The wizards from Black Mirror have delivered a new kind of entertainment on Netflix: a “choose-your-own-adventure” interactive drama called “Bandersnatch.” It involves the viewer (player?) in a way that’s goes beyond both games and film. I think “Bandersnatch” is a harbinger of amazing new kinds of entertainment to come.
“Bandersnatch” is the story of Stefan Butler, a young guy building a computer game in 1984. Stefan’s game is based on a “choose-your-own-adventure” book, also called Bandersnatch, and like the book, the game design allows you to make binary choices at various points in the game and see the consequences of your choices as the game’s plot moves forward. This also describes “Bandersnatch,” the Black Mirror entertainment on Netflix — as you watch Stefan experience his life, you get to make choices as trivial as what cereal he eats for breakfast, and and as consequential as whether he chooses to work with a professional games company or develop the game at home, on his own.
Taken purely as a film or video, Bandersnatch is first-rate. The acting is subtle and engaging, while the retro setting is a convincing recreation of 1984, including the crude computers of the time. As with all Black Mirror offerings, the plot is intricate and plunges you ever deeper into an abyss made up of equal parts emotion and technology. This is not a cheery piece of entertainment.
I may be the perfect reviewer for an interactive film like this, because I have a weakness — I am way too eager to suspend disbelief. I love any well-written movie or TV show. I identify strongly with characters and am easily sucked into their challenges. If you watch me closely as I view entertainment, you’ll see my heart rate change and tears come to my eyes at the the most trivially sentimental points. If the entertainment is cleverly scripted, well acted, and well produced, I’m likely to get sucked in.
That’s why “Bandersnatch” made such an impression on me. Unlike a game, where you have an objective, this production uses the power of linear narrative, acting, and video to engage you. This is similar to any other film or video. But once you are engaged, the action gets to a critical plot point and you, the viewer, need to make a choice.
These choices engaged me emotionally. You have to choose whether or not Stefan will take LSD as his mentor suggests, whether he will assault or back off from a confrontation from his father, and, in some cases, who will live and who will die.
It is an awesome responsibility to script a drama, because you are manipulating the characters and their interactions to move the plot forward and challenge the viewer. But in this case, the scriptwriters have shared the responsibility with me, the viewer. The viewer has only ten seconds to make these choices. I was genuinely torn between choosing the “right” moral path for Stefan and choosing a more evil path that might lead to a more interesting development in the plot. When I did the latter I actually felt guilt, as if I were misleading a friend I cared about. But when I chose the more moral pathways, often the results had terrible, unexpected consequences (plot twists, like actual life choices, don’t always go where they should).
This created an experience much more engaging than a typical drama, but far more realistic and involving than a video game. I wasn’t stabbing and shooting pretend game characters, I was manipulating the lives of people I cared about. To make the experience even more creepy, as “Bandersnatch” moves forward, Stefan begins to suspect that someone else is manipulating his choices. My guilt swelled as the character sank deeper into paranoia (but is he crazy if someone actually is out to get him — me?).
“Bandersnatch” is a masterpiece. I want more of this.
I know that interactive entertainment with choices is not completely new — remember Clue and “Leisure Suit Larry“? And the trope of following narrative branches has been plumbed by films like Sliding Doors, About Time and Source Code (or even It’s a Wonderful Life). But this is something new, combining the immersion of film with the viewer engagement of interactivity.
How the creators of “Bandersnatch” broke new ground
Why does “Bandersnatch” work?
Basically, its creators have had to develop a new visual language.
First, like their own protagonist, they need to develop a branching narrative and film all the branches. But it goes much further than that.
Some branches lead to dead-ends, from a narrative point of view. When you reach one of those, you loop around and get to make different choices in the narrative. But looping around could be very boring, since you don’t want to sit through a whole 15 minutes of exposition that you already saw once.
As a result, the creators of “Bandersnatch” use a narrative device of recapping the action up that point quickly — a device that all of us are comfortable with from so many narrative dramas — and then once again confront you with a choice.
The other brilliance of this piece comes from the choices. The writers and producers have determined which points have maximum drama, and fully thought out the resulting narrative paths. “Bandersnatch” works because it succeeds as a narrative — but one that runs on multiple tracks.
I’m certain that the scriptwriters (developers?) must have suffered the same level of anxiety and stress as their protagonist in keeping these paths all straight, and all equally interesting.
But having cracked that code, I would like them to branch out and deliver interactive narratives in other genres — and they don’t have to be as meta as “Bandersnatch.”
I want to see alternate histories. I want to relive the Cuban Missile Crisis with John F. Kennedy and his advisors, and make different choices from the ones they made. I want to see what happens if Nixon doesn’t resign or if Hillary Clinton campaigns in Wisconsin and Michigan.
What would Schindler’s List look like if Schindler makes different decisions? Could we see a branching version of The Godfather or Citizen Kane?
And what about movies, like “Bandersnatch,” that are designed just for this genre? Let’s follow the life of a woman choosing to marry the guy who has charmed her completely or the girl that’s her best friend; the ambitious young man who could be a priest or a politician; the undercover cop who decides to stay honest or become a criminal.
I don’t have the imagination to decide how to pick these stories; I write nonfiction. But I do know that if you can plunge the viewer into the moment of creation, you can build something amazing.
“Bandersnatch” marks the start of something new. I can’t wait to see what comes next.