Sabastian Astley reviews Black Mirror’s intense and ambitious interactive special.
Black Mirror writer and show co-creator Charlie Brooker sees off the year with a bold and innovative new episode of the horror anthology. “Bandersnatch,” directed by David Slade, takes on an interactive format, merging a “choose your own adventure” structure with a disturbing commentary on the idea of free will.
Of course, this isn’t the first time Brooker has had the idea of toying around with experimental concepts for episodes. He envisioned a “nightmare mode” for the conclusion of Season 3’s “Playtest,” with alternate, fourth wall-breaking scenes. Ultimately, it was deemed too complicated an idea to execute. Fast forward a year, and Netflix had begun to experiment with interactive episodic content in children’s shows like Puss in Boots. Brooker and producer Annabel Jones were approached with the idea to trial the concept for an adult audience through Black Mirror. However, they weren’t convinced. “We thought it was gimmicky,” said Brooker in an interview with The Independent.
In an ironic twist, later that year, the narrative concept that would come to be “Bandersnatch” was created in the Black Mirror writer’s room, leaving Brooker to realise that the only way they could do this story would be through the very experimental format they had initially rejected. And thus, “Bandersnatch” was born.
The episode itself is immersed in interesting context: the company Tuckersoft within the episode was inspired by real-life Imagine Software, a short-lived Liverpudlian company of the early 1980s. Imagine Software actually developed and advertised a real game called Bandersnatch. (It was never released, and the company consequently went bankrupt shortly after). Additionally, the influences of Phillip K. Dick, George Orwell, and even Lewis Carroll are clear through the use of alternate timelines, parallel dimensions, government conspiracies, and the simplistic idea of “falling down the rabbit hole.”
But what is “Bandersnatch” actually about?
In the episode, we follow up-and-coming game developer Stefan Butler (Fionn Whitehead) as he attempts to adapt the epic choose-your-own-adventure book Bandersnatch into a game. After being invited to demo and then release his game with Tuckersoft, a prolific video game company known for producing famed developer Colin Ritman’s (Will Poulter) games, we follow – and choose – Stefan’s development both of the game and in his own life.
Because “Bandersnatch” is a unique piece of media, being an amalgamation of both full motion video game narration style and television, many of the pros and cons of both types of media flow into one another. The interactive format itself is an incredible step for Netflix into a potential smorgasbord of content, ranging from existing properties branching out into similar experimental pieces, to the launching of new properties specifically formed around the idea of interactivity. It helps that Brooker is able to form a convincing, meta narrative that helps the choose-your-own-adventure format feel natural; if the story were different, I believe it may have felt more forced and cliche in its approach to interactivity. Dating the actual narrative to the mid-’80s also seemed to help, given the rise of the choose-your-own-adventure fad at the time. It also gave a unique kitsch to the episode that was greatly appreciated, from the vintage aspect ratios that enhance flashbacks, to the vibrant colors emphasizing drug-induced hallucination sequences.
Throughout my play-through, I found myself surprised at the breadth of options and the length of certain paths. The effort that went into writing each path is clear, especially intentionally setting out to hit a dead end and restart the episode. It’s a sign of commitment to the experimental format the episode relies on.
In terms of entertainment, it’s one of Black Mirror‘s most intriguing concepts yet. The idea of being controlled is a common one – and not only in the sci-fi genre. However, Black Mirror heightens the idea through the viewer’s ability to directly interfere with Stefan’s life themselves, to the point where Stefan directly confronts the viewer multiple times throughout. The feelings the episode generates are similar to those director Michael Haneke affects in Funny Games; you feel confronted in your complicity in the character’s torture, yet you continue to play. You want to see how awful you can make Stefan’s life, even when he screams at you to stop. It’s compelling in its cruelty.
However, there is an extent to which “Bandersnatch” can be enjoyed. Because of the choose-your-own-adventure format, the narrative doesn’t feel complete; rather, you feel as though you get lost in a sense, having to mentally backtrack through the disjointed narrative. Although fun to toy around with, the interactivity is ultimately an emotional barrier to feeling fully invested in the episode, as you are constantly aware of your involvement. The episode makes no attempts to immerse you; it instead constantly informs you of the falseness of it all, down to the ending. Additionally, as with all choose-your-own-adventure stories, there is only an illusion of multiplicity. Humans pride themselves on feeling as though they’ve completed something, and many of the endings simply don’t provide this satisfaction. In truth, “Bandersnatch” only has two true endings. All other endings are meaningless, simply a moment to entertain you before propelling you back through the timeline.
Ultimately, “Bandersnatch” is a fantastic experiment in interactive content, and Black Mirror was a great platform for directing it toward an adult audience. Brooker has a clear idea that he sets out to execute in the episode, and for the most part it works. However, when the gimmick begins to wear off, when you realize some of the paths are nothing more than dead ends, and as tantalizing as those “1 trillion story combinations” sound, you realize there are ultimately only two paths you can take, and they’ve already been decided for you.
Black Mirror: Bandersnatch is currently available for viewing on Netflix. Check out the trailer below: