Last night, Netflix released a special interactive episode of Black Mirror. From a technical perspective, it’s impressive. The story, on the other hand, blows.
“Bandersnatch” is a Black Mirror special about a young man, Stefan Butler, who is making a video game based on a fictional book of the same name in 1984. It’s an early adventure game, with many branching paths and a complex narrative. The episode also has branching paths—just like Stefan’s game, it’s a Choose Your Own Adventure story. It’s essentially a FMV game like Phantasmagoria, but on Netflix.
Throughout the episode, you’re given the option to make choices, which you can do via clicking the screen, if you’re watching on a computer like I was, though each platform has its own control scheme. Early on it’s little stuff, like what cereal Stefan eats or what music he listens to. As the narrative goes on, the choices becomes more extreme.
As a technical achievement, “Bandersnatch” is a complete success. For the viewer, scenes flow neatly from one into the next as you branch the narrative, and subtle things change in your playthrough for each decision you make. When you fail, or get joke endings, you’ll get a brief recap of your choices before going back to your last decision, instead of having to sit through the whole episode again.
Narratively, however, “Bandersnatch” is a bit too in love with its own novelty to ever come together. Black Mirror’s biggest strength has always been its eagerness to comment on our own lives and relationship to technology. Despite how complex this episode is—or probably because it is so complex—that commentary does not ever come to the surface. This is the most Black Mirror has ever been “what if phones but too much?” It’s grim for the sake of grimness, instead of a thought-provoking modern take on The Twilight Zone. Things go badly no matter what you do, and no matter how much pontificating the episode offers on the nature of free will, the narrative never reaches a satisfying conclusion. There always feels like there’s some stone unturned, some way you could have made things better, some hint or clue you could have picked up on, but after tooling around with “Bandersnatch” for two and a half hours, I can confidently say there isn’t. There’s just a rote, clichéd narrative that offers no new perspective on the world outside of its confines and usually ends in someone’s death.
That’s the problem with Choose Your Own Adventure stories. If you set up foreshadowing or try to establish a narrative arc, you have to account for readers or viewers not picking up on it or going another way. No matter which ending you get, and I’ve seen all of them, there’s always a loose end that feels unfinished.
In some ways, one of the jokiest endings feels closest to a proper conclusion. Stefan tells his therapist that he believes he’s being controlled by someone watching him as entertainment in the future, and his therapist asks why his life isn’t very entertaining if that were true. They then get into an over the top brawl, where his therapist whips out two batons, with Stefan’s father later hauling him out of the office after he joins the fray. Stefan calls out, “How’d you like that, you psychiatric fuck?” It’s just about as much of a thoughtless waste of time as the rest of the episode.