“Black Mirror: Bandersnatch” constructs an overwhelming interactive movie experience to tell a trippy parable about free will and alternate realities.
“Wrong path, mate.”
Black Mirror is a series that loves to dissect, reconstruct, and rewrite reality, which it’s done with startling clarity in the past. The idea of doing an interactive episode of Black Mirror plays right into the show’s central themes and feels like an inspired evolution of what the show is capable of, rather than some gimmicky event to gain eyeballs. Netflix has toyed with this “choose your own adventure” structure in the past with kid-friendly series like Minecraft: Story Mode, Stretch Armstrong, and Puss and Boots, and even HBO got into the game last year with Steven Soderbergh’s vastly underseen Mosaic, but this is one of the first applications of the concept where it feels truly natural and fundamental to the story that’s being told.
Black Mirror: Bandersnatch has viewers do exactly what Stefan wants the players of “Bandersnatch” to do, but it’s also what he, in turn, is obliviously caught up in himself. This structure may irritate some viewers as much as it may excite others, but it’s the sort of thing that you can casually participate in or obsess over as the branching options at your disposal continue to grow. Do you want Frosties or Sugar Loops for breakfast? Should you bury your victim, or would it be more useful to chop them up? Do you go down a wormhole where Stefan is a clinical guinea pig or just a paranoid programmer? That is the joy and the anxiety of Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, which translates into an extremely addictive and satisfying experience.
Stefan (Fionn Whitehead) is a computer programmer who’s anxious to begin work on his passion project, an ambitious video game called “Bandersnatch,” which is an adaptation of a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book of the same name. When initial reviews of his game are a disaster, he becomes determined to try again, rewrite history, and finally nail this project. What’s more surprising is when it appears that he is actually able to relive these experiences, as if he’s some character in a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book. He’s a simple, focused kid who misses his mother and struggles with certain ailments, but is still mostly normal, albeit a tad obsessive. He’s in therapy to try to manage such thoughts, as well as this growing suspicion that he’s no longer in control of his own decisions.
The video game “Bandersnatch” was actually teased back in the episode “Playtest” as a game from 1984 that eventually went unreleased. Furthermore, “Bandersnatch” was actually supposed to be a real video game back in the ‘80s. It was developed by Imagine Software as a game-changing piece of gaming for the ZX Spectrum. Imagine faced financial difficulties and the title never came to life, but clearly, Charlie Brooker and his Black Mirror crew want to have some fun with these events from history and explore what really stopped “Bandersnatch” from release.
Bandersnatch focuses on Stefan’s struggles with his looming deadline, as well as his antagonistic relationship with his father and his desire to be closer with fellow Tuckersoft programmer, Colin (Will Poulter). Paranoia begins to set in for Stefan and eventually grows to insurmountable levels as he fails to be able to distinguish what is real anymore. The episode finds plenty of inspired ways to get into discussions about alternate realities, fate, and butterfly effects, whether it’s lucid rambles over hallucinogens, structured discussions through therapy, or documentaries on eccentric authors. We’re all part of the cosmic flowchart. It’s a skilled way to turn the subtext into text without being obnoxious about it.
The best part of this experiment is how much Black Mirror: Bandersnatch truly takes advantage of the “alternates realities” and choosing your destiny idea. The episode explores how even something like Pac-Man is deeply layered and coded where every choice has consequences. A video game is a smart metaphor for fate and Bandersnatch works as one big macrocosm for that concept.
The episode digs into the eerie premise that someone else is making your decisions for you, that you’re not in control of your own life, and that you’re just meant to be someone else’s entertainment. At one point Stefan consciously tries to will his body to avoid doing what you’ve selected it to do and he literally asks, “Who’s doing this to me?” You even have the option to respond with “Netflix.” Bandersnatch is delightfully meta when it wants to be (and one ending particularly goes for it in this department). Did you feel like you were always making the wrong choices? That’s part of the point. You can even choose to play chaotically and let time run out on each choice so the decision gets made for you!
Bandersnatch presents a surreal, engaging story, but it’s really just incredible to marvel at how much freedom the narrative provides, especially when ending characters’ lives gets put on the table. At the same time, the episode explicitly mocks the illusion of choice that it gives you. Just like Stefan hasn’t programmed paths for all of the routes in “Bandersnatch,” it’s the same here, but it tricks you into thinking that you’re responsible for all of this. Bandersnatch carefully leads you to where it wants you to go while making you think that you have free will.
As soon as you make a decision, you’ll moan over the one that you didn’t take and what could have happened, just like in life itself. At the same time, the narrative continually tells Stefan that the past can’t be changed or that hindsight isn’t a superpower, whereas the episode pushes quite a different ideology with its implementation. It’s brilliant and still results in a glorious scavenger hunt of a story. I’ve no doubt many people will spend their entire day searching the episode for more secrets and paths. I imagine that gamers will also especially take to this installment as it does feel like a game more than it does a film or piece of television, in many respects.
As Bandersnatch goes on, Stefan and the viewer both go deeper down this rabbit hole and the concern over the state of his game and his mind escalates. For some people, the enjoyment of this adventure will come down to its conclusion (as is the case with so many Black Mirror episodes), but Bandersnatch explicitly tells its audience, “It’s not about the ending. The ending is immaterial. It’s about the decisions you made to get there”. So while there are five “main” endings to this story (and others where you die or need to go back because a “poor” decision is made), that’s not what it wants you to fixate on. The fun here is in seeing people already debate on what the “true” ending is and how much of this story they’ve actually cracked. You’ll be as determined to “win” here as Stefan is to get a perfect score on his game.
Part of the appeal of Bandersnatch will be inevitably “playing” again to yield a different set of results or just talking to your friends about their decisions and how their version of events ended. The five major conclusions cover a gamut of options in response to the reception of Stefan’s game as well as his own fate, but there’s definitely one route that feels the most like Black Mirror’s typical bleak, bittersweet finish. There’s also one ending that’s considerably bonkers and goes off the rails in what may be one of the most meta sequences of 2018. It’s great to see the show throw some less serious “joke endings” into the mix. They’re incredible examples of how to properly use this format as cleverly as possible. It’s as post-modern as it gets.
The installment isn’t perfect and it may present a story that’s technically thinner than other episodes, but the level of ambition here is incredible. Some may get lost in whether they’re making the decisions that they’d make or the choices that they think the story is supposed to naturally go down, but that mental schism is part of the point here. Just like the episode tells you, it’s about the decisions, not the ending.
Black Mirror: Bandersnatch is a major risk, but it’s one that absolutely pays off. It’s insane to think about the wealth of content that’s in this (over 150 minutes of footage, 250 segments, and “trillions of permutations”) and its sheer attention to detail (like when you realize what the dog is digging for in the yard, the significance of the father’s ashtray, or the prevalence of the therapist’s phone number), and that this kind of experiment is not only successful, but challenges the form in a genuinely exciting way. For all of these reasons, this completely deserves a full score and I can’t wait to hear about all of the secrets that we continue to find in this.
“Black Mirror: Bandersnatch” is now available on Netflix.