[Editor’s note: This review will be split into two sections — the first spoiler-free, the second containing some spoilers for “Black Mirror: Bandersnatch.”]
Bad news for anyone who likes to sprawl on the couch when they watch “Black Mirror” — the new interactive film just launched by Netflix is not designed for passive viewing, but it is a lot of fun. “Bandersnatch,” starring Fionn Whitehead, is not available on some devices (including Chromecast and Apple TV), and for the best viewing experience, you’ll want to be at the ready to guide the story forward.
The actual plot of “Bandersnatch” isn’t all that complicated on the surface: In the year 1984, Stefan (Whitehead) is a young aspiring video game designer whose dream is to adapt a massive Choose-Your-Own-Adventure paperback called “Bandersnatch” as a PC game. He gets his chance courtesy of an established publisher (Asim Chaudhry), but while Stefan’s journey goes down many different roads, one element remains constant: Designing games like this is really hard work. So hard, in fact, that it could drive a person insane.
“Man driven mad by the technology he’s trying to control” is a pretty stock “Black Mirror” plotline. But “Bandersnatch” shows how much execution matters in these situations, thanks to the clever ways in which writer and series co-creator Charlie Brooker plays with the medium and message.
“Black Mirror” has always been obsessed with the potential of technology, and how humanity might find ways to abuse it. But “Bandersnatch” represents the first time it’s made a deliberate effort to advance the actual way in which stories are told. (For those who think an anthology-style approach to sci-fi is groundbreaking, Rod Serling has some words for you.)
Thanks to Netflix’s interactive technology, Stefan’s fate is in your hands, so you’ll want to keep your hands near your mouse or trackpad at all times. Each decision has to be made in seconds, and those decisions could mean the difference between life or death for those on-screen. The picture’s aspect ratio shifts right before each moment of decision, which serves as a helpful warning to pay attention to what’s about to happen next.
The Choose-Your-Own-Adventure format is one all too familiar to those who grew up with the popular paperbook back series, though in general the gaming world has been exploring the concept of branching narratives since the 1970s. For Brooker, as a former gaming journalist, combining his futurist obsessions with the latent ’80s nostalgia inherent in the premise is a perfect fit.
This is far from the first interactive story ever, and “Bandersnatch” is not even Netflix’s first foray into interactive, as the streaming service has been experimenting with the technology for a while now with its kid-friendly brands, including “Puss In Boots” and “Stretch Armstrong and the Flex Fighters.” But this is the platform’s first major initiative to figure out what, exactly, something like this looks like for adults, and Brooker (who initially said no to the idea) brings a heightened level of awareness to the adventure.
The lack of timecode on the video display makes sense because “Bandersnatch’s” length is ultimately quite variable, depending on the choices made. In this reviewer’s opening night play-through, it took about an hour and five minutes to reach a definitive ending… but then, there were additional opportunities to keep things going for at least another 40 minutes, before reaching the last stage of the credits. (Per Variety’s Janko Roettgers, the minimum playtime is 40 minutes, and the average is around 90.)
If Brooker had taken a more literal approach to the idea of doing an interactive narrative, it might have proven dull. Instead, he took this as an opportunity to tell a story about how difficult telling stories like these are, really leaning into the meta opportunities provided by that approach while also indulging in some undergrad-level philosophical musings about the nature of free will. It’s a blend that works better than one might think, veering from comedy to pathos to horror with relative ease.
Director David Slade, who made his “Black Mirror” debut with Season 4’s “Metalhead” (one of many previous installments which get a shoutout or two in this), keeps things simple for the most part, though there’s at least one genuinely creepy moment that you might encounter more than once. Whitehead does not exude charisma, but the character doesn’t really call for it, and he proves capable of handling the show’s most insane moments.
And on the other side of the screen, as a user, my personal experience navigating the whole experience was bug-free and clean; there were no technological hurdles that might have proven frustrating, and the system was very smart about knowing when to essentially fast-forward through earlier storylines to move things forward. (It’s worth making a point of how well the system worked — applause to the Netflix engineers here, as this project was far from a simple task and overall performed quite well, with plenty of underlying touches that casual viewers might not appreciate.)
Plus, “Bandersnatch” has an awful lot to say.
[Spoilers for (some of) “Bandersnatch” follow.]
The ultimate plot of “Bandersnatch” has very little to do with the question of whether or not Stefan will finish his game in time for Christmas, and if it will be well-received (though that is the ultimate destination point for the participant). In the end, the real question has more to do with whether Stefan is in control over his own destiny — a question complicated by the fact that Stefan eventually becomes aware of the fact that he isn’t, because of (to quote PBS) “viewers like you.”
The toughest element of discussing an interactive narrative like this, one not specifically labeled “a game,” is describing the person who is consuming the experience. Audience, or user? Viewer, or player? The “Bandersnatch” experience is basically a mix between the two, with the pacing of each decision moment not too tedious, but also not overly complex. But it also fits perfectly with the overriding theme: how much are any of us, really, in control of our lives?
There’s a major part of “Bandersnatch” which is in direct conversation with a debate happening in the video game world, when it comes to the question of how much choice a player should have. The answer, many seem to feel, is that the best experience comes when players feel like they have the illusion of choice. That approach allows designers to tell the stories they want to tell, without sacrificing the engagement that comes with interactive narratives — which means, though, that gamers have to acknowledge the fact that their decisions, ultimately, don’t matter that much.
In “Bandersnatch,” it’s not possible to rewind to previous decision points unless the system allows it, so the consumer has no control over what’s on-screen beyond the binary choices presented to them on-screen at any moment. Which, of course, fits perfectly with the same lack of control being experienced by Stefan. The enjoyment you receive as a result has everything to do with your comfort level in that situation.
Something openly addressed by Stefan’s fellow game designer Colin (Will Poulter) is the idea that in a multiverse filled with different paths, issues of life and death become less consequential. “How many times have you watched Pac-man die?” he muses. “It doesn’t bother him.” While navigating through Stefan’s many choices, literally playing with his life, that concept became hard to forget, especially when decisions over cereal and music were abandoned for decisions about what to do with Stefan’s dad’s body.
“Bandersnatch’s” most fascinating ideas, though, arise in these moments, when Stefan struggles to understand the forces that are pushing him in unexpected directions. If you’re reading this section and you haven’t played through, by the way, make a note to at least get far enough for Stefan to start wondering who, exactly, is controlling him — and definitely, at least once, choose the “Netflix” option. You won’t be disappointed.
According to The Independent, 312 minutes of footage were submitted to Korean Media Ratings Board for ratings purposes, which far exceeds the time I spent playing in my initial go-around. It was very rare that full segments of the film were repeated (most of the time, the system’s judicious editing moved things along quickly), which made it painless to keep looping back and explore new options. There’s at least one plot route which I got close to unlocking and failed, thanks to incorrectly entering a numerical code, but otherwise, I got multiple opportunities to try the path not traveled.
This can be credited to one of the best things about video games — the way in which they can create deeply compelling experiences, story and gameplay coming together to engage the player on a level that the lesser sort of movies and TV will struggle to achieve. In no way is Stefan the most compelling protagonist in “Black Mirror” history, but in delving into everything Brooker is using him to say (and the ways in which Brooker is using him to do it), “Bandersnatch” becomes a hard-to-define, but impossible to forget, experience.
“Black Mirror: Bandersnatch” is streaming now on most Netflix devices.