“There’s a bit of a learning curve. You die a lot, and then you have to try again.” When I first played through Netflix’s new “interactive film” “Bandersnatch,” part of the technology-goes-wrong series “Black Mirror,” I didn’t think much of that line. It was a bit of chatter said by the main character Stefan Butler (played by Fionn Whitehead) a nervous young programmer, while toiling away at his masterpiece, a choose your own adventure video game, Bandersnatch. The line, however, is less chatter and more dark premonition.
Stefan seems wholly uninteresting at first, except that you can always sense the gears spinning in his head with a somberness that only makes his unraveling under game developer stress more horrifying. “Bandersnatch” shares the same premise as Stefan’s game. Viewers become players and must choose their own adventure as the film arrives at moments that force players to choose between text options.
Set in the 80’s, it’s almost nostalgic for viewers of a certain age. The choose your own adventure experience, at points, seems gimmicky, especially when asked to choose between cereals and music options, but like Stefan, it is interesting in how it unravels.
The creator of the “Black Mirror” series, Charlie Brooker, doesn’t seem interested in creating a mind-blowing interactive film experience. Indeed, the pacing of the film feels uneven and strained, especially when it comes to the choice points. The experience, although some might call it a game, is far from giving players the kind of agency we are used to with the games of today. But one could argue that that is the point.
I was frustrated by the play experience when I first watched “Bandersnatch,” happily mocking it with a critic’s air to my friends. But then obsession, despite frustration, set in. I wanted to win. I played “Bandersnatch” again and again, fixated on going through all the possible endings, seeing if there was a “best” one. I then realized that I had fallen into Brooker’s trap.
Players don’t really have agency or free will in “Bandersnatch,” and neither does Stefan, a realization that starts to horrify, both the viewers and Stefan. You quickly realize you don’t really get to choose your own adventure, you’re choosing Stefan’s, and you’re not choosing an adventure, you’re forced to choose between tortuous experiences for Stefan and morally bankrupt decisions.
Brooker is a harsh interrogator through his series, but even more so in “Bandersnatch.” He questions our need to win games and how we choose to virtually disconnect from the moral reasoning we use in real life. The obsession that leads gamers to play again and again until they score. The false sense of free will created by choose your own adventure games. The willingness to do terrible things in the name of success. You die a lot, but that’s part of the game.
It’s not a perfect experience and at times seems terribly dry and uninteresting, especially when you could be playing a fast-paced action game off of Netflix. But you can let yourself become obsessed with the ideas of parallel realities, time travel, free will, or even just winning.
It’s a wild ride, hunting down choice maps on Reddit, obsessively reading articles about the series online, locating Easter eggs in scenes, or trying to find the actual ZX Spectrum game Netflix developers created and hid in a burst of computer data sound in the episode itself. Brooker doesn’t want to entertain you, he wants to drive you insane, just like you’ll drive Stefan insane–but it’ll be fun.