So, to get this out of the way: Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, the new choose-your-own-adventure interactive film from Netflix, is almost certainly the kind of sinister mass social engineering experiment that Black Mirror itself has spent four seasons warning us about. After all, what data analyst in their right mind would pass up a chance to survey the choices of millions of Netflix users to determine whether Frosted Flakes fans are more likely to end up dismembering corpses?
If nothing I wrote above fazed you, then odds are good that you’re probably already part of Black Mirror’s target audience, or else you quickly will be, thanks to the combination of Bandersnatch’s classic gaming mechanics with Black Mirror’s standard nihilism. As always, the series dances on the line between satire and sermons with merry aplomb.
Under the care of creator and writer Charlie Brooker and director David Slade, that dance consists of considerably more style than substance in Bandersnatch. But the film, which you can think of as a luxuriant aperitif before Black Mirror season five (which currently has no known release date, though it will presumably debut sometime in 2019), is interesting enough from start to its five different finishes that you probably won’t be too upset by its lack of larger thematic cohesiveness.
You might, however, find yourself feeling a little unnerved by just how well Brooker and Co. have predicted your emotional journey through the game — or, rather, through our tortured main character’s life. In essence, by calling attention to its own attempts to manipulate us, Black Mirror has designed a storytelling snare that simultaneously highlights, exploits, and condemns the nihilistic pleasures of modern entertainment. It then tops off its own philosophy lecture with a shameless plug for Netflix itself — because Black Mirror is nothing if not gleefully smug about enjoying its own nihilistic pleasures.
Bandersnatch is a choose-your-own adventure game about a guy making a choose-your-own adventure game
Bandersnatch is basically a video game with extremely high production values. You play it by making different decisions at various forks or branch points in the storyline, on behalf of our main character, Stefan, a young and obsessive game designer. In keeping with Black Mirror’s tradition of getting very meta, Stefan himself is designing a choose-your-own-adventure (CYA) game, also called Bandersnatch.
This is Black Mirror’s first true storyline set in the past rather than the future, so naturally, it plops us down in 1984 — nominally because 1984 was a primo moment in the history of video game development, but more obviously to ensure that our ensuing experience is as on-the-nose and Orwellian as possible.
The story opens with Stefan visiting a London game design company to pitch his game — an adaptation of a famous fictional CYA fantasy novel called Bandersnatch, by a writer who ultimately went mad and cut off his wife’s head. The idea is a hit with the head game developer, Tucker, who gives Stefan a narrow window of time to produce the perfect game.
This naturally opens Stefan up to the many clichés of the video game developer’s life: long marathon sessions spent coding in isolated spaces with dim lighting and few nutrients, battling physical exhaustion and mental fatigue to make it through “crunch time” and meet his deadline. Of course, it also opens him up to a rapid mental health spiral that’s exacerbated by Bandersnatch’s own morbid history, his deep-seated guilt over the death of his mom in his childhood, and his growing suspicions that someone or something is controlling his actions.
His new friend, revered game developer Colin (the always-great Will Poulter), inadvertently encourages Stefan’s paranoia by convincing him that life is basically one Donnie Darko-style series of forking timelines. ”Where the path ends is immaterial,” he notes. “It’s how our decisions along that path affect the whole that matters.” Shortly thereafter, Colin tests his own argument by possibly jumping off a balcony to his death.
Except maybe he doesn’t. Or maybe he never jumped at all? Or perhaps it was Stefan who jumped, and Stefan who did or didn’t die.
Basically, from here on out, you’re on your own.
Bandersnatch is Black Mirror’s attempt at putting some of the series’ most Orwellian ideas into practice
This is certainly not the first time Black Mirror has called back to either the 1980s (“San Junipero”) or to gaming culture (“U.S.S. Callister”), but it’s clearly taken care to synthesize both. Flaunting its ’80s milieu, Bandersnatch is a kind of inverse visual feast, laying on the retro drabness, the Brutalist cityscapes, and the low-pixel aesthetics of early ’80s game design. It all infuses the story with a sense of nostalgia, but it’s also layered with a sense of unease. This is a cold, unwelcoming version of the decade. It’s not at all the kind of world in which you want to find yourself stuck flailing around helplessly.
The end goal for us as players of this game is immediately clear: to “win,” Stefan has to get a perfect five-star review from this world’s television critic, a high-waisted nerd who periodically appears to lower the anvil on games he hates and ensure a place in history for the ones he loves.
To do that, all Stefan has to do is code the game and do it well, right? Except that Stefan is increasingly distracted from this goal by one choice after another — and so are we, as players. The game is designed to escalate, so that the more choices we make, the more choices immediately present themselves to us. As we play the game, Stefan, who’s absorbing all of these “choices” we’re making within his own narrative, becomes increasingly unpredictable and, ironically, difficult to control.
It also doesn’t help that often, the choices we’re presented with on Stefan’s behalf are variants of “bad” and “worse.”
#Bandersnatch summarized:— ʙʟᴀɴᴄ (@yagmsy) December 28, 2018
bad decision bad decision
When you’re thinking about what all this means, however, don’t feel bad for Stefan — though it already seems as though that might be easier said than done, and the collective abuse we’re heaping on poor Stefan has already become something of a giant social media joke.
But remember: ultimately this isn’t about Stefan, but about you.
Black Mirror is never about the characters — it’s about us, the audience
Black Mirror’s more or less constant goal, throughout its four seasons and change, has been to reflect your own ugliness back to you. (Remember, the titular “black mirror” is the black reflective surface of all our devices.) Its project is to explore the many ways technology might help us or save us — and though its best episodes have steered us towards salvation, most of the time it tends to wallow in technology’s ability to distort and distend our basic humanity into the ugliest version of itself.
Brooker’s writing steadily unhooks the fictional storyline from Stefan’s world and attaches it to ours, at one point implying that Stefan’s in a Truman Show-esque reality simulation that’s all being filmed for outside entertainment. It soon becomes clear that in Bandersnatch, we’re not only manipulating Stefan outside of the storyline; he’s possibly being manipulated within the storyline by mysterious forces which ... eerily resemble Netflix’s mysterious programming directives.
Of course, the more he breaks down because of all these implications, the more we enjoy it. At one point, Netflix itself becomes a part of the storyline.
Yes, that’s you being given the choice between choosing an in-story symbol and, well, the Netflix logo. Choosing the Netflix logo kicks off a whole new meta-layer to Stefan’s story —and yours — that ultimately, of course, implicates you as the viewer who’s enjoying this story just a little too much.
It does so in the very best and most tongue-in-cheek Black Mirror ways, of course, paying homage to Netflix’s own programming foibles and its desire to exploit your shameless love of predictable tropes and mindless entertainment. The fact that Netflix is also profiting off your predictability is, of course, central to the show’s thesis.
In fact, in the image above, the blood-red glyph which represents the branch points in the Bandersnatch storyline is identical to a similar symbol that appears prominently in Black Mirror season two’s “White Bear” — an episode in which the entire populace was ultimately revealed to be under the control of a TV signal, not unlike the way Stefan himself is under the “control” of the at-home Netflix viewer.
stefan said that his game is an illusion of free will, so black mirror is doing the same to us. we are under the illusion that we get to choose stefan's multiple fates but in reality black mirror is making us redecide the right choice so we are being controlled too #Bandersnatch pic.twitter.com/7SqwCAQCUU— ✧ nora ✧ (@justfornewt) December 28, 2018
(A note here about other Black Mirror easter eggs: Colin argues that mirrors are “portals through time,” which contributes to the Unified Black Mirror theory and might explain why there are posters in 1984 for a computer game featuring the evil robot dogs that show up in season four’s “Metalhead” — also directed by David Slade. Other “unified” easter eggs include a mention of “San Juniper” hospital, a possible nod to season three’s Emmy-winning “San Junipero,” and a possible reference to that season’s “Nosedive.” )
And this is where we have to pause in talking about Bandersnatch as a story and talk about Bandersnatch as a game. After all, as Colin observes, the gameplay itself is what’s important.
Playing Bandersnatch is as much fun as playing a “real” game would be — which is all part of its creepy Black Mirror-y point
Bandersnatch’s gameplay lures you in under the false pretense that everything will be okay.
Initially, the game essentially gives us an out early on. After we make what seems like an easy early choice — to accept the lucrative job offer Stefan’s just been offered — Colin informs us coldly that we took the “wrong path,” and months later, our game debuts to a lackluster review of zero (0!) stars out of five.
Instead of resting on his lack of laurels, however, Stefan defiantly insists he’s going to go back and redo the whole timeline completely. And then he does: We’re suddenly six months in the past. This is essentially an early freebie on the game’s part, letting us know that unexpected consequences lie around every turn.
But this moment also serves to give us a false sense of security: We play the game from here on, at least up to a certain point, expecting that our choices are in a sense undo-able, since we’ve just seen one undone for us. After all, as with every good game, at least on laptop and mobile versions of Netflix, we have frequent “save points”; Netflix allows you to skip backwards to your previous point in order to “undo” it if you like. Surely there’s nothing so bad it can’t be undone?
This early moment is, perhaps, a bit of trolling on Bandersnatch’s part, because it soon becomes clear that it’s incredibly easy to get stuck in “choice loops” — cycles of decisions and reversions, where you’re asked to redo the same sets of choices. What starts out as one or two easy choices laid out in a linear way eventually abruptly goes off the rails and turns into a jittery derailed plot in which choices are made and then immediately challenged and remade, actions are committed and then reverted, timelines converge and collapse, and it all becomes a giant mess, hard to follow even if you’re keeping track.
All of this mimics the mental breakdown happening in Stefan’s head as he absorbs the choices we’re making for him, but practically speaking, it also results in a lot of false outs leading to each of the five main endings — all of which makes it difficult to know which ending you’re in until, all of a sudden, you’re there.
The effect of all this is to make the player — you, and me, the viewers — acutely aware of the mechanics of the game, and our decision-making processes. Do we want to make choices that fit Stefan’s character, or do we want to keep him from self-destructing? Do we want to keep the story going at all costs, even when the story is clearly hurting Stefan? And what if the context we’re bringing to each decision isn’t the context the “game” itself is working with?
I’m unsettled by the lack of a movie timeline as I’m watching; I realized while watching Bandersnatch that I gain a certain comfort from being able to see that I’m not far from the end as I’m watching a movie.
But this story lacks that comfort, because there is no “end.” It leaves me feeling more uncertain and unmoored as a result.
In the middle of all this care I’m taking to make the best decisions for my new pal Stefan, in spite of our increasingly bad circumstances, Stefan starts to resist me and my decision-making. The annoyance I feel when he refuses to follow my completely trivial and meaningless directives is real, and that naturally makes it even easier to command him, not long after, to do seriously terrible things.
And that, of course, is Black Mirror doing its typical dark work — indicting me for how easily I’ve fallen into making grim moral choices on Stefan’s behalf, purely to keep the game going, to keep my entertainment flowing. It’s all a giant lark, in the end. Apart from this concept, and the way it sets itself up as a meta-indictment on shallow pop culture, there just isn’t much happening within the story.
Yet the social engineering is real; the urge to replay the moment you’re kicked out of the “game” is strong. It’s a classic Black Mirror tactic: Leaving you wanting more while making you hate yourself a bit for it.
But when it comes to the game of inciting satirical self-loathing, Black Mirror is better than just about anything. And in this sense, Bandersnatch may just be its best project yet.