❉ Kara Dennison looks at how the art of choice based storytelling fares in Black Mirror’s special.
Black Mirror has become a strange, enticing beastie over the years. From its first (terrifyingly prescient) present-day political episode The National Anthem to its recent anthology-within-an-anthology Black Museum, it’s constantly evolved what it is as a show. Its home on Netflix has afforded it slightly longer series, which give them space to get experimental with optimistic episodes like San Junipero and Hang the DJ. But one thing Black Mirror hasn’t been, at least up until now, is an approved, commissioned harbinger of new technology.
Netflix’s branched storytelling software received a soft launch as part of its children’s programming, allowing viewers to answer multiple-choice questions that would affect the action onscreen. And while branching stories are so common that any storyteller at this moment has their pick of freeware tools to make their own, Netflix’s version of it is still in its early days. The decision to hard-launch its more robust iteration, Branch Manager, via a Black Mirror experience was an understandable one: the series has always been about learning more about ourselves via the technology we bring into our lives, and Bandersnatch is no less personally educational.
While most episodes seek to teach us a very specific lesson about ourselves—the price of fame in Fifteen Million Merits, or the plight of abuse victims in USS Callister, for example—Bandersnatch is not so cut-and-dried. There are certainly scraps of morals here and there, from the impact of creativity on mental health (and vice-versa) to the shockingly easy path to becoming a paranoid conspiracy theorist. And, unsurprisingly for a choice-based narrative, there’s an undercurrent of the philosophy of free will vs. predestination. But Bandersnatch was created as a showcase for Branch Manager; and, to that extent, it is meant as a live demonstration of the impact of choice-based entertainment.
We’re put in control of Stefan (Fionn Whitehead of Dunkirk), an aspiring computer programmer in 1984. He has a vision: Bandersnatch, a multi-path video game adapted from a massive choose-your-own-adventure novel. With your hand on the mouse, you guide him through the process of making it happen, starting with a healthy breakfast of [Sugar Puffs | Frosties] and an offer of work at a major studio. From there, you’re led down a decision tree to a variety of dead ends and five major endings — most of which include what appears to be a young Chris Chibnall fresh off giving Pip and Jane Baker a talking-to and turning his sights on Stefan’s work.
Of course, as this is Black Mirror we’re talking about, the technology at work—multi-path stories, both within the episode and in the palm of your hand—becomes an inherent part of the action. Your familiarity with choice-based narratives will come into play, and possibly be challenged, the further you progress.
Whitehead’s Stefan is well played, especially in later scenes as his fate becomes clearer, but Maze Runner and Chronicles of Narnia graduate Will Poulter kills as conspiratorial game design genius Colin. Equal parts White Rabbit and Caterpillar to Stefan’s Alice, his role in the story is either monumental or near-nonexistent depending on the viewer’s play style. You will get more to the story if you follow him into the mouth of madness; you will also unlock some frankly terrifying side stories. Prevenge’s Alice Lowe also has a respectable turn as Stefan’s therapist, which gets even better if you work your way toward the “Netflix ending.” You’ll know it when you see it.
Gamers will find much to enjoy in Bandersnatch, as Brooker clearly made this with his fellow gaming fans in mind. Llamasoft founder Jeff Minter appears in in-world archival footage as Jerome F. Davies, writer of the original Bandersnatch book and doer of some fairly terrible things. The experience overall has the feel of the FMV games from which horrified parents of the 90s attempted to shield their impressionable children. Even the plot’s core concept, a megagame called Bandersnatch undergoing difficulties in 1984, was a real happening in the world of video games: it, along with fellow megagame Psyclapse, failed to be realized when its home studio went bankrupt (though you’ll find its remains in Psygnosis release Brataccas).
The major objective failing of Bandersnatch, sadly, is that it was released prior to Netflix Branch Manager being supported across all platforms. Users who default to Apple TV, Google Chromecast, and some legacy devices will find themselves locked out of the experience for the time being. Considering it was event television made specifically to launch this technology, and received one of Netflix’s rare half-decent marketing pushes, one would think it would benefit them to wait until it was as accessible as possible. They may have considered this an acceptable temporary loss based on their own research, but it feels like an uninformed move even so.
From a technical standpoint, it’s a fairly interesting study. Bandersnatch pushes the limits of Branch Manager with complex state tracking, looping, pre-loading scenes at choice points for smoother story progression, and standards for how often choices should occur to maintain interest without overwhelming the viewer. While calling it a “new wave” of television (as some outlets have) feels disingenuous as it ignores previous iterations of branched narratives in other media, it could potentially create the opportunity for television/visual novel hybrids. As with all tools, though, it’s only as good as the people using it.
Subjectively speaking, each “playthrough” of Bandersnatch will be a unique experience—and that’s largely because of how you, the viewer, are seated within the context of the narrative. By nature of how personal it is, it won’t land for everyone. There needs to be a willingness to go all in and let the story be as personal as it’s asking to be. Allowing yourself to have that close a relationship with a series like Black Mirror can be unappealing unless you’re really down to have your head messed with. Personally, I was excited: I love and study branched storytelling, I’ve worked on multi-path games as part of my day jobs, and I enjoyed having my expectations upended. Whether that will be the case will vary from person to person, from play to play.
Don’t expect to be able to hunt down a San Junipero-style happy ending, though; Bandersnatch doesn’t have a Good End or True End to aspire to. Rather, you’re encouraged to move through all the branches, learning new things and applying them to other eventualities as they arise. The “goodness” and “badness” of the endings is fairly malleable depending on what you yourself want from the story. But you’ll find more enjoyment if you participate not to find the “right” ending, but to explore the consequences of choice and what you learn about Stefan and his world with each decision.
If your device is supported, though, I do recommend you at least give it a try. At worst, you’ll get to interact with some new technology in a creative way; at best, you’ll have a lot to chew over for a long time, and maybe some inspiration to check out other branching narratives.
❉ Watch ‘Black Mirror: Bandersnatch’ on Netflix: https://www.netflix.com/gb/title/80988062
❉ Kara Dennison is a writer, editor, interviewer, and over-analyser of geek entertainment. She is the co-founder of Altrix Books with Paul Driscoll and the co-creator of light novel series Owl’s Flower with Ginger Hoesly, and writes regularly for Crunchyroll, VRV, and others. You can see more at her blog or on her Twitter.