‘Black Mirror: Bandersnatch’ wants to be the ‘Undertale’ of TV

I don’t often do pieces on TV shows, but I think I can be forgiven for feeling that talking about Netflix’s new interactive movie requires a lot of the same skills as talking about video games. Somewhere between a film, a choose-your-own adventure book, and a game, Bandersnatch (part of the Black Mirror, er, mythos) unfolds in branching narrative paths depending on binary choices made by the viewer. It’s not the first of its kind but it’s probably one of the most notable purely for being a) part of an established franchise noted for playing with technological ideas, and b) much more mainstream in reach courtesy of Netflix, where this sort of experimental media can find a ready audience rather than needing to be sought out by niche-market enthusiasts.

Before I say anything else, I definitely do recommend that you go and watch – or, it feels equally apt to say, go and play Bandersnatch, because it’s certainly interesting and worth experiencing. This isn’t going to be a review so much as a discussion of what Bandersnatch is and how it goes about achieving that, but there will of course be spoilers, so be aware.

So what is Bandersnatch about? Well, at first it’s a fairly simple – if rather meta – story about a young programmer trying to create a video game, Bandersnatch, based on Bandersnatch, a revolutionary choose-your-own-adventure book (the book is absolutely enormous, and I can’t help but wish it was real so I could read-play it), and the difficulty he faces in completing this enormous creative endeavour. So yeah, we’ve got a show called Bandersnatch about a game called Bandersnatch about a book called Bandersnatch. I’ll try to keep it clear which I’m talking about. Anyway, the story unfolds in little chunks of movie sprinkled with two-option choices every now and again in which the viewer picks the thing they’d like protagonist Stefan to do next, and these choices cause the story to take drastically different routes towards multiple endings.

Here’s the thing. Charlie Brooker and the rest of the team responsible for Black Mirror are very good at using the medium of television to direct well-sharpened satirical skewers at all aspects of technology and modern life, and satire often involves making your audience realise their own complicity in the thing you’re trying to criticise. Here, in fact, the lens of uncomfortable truth turns extremely quickly from the characters and the fiction to the viewer themselves – almost too quickly. Stefan becomes aware that he’s not in control of his own decisions, which others interpret as mental illness; a character explicitly spells out (during a bizarre drug-induced sequence that feels… both out of place and kind of characteristic, but more on that shortly) that they’re inhabiting only one of multiple parallel universes and that there’s some external figure forcing these choices upon them. Eventually Stefan is pretty much completely broken by the despair of knowing that some other being is in control of his life, and the story leads to his death or arrest, which I think the viewer is supposed to feel responsible for.

The best Black Mirror episodes work because they take something familiar, an aspect of technology that the audience knows and understands, and frames it in such a way that we realise the dangerous tendencies that we might already be engaging in and the slippery slopes down which those could lead. Take ‘Nosedive’, the episode in which Bryce Dallas Howard’s character’s life gradually spirals out of control in a world where social media is king of every aspect of one’s life, and giving each other ‘ratings’ is almost the primary function of both commercial and social interaction. It works because its characters, their motivations and fears, are believable, and because the audience can see how the world could very easily get to be that way. It targets the phones that most of its viewers will probably have in their hands even as they watch, hitting close to home.

As for Bandersnatch, I’m finding it hard to identify exactly what the target of its satire is supposed to be. It seems that it wants to point a lens at the viewing audience and tell us that we’re bad people for imposing our will upon poor Stefan, that subverting his free will is a bad thing for us to be doing, and so on – but it also makes comments on how the author, and not the reader, of Bandersnatch (the book) is ultimately the one who decides the ending, giving only an illusion of choice or free will and not the real thing. The fact that all roads lead to a fairly limited set of outcomes, which are pretty much all bad for Stefan, suggests that Bandersnatch is also trying to be at least to some extent a commentary on the role of the audience in interactive media, how it can only ever be limited and illusory.

Part of the problem I think Bandersnatch faces in making this commentary effective is that interactive film is really very limited in terms of its mainstream reach. As I mentioned, Bandersnatch is quite possibly the first experience a lot of people will have had of this sort of media, which means that shots at its own medium don’t quite land. It’s hard for it to create that sort of ‘gotcha!’ moment, making us realise how terrible we’ve all been for engaging in interactive movies and ruining all these poor people’s lives, when most of us have hardly if ever actually… well, done any of that. I can’t say whether it would have felt more successful if we did in fact live in a world where Netflix was already putting out a bunch of simpler and less subversive interactive movies (y’know, just play through a fantasy story, that kind of thing) so that there would be a bigger target for these barbs, but it does feel odd for Netflix’s first interactive movie to be a satire of the interactive movie format.

Take Undertale as a sort of counter-example. I think Bandersnatch borrows quite a lot from Undertale, whether deliberately or not, in its overall conception if not in execution: there are branching paths, and progressing through one path can affect what happens when you go back and do different ones; there’s a character who is aware of the multiple timelines and that there’s a viewer/ player with the power to see them all; the audience is made to feel sympathy for characters and then regret at causing them pain just because they could, or to see what would happen.

Undertale executes each of its points really well, and it does so in a wider context of decades of gaming history. It borrows from the styles, tendencies, and tropes of games past, which means that when it has something to say about gaming as a medium it’s able to do so in a way that feels familiar and meaningful, that makes points about games in the language of games. It’s both a great game and a great commentary on games.

I really think Bandersnatch wanted to be something similar, but I don’t know that it was able to decide what sort of something it ought to be. I don’t feel quite right calling it either a movie or a game; it definitely does have a level of uniqueness value going for it because of that, but I don’t think it would be either a great movie or a great game if it settled into either of those categories whole-heartedly. I can applaud it for that, at least; I’ve always said that games – and movies, books, albums, whatever you like – which tell stories that only work in that one medium are brave and worth seeking out, and I do feel that Bandersnatch works best as what it is, or wouldn’t work any better as anything else. I think it really wanted to be a landmark bit of commentary – to be to interactive movies what Undertale is to games – but I don’t think it manages that. I don’t think it could without the same weight of history and context that makes Undertale possible.

The narrative that runs through Bandersnatch is… not uncompelling, but I can’t help but think of the sequences in which Stefan struggles to reconcile his charts with myriad permutations of story possibilities, and wonder whether the Black Mirror writers went through something similar. There are times when things really click, when something unfolds that takes into account previous branches in a way that just makes you go ‘ooooh, that was cool’, and then there are bits that feel disconnected from the rest of the tale almost by necessity, because exploring all these routes has to diverge somewhere, it can’t all just lead to one place. Not every branch, every sequence, can be required watching if it could easily be missed, and perhaps that’s why a couple of scenes do feel a little bit Big-Lipped Alligator.

It’s also worth noting a couple of other bits that work pretty nicely, since I’m aware that I’m being fairly critical without paying enough attention to the fact that Bandersnatch does in fact do some things that I thought were pretty cool (if slightly predictable once I started thinking ‘I wonder what other Undertale-like things might happen here’). These are mostly things that I think contribute to the concept of Bandersnatch as commentary on how the audience’s ability to affect a fiction can only ever be limited to those things the author has deliberately allowed them to do. You get a few meaningful choices, at least one entirely meaningless one that makes you start to sweat pretty effectively, and then some total non-choices. In one sequence, you’re given the option to kill Stefan’s dad or ‘back off’: you can ‘back off’ as many times as you like but you can’t leave the scene until the dad’s dead. There’s another branch in which Stefan will actually kill his dad without the viewer’s input, which is kind of cool and suggests that he does still have more autonomy than he might think – perhaps even that he might lose his sense of moral responsibility due to his ability to blame all his bad decisions on an outside force. (Whether that’s a Good Mental Health Take is not a discussion for today, I think.) There’s a flashback sequence in which you only get one option, since you can’t change the past (at least, not on the branch where I got the flashback). These are all nice touches that work well to get mileage from the medium, but I still think the sum of the parts doesn’t quite achieve what it wanted to.

At the end of the day, I still feel very happy to recommend that you go and… watch? play? – let’s say experience – Bandersnatch. It’s a genuinely interesting experience, engaging for the most part, and I think a worthwhile experiment that may give rise to more works of its type, but I can’t rank it as being among Black Mirror‘s best.

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