speak.
Confused? So was I. As I said, I am not much of a gamer and so my I was initially a bit disappointing that the new Black Mirror episode was going to expect me – someone who likes to be spoon-fed content – to actually make active decisions about the protagonists future. Still, I went in with an open mind and with ample time, just in-case Bandersnatch was going to take longer than the designated 90 minutes Netflix suggests it will. This is a good move – to experience most of the endings, you will need more than 90 minutes.
Bandersnatch is set in 1984 and follows the story of Stefan, a young videogame designer who is looking for an opportunity to complete and sell his game ‘Bandersnatch’ – a Choose Your Own Adventure game based on a book of the same name. Get it? Stefan’s day, and our viewing, starts out with simple choices (Frosties or Sugar Puffs – we went for Frosties) and gradually leans into more divisive decisions which will inevitably and irrevocably change the direction of Stefan’s life.
Bandersnatch is not like the aforementioned Stanley Parable. It does give you frequent opportunities to make decisions for Stefan which change the narrative, but instead of following through when viewers choose certain path, Bandersnatch has a clear set of choices that it wants you to make. If you make the wrong decision (EG: die before the game is completed, or refuse to talk to your therapist about your mother), Bandersnatch will either aggressively encourage you to pick the ‘correct option’, will launch a soft reset where you are taken (without consent) back to an earlier point) or will inform you that your proverbial game is over and that you should go back and try again.
On our first viewing (or playthrough), we decided that Stefan should take the job at Ritman – a move that felt inline with what we knew about Stefan’s character and his desires. This led very quickly to the ‘Bandersnatch’ game being developed by a team in-office, which was then reviewed horribly when it came out. Stefan, without our interfering, chooses to ‘go back’ and try again – implying that when it came round to refusing or accepting the job offer again, we should refuse. Continuing on this path, we ended up with the ‘Netflix Fight’ ending – which was incredibly jarring as it doesn’t tie up any ends and feels more like a bonus, comic ending that the audience should be able to access once they’ve reached a more conclusive ending.
Between the soft resets and the show itself deciding to start again in particular instances, the idea of Bandersnatch feeling truly interactive is kind of lost. Of course, this is part of the narrative – the show is exploring the idea of freedom of choice vs a predetermined pathway – but I didn’t feel that this was effectively translated into the choices onscreen.
At first I made decisions which I felt Stefan would have made – I attempted to ‘keep character’ as it were. It quickly became obvious that this was not the correct pathway – for example, accepting the job at Ritman ended in Colin stating that we’d chosen wrong and we should go back and try again. Though the creators of the show have explicitly stated that there is no right or wrong way to ‘play’ Bandersnatch, there is definitely a particular set of choices you are being heavily encouraged to choose so any idea that I was deciding Stefan’s fate fell kind of flat. There is, of course, the argument that this is exactly what Bandersnatch is intending to do – give the audience the illusion of choice but to snatch the rug out from underneath them – but this feels like it could have been executed in a more sophisticated way.
The other main issue is that the story itself is relatively uninteresting – at least in comparison to the other Black Mirror episodes which have gone before it. It’s a Choose Your Own Adventure which depicts a person trying to create a Choose Your Own Adventure. It’s akin to a novel about someone writing a novel. Sometimes it works, but for the most part the narrative feels sparse and the only thing keeping the audience engaged is the interactive elements rather than a compelling storyline.
Overall, Bandersnatch is a neat idea which feels (like ‘Bandersnatch’ in so many of the endings) unfinished. There are unlimited references to other episodes of Black Mirror (Nosedive, Mental Head to name two), an easter egg playable game and secret endings but none of these things disguise Bandersnatch’s unrealised potential. It’s disappointing because it feels as if it’s on the edge of something quite exciting, but it never gets there in favour of cheap gimmicks and call-backs.
My Bandersnatch experience was most enjoyable once it had finished and I scrolled endlessly through twitter laughing at all the memes.. Unlike with Stefan, my choices here are limited and easy – like or retweet.