In July of 1984, 19 year old Stefan Butler (Fionn Whitehead, Dunkirk) approaches the computer game company Tuckersoft with a pitch for a new, never before seen type of adventure game called Bandersnatch. Based off of a very lengthy (and controversial) choose-your-own-adventure story book of the same name, Bandersnatch offers players a chance to affect the story and outcome of the game by giving them choices that send them down different paths, just like the book he enjoys so much. But the company wants him to have the code for the game finished in two months so it’ll be ready for the Christmas rush. The herculean task of programming such a complex matrix of choices in such a short time proves too much for Stefan’s psyche, leading him down a rabbit hole of existential crisis, psychotic breaks, and death.
Bandersnatch is the newest, *kind of* an episode, from the horror/sci-fi thriller show Black Mirror that was released on Netflix this last Friday. Bandersnatch is longer than other Black Mirror episodes, technically making it a movie, but what really makes it interesting is that the format Netflix has adopted for it mirrors that of the choose-your-own-adventure stories that are so central to the plot, making it sort of a game as well. Released as a “Netflix Interactive” title, we are allowed to make decisions for Stefan as they become available in his story. This seems inconsequential to him at first (which cereal will he have for breakfast, what music will he listen to on the bus, etc.) but eventually, in the most meta of meta moves, Stefan becomes aware that he is being controlled. At least, he thinks he is. The idea of his awareness is passed off at first as paranoia, blending the format nicely into the narrative, but at one point the insanity can be kicked up a notch as you have the option of telling him he’s being controlled on Netflix!
Stories of this format are not in any way new. Of course there’s the aforementioned choose-your-own-adventure books, and there have been plays such as Clue: The Musical and The Mystery of Edwin Drood that allow the audience to decide on the finale (like choosing the murderer) and then the actors then have to play out that version, but story tellers have also dabbled in electronic narratives like this for a while. Games do this the best, after all, a game is a story you play out. In 1983, Dragon’s Lair became a sensation as it was basically a movie that was played by the gamer; but it was still a linear movie (“on rails” as it’s called). You would fight bad guys and save the princess, but there was only one path to take, one finale to see. Both 1987’s Maniac Mansion and 2007’s BioShock are examples of games that had endings that were affected by your decisions but the play still sent you down the same pathways, you got the same story every time. Contrary wise, open world games like Skyrim from 2011 give you so much freedom they’re practically simulations, not so much stories as in the cinematic sense, and where there are story elements, you still don’t have total control over them.
But do you ever really? Bandersnatch is truly a choose-your-own-adventure movie, your choices will determine life or death, failure or success (what ever those mean to you), and they have an impact on the whole. There are a couple (five I believe) hard endings that result in credits being rolled and many smaller soft endings that will send you back to make a different choice, but the question of free will still lingers on. Not only the protagonist’s free will but our own as well. We have fun playing puppet master to Stefan but in the end there is still only so much that can be affected. At one point Stefan spells this out for us by explaining that as a game programmer, he is “only giving players the illusion of free will, but [he] decides the ending”. There are only so many plot points you can mess with and some major things in the story will always happen no matter what you do to avoid them. You truly have a dramatic affect on the characters’ lives but you can not just go in a completely different direction to watch a totally different story. If I have one complaint about this movie, that would be it. However, I do appreciate the amount of time, detail, and energy that had to go in to making this what it is and for something so innovative, I’m willing to not let that bother me.
It is smartly done too. Character dialogue gives us instruction as to what to expect or ideas as to direction we should probably take. It feels like they’re helping to ease us into the unknown waters of an interactive story such as this. I, for one, am hoping that this is the case. That since this is the first Netflix Interactive movie targeted towards adults, maybe more like it will show up in the future. Ones that could take more drastic deviations from choice to choice so it feels like there’s more, different adventures to have if you go back and start the character’s day all over again and differently. Imagine for a moment one so advanced that if you go to work on time it becomes a buddy cop movie and if you stay home in bed the story turns into a rom-com. Leave home without eating breakfast? Now you’ve been abducted by aliens, hold on for a sci-fi thriller. Of course, making something so insanely extensive is pretty much exactly what Bandersnatch warns against, so maybe we shouldn’t ask for too much from Netflix, just yet.