'Bandersnatch': 'Black Mirror' and Netflix's Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Baby
I’d heard about this choose-your-own-adventure interactive television endeavor from Netflix and Black Mirror for a while through the industry headlines and conference chatter. For some reason it didn’t strike me as so thrilling at the outset. Maybe it was because I live my life in ad tech, and because I know that all the pieces have existed for a while, and it never occurred to me that they hadn’t yet converged.
I read about it, sort of waved it off as something maybe kids would like. Adults, I speculated, don’t want to start making their own choices while consuming a narrative TV program; I watch TV so that I don’t have to make any decisions.
Now that the film is released, it showed up first on three lists that the Netflix algorithms, using my past choices, displays when I log in.
I’ll tell the truth: the first time a choice popped up, it jarred me. Even though I’d known it was coming, it still made my stomach leap upwards to have to choose the main character, Stefan Butler’s, breakfast: Sugar Puffs or Frosties?
The presentation of the choice is really everything you could hope for in an interactive content user interface. The bottom of the letterbox frame expands upwards into the picture. The shot is framed just so that when that black box appears, you’re not really missing anything. It’s not a subtle thing, but then again, it’s fairly unobtrusive for something that needs to get your attention for a decision. Within 10 seconds that is. Take longer than that and a choice is automatically made for you.
They ease you in with the early choices; decisions on cereal and the soundtrack. I chose Frosties and ‘Now, That’s What I Call Music! Volume 2’, for the record.
The episode is set in 1984, but it has the vibe and quality of a futuristic sci-fi film. Perhaps that’s the Black Mirror influence. It’s not long before Stefan finds himself in the office of a game company, meeting his mentor to be: Colin Ritman, a legendary game designer. He carries his bleached blonde head atop oversized shirts in the way Brad Pitt might have, had Tyler Durden been a game programmer; a sort of computer-age bohemian who believes in parallel universes and that both time and reality are constructs.
He uses an Aldous Huxley quote to explain to his boss why Stefan would rather work on his own game—a choose-your-own-adventure computer game based on a similar book—alone. That’s another choice I have made: between working with a team or by himself on the game. I, myself, would never give up control over the words I write; why should he?
Is it Him or Me?
The next choice I make is when Stefan finds himself in his therapist’s office. She asks if he wants to talk about his mother, who we’ll learn died early in Stefan’s life.
“Do you want to talk about what happened,” she asks him, “with your mom?”
The black bar creeps up the screen. Two choices present themselves: YES or NO. I take nearly the full ten seconds to decide.
Up until this point, I had been making the choices that I would make, were I in Stefan’s shoes. When the therapist asks if he wants to talk about his mom, I hesitate. If I were him, I would say no. But I select ‘YES.’
I’m struck by this choice: do I want to talk about what happened? Or do I want to hear about what happened? And what does the answer say about me? What does it say about me that I select Phaedra over Bermuda Triangle as the soundtrack when the option arises?
I have to say that the concept is great, but for me, the excitement of making plot choices is clouded somewhat by the anxiety of knowing that I will have to make a decision—and make it within ten seconds. The tickertape in the back of my mind runs a loop of when do I have to decide next? Will I be able to decide in ten seconds? What if the other option is better?
There are a finite number of pathways in this Black Mirror world. Am I being categorized by these data points into a certain type of audience? I find myself so caught up in my mind’s running Socratic monologue that I’m not really paying attention to the plot, and somehow reach a dead end, having chosen for Stefan to pour tea over the computer before the game is completed.
I’m given the option of going back to an earlier decision point or choosing the counterpart to pouring the tea on the keyboard: YELL AT DAD.
Stefan leaps out of his chair and yells “Fuck off, Dad!” It feels cathartic.
After this, I’m riskier. I make bolder moves and I adopt an attitude of “let’s see what happens.” I choose for Stefan to follow Colin on the street to ask advice. They end up smoking weed in Colin’s living room (another affirmative choice I’ve made), and I can’t help wondering if Stefan would have ended up here in most cases, or if I was going to be categorized into the audience that exhibits “self-destructive behavior.”
Colin and Stefan drop acid in the living room, and Colin pontificates on the lack of control that we have over our lives, likening humanity to PACMAN: trapped in his consumeristic maze, dying over and over just to be reborn into the same maze again. In Colin’s theory, people have these chances at new pathways too, though we always end up in the same maze.
The living room keeps shifting in the acid trip, and the scenes take on a joyful dreamlike quality. No sounds are exactly crisp—no colors are clearly delineated. And the buoyancy that the trip takes on is accompanied by a meditative melody. This is all shattered when the guys step outside onto the balcony, and suddenly I feel incredibly sober. Colin suggests that one of them jump over onto the parking lot twenty floors below.
“One of us,” Colin says to Stefan, “Is going over tonight. Who is it going to be?”
I am then presented with the choice: COLIN or STEFAN?
Now my stomach is inverted. I’m supposed to decide which of them dies? I hesitate. My instinct is to say Colin—it was his idea after all—but then again, I think, Stefan might sacrifice himself for Colin (who has a baby daughter). But then I pause. Rethink the situation. Decide that if it were me, there’s no way I’d jump just because someone said I should.
Colin jumps. Have I been the cause of this man’s death?
But then, it’s a dream. Wait; when did it begin to be a dream? I’m jarred again. Stefan tries to call Colin later at the office, and Colin has “gone AWOL.”
Stefan’s version of reality keeps changing, and mine with it. Each choice I make seems to bring him closer to a breakdown. I feel similarly out of touch with the plot, confused by the repetitive scenery and dialogue.
I wonder: am I witnessing his mental collapse as a proxy for my own impending mental collapse?
And worse: am I creating his mental collapse as the controller of his actions?
What is Reality, Anyway?
The next time I get a choice when Stefan is at his computer, the options are: THROW TEA OVER COMPUTER or DESTROY COMPUTER?
Not wanting to hit the old tea dead-end, I select destroy, and Stefan suddenly starts to yell into the sky, asking about who is controlling him. The choices of two logos appear in the black bar at the bottom of the screen. I am no longer making Stefan’s choices, but my own as part of the episode.
I select the cleverly branded Netflix logo to see what that’s about. It’s cute in a way that makes me think of young kids sitting around the TV with their parents, making family selections for this movie, and being thrilled at the idea that the collective ‘we’ are in the movie.
Once I choose the Netflix option, I start experiencing a strange fly-on-the-wall voyeurism akin to watching someone else’s Rube-Goldberg that you’ve set in motion come to its conclusion. The pathway takes a twist, with Stefan in his therapist’s office trying to fight her in a martial arts battle.
Turns out, he’s crazy and gets carted away to an institution kicking and screaming. So much for a fun family trip down the Netflix route.
But selecting the other logo leads to murder, so I guess my choices could have been worse at the outset. In the murder scenario, I still do what I would do if I were Stefan. Aside from committing patricide, that is. I’m just making the decisions; the choices are Stefan’s.
After three conclusions I realize that I’m running through each of the realities from different decision points. I find myself straining to figure out which one really happens. That was one of my issues with choose-your-own-adventure books as a kid: which ending is real? I want to know what really happens to Stefan.
Colin is right: reality is only what we perceive it to be. If I had stopped after one ending, that would be what really happened. The more I watch, retracing my steps back into the web of the story to come out another side, the more each reality interlocks with the others. The more real they all become. I’m wondering if anyone stops at just one ending.
I'm All Set, Thanks.
The experience is an interesting one, if one that I don’t wish to repeat. That’s a personal preference; just because I’m frustrated with the contortion of plot lines and the lack of finality doesn’t mean that everyone is.
The tech itself is certainly there. I didn’t find the actual interactive piece of the experience to be a bother, just something that made me question my own free will and whether or not Netflix and its data collection would somehow exploit this. But that’s also what Black Mirror is designed to make you think about.
Overall, the program reads to me as a success on Netflix’s part, and the right choice was made by piloting this with Black Mirror. That being said, the story itself is flimsy; every new ending somehow shallows the others, and ultimately, it becomes game more than narrative.
For some, this might be an exciting new wave of television. For me, it was more stress than anything else.