Bandersnatch: Well Done, You Played Yourself

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.

Black Mirror Season 4 Round-up

Season 4 of Black Mirror, the TV programme designed to crush whatever part of your soul may have survived the past year, has landed back on Netflix just in time for 2018. As with the last season, below I’ve rated each episode from worst to best (in my humble opinion). I have to admit that I wasn’t really digging Black Mirror this season. Since coming to Netflix, it seems to have lost of a bit of it’s punch and, particularly in this season, individual episodes often take an unexpected twist seemingly for the sake of having a twist, rather than making sense in the narrative.

Watching the first five episodes, I felt a bit cheated. Instead of being left with a feeling of utter despair and a new found fear of technology, I was left with a feeling of ‘so what?’. It was only on watching ‘Black Museum’ that I felt as if I was actually watching Black Mirror – the show which has previously left me reeling on my sofa.

Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t the shock factor that makes Black Mirror what it is. A sudden twist or a blind reveal do not a good episode make. No, the successful episodes of Black Mirror turn the tables on us, the viewer. They do not force an agenda, but aggressively encourage us to interrogate our own ideologies. They do not pull off cheap tricks, favouring in depth character study and study life-changing technology on a micro-scale. The greatest episodes (think ‘15 Million Merits’, ‘Be Right Back’ or ‘White Rabbit’) investigate the horror of living in a world so close to our own. In its worst moments, it merely asks us to fear dying – a much easier concept to grasp.

So, from worst to best (and I am fully aware that this may be the most contradictory list to any others out there, but hear me out)

Crocodile

(aka drink driving is bad)

Crocodile is odd, to say the least. Part scandi-noir, part anti drink-driving campaign, it details how one minor mistake can alter the rest of one’s life forever. Mia (Andrea Riseborough) and Rob (Andrew Gower) are driving through snow capped mountains, after a big night out partying (drugs included). After hitting a cyclist on a deserted road, Rob quickly decides he would rather not go to prison, and Mia reluctantly assists him with disposing of the cyclist into a nearby lake.

15 years later, Rob and Mia meet again. Mia is now a big time career woman in the architecture world, and Rob has shown up to her hotel bedroom whilst she is away at conference. He’s feeling guilty about what they did and tells Mia he is planning to turn himself in. Mia, who now has an established career and a family, is not down for this idea. She, in a predictable turn of events, kills Rob in the hotel room and disposes of his body in a building site of what we assume is going to be a building she has designed.

So far, so Scandi-noir thriller. Unfortunately for Mia, a determined insurance investigator by the name of Shazia is about to make things a lot harder for her. Shazia is on a mission to get compensation from a self driving pizza van company and is collecting the memories of everyone who was around Mia’s hotel that night. I say collecting because Shazia has a sort of memory machine where she can record the subjective memories of the person she is interviewing. This is bad news for Mia as the pizza van incident happened mere moments before she killed off Rob for good. So what is Mia to do?

I’ll give you a hint. It involves Mia evolving from accidental bystander in a drink-drive fatality to full blown child murderer.

‘Crocodile’ got a lot of good press (some people claiming it was the bleakest episode of Black Mirror ever) but for me, it was far too predictable. There’s very little that is interesting about a successful white woman going on a killing spree to stop her life from being destroyed, and Mia’s downward spiral was etched in stone from the moment she killed Rob. It was also disappointing to never get a clear idea of Shazia’s character before she was cheaply disposed of. The brutality she and her family endure (a mixed-race family vs a successful white woman) at the hands of Mia also feels cruel rather than nuanced in anyway. Brutality for the sake of brutality is never a good idea. The reveal? Also predictable, but has made me think that having a guinea pig might be quite useful in future…

Hang the DJ

(aka Tinder is bad)

It’s a shame that ‘Hang the DJ’ has landed second to last on this list as I enjoyed the vast majority of the episode. However, the twist at the end only serves to do two things; firstly it removes any kind of sincerity the episode had, and secondly it’s the technological equivalent to ‘they woke up and it was all a dream’. Let me explain.

‘Hang the DJ’ revolves around the world of app-dating. Couples meet in the same restaurant, check their expiry dates on their app and go from there. When Frank (Joe Cole) and Amy (Georgina Campbell) are paired up, they get on pretty well but are only given 12 hours remaining for their relationship. Instead of having sex that night they innocently hold hands, a small gesture but one that solidifies their chemistry.  Over the next year or so, both of them are set up with other people that the system has chosen for them. Frank is in an incredibly unhappy relationship with a woman who seems to hate him for no reason other than the fact he was late on their first date, and Amy ends up discovering annoying ticks about the  man she is paired with. Eventually, after a series of short relationships, they are paired with each other again, but not for long. Frank, unable to stop himself from checking their expiry date though they had agreed not to, kickstarts their countdown clock which goes from five years to just several hours. Eventually, they both decide to try and escape the system, only for the audience to realise that the Amy and Frank we have been watching are merely a simulation occurring inside a dating app. The simulation has been run 1000 times, with 998 sims ending in the two of them choosing to reject the system to stay together.

Though Campbell and Cole are fantastic as the technology-crossed lovers, ‘Hang the DJ’ manages to completely undermine anything we felt for the characters with its final twist. We’ve become invested in these characters for the entire episode and to essentially erase them from existence to introduce the ‘real’ Amy and Frank left me with a feeling of ‘so what?’. It almost seemed like an entirely pointless exercise – though cynical of the system, the real Amy and Frank still choose to follow through on it.

Metalhead

(aka robot dogs are bad)

Episode 5, ‘Metalhead’ can be summed up as Maxine Peake running through various landscapes whilst being chased by K9’s evil alter-ego. It’s pacy, it’s racy and it doesn’t hold back. Two of the three characters in the entire episode are killed within the first five minutes, leaving only Peake’s Bella to try and survive her ordeal.

Peake does give a phenomenal performance (as is usual) as the isolated Bella running for her life. The stand-out scene in terms of tension comes when the robot dog traps Bella in a tree, revealing it’s only weakness: it can’t climb up the tree with it’s broken paw. Bella decides to wait it out and soon realises – with no verbal communication to convey this – that if she continually keeps it awake, it’s battery power will deplete. It works and Bella escapes, for the moment. Later, Bella comes across an abandoned house, home only to two dead bodies who appear to have committed suicide. Soon enough, the dog has tracked Bella down, and though she succeeds in destroying the machine, it leaves her with a final parting gift – a tracker lodged in her neck. Knowing that the tracker will lead even more dogs to the house, Bella makes the excruciating decision to end her own life rather than let the dogs at her.

Whilst ‘Metalhead’ is a fast and remarkably furious episode, it could do with a little more context. We gather snippets of information at the beginning – the pigs are all dead because of the dogs – and Bella speaks on the phone to various unknown people. In these moments, it’s hard to care much about the conversation because we have no idea who Bella is talking to. Are they other survivors? Is there a safe refuge? How many humans are left? Is someone controlling the dogs or have they risen up like a robo-rebellion? At the risk of ruining a bit of the mystery, ‘Metalhead’ is lost in a bit of a void.

I think ‘Metalhead’ would have made an incredible feature film. I am just not sure how I feel about it as part of the wider Black Mirror universe. Perhaps this is me being pedantic, but it makes little sense in the wider world – how does it fit in to the chronology of previous episodes? As a stand alone film, the lack of context would have been exciting and would have kept viewers wanting more, but in the middle of a series? It felt like something was missing.

Page 2 for the next three episodes!

Black Mirror: Season 3 Review

Watching the new series of Black Mirror in one weekend is one really effective way of leaving your psyche in tatters by Sunday evening. However, it is also something really worth doing, even though series three was a bit hit and miss. As a huge fan of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror since the days of pig-fucking bonanzas (and who knew how that would turn out eh!), I had been waiting patiently for series three to drop on Netflix, and then promptly devoured it over last weekend.

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