Black Mirror: Bandersnatch Review (2018)
Black Mirror, more than any other current TV show, attempts to subvert our understanding of media and society in the digital age. Bandersnatch takes everything the series is known for and recontextualizes it in a new form.
The year is 1984. The video game industry is growing faster than ever before, creating far too much competition in the market and not enough people adopting home consoles to keep everyone in business. Young programmer Stefan is trying to launch his career with a video game adaptation of Bandersnatch, a choose your own adventure novel left behind by his mother after her tragic death. Stefan convinces the owner of Tuckersoft to let him develop the Bandersnatch branching narrative adventure console game on his own with no oversight, resulting in a three month deadline to condense all of a sprawling science fiction narrative of government conspiracy and paranoia into a single game ready to ship for a holiday release.
Bandersnatch is billed as an interactive film on Netflix. You complete a short tutorial depending on your streaming platform to show you how to choose which narrative branch you want. I watched it on PC, so I was instructed to use my mouse. Then the actual film starts and I guarantee that you are not ready for what’s about to happen.
I think Bandersnatch is an adventure game more so than a film. I play a lot of modern adventure games that are more about story. Bandersnatch feels like those games. Throughout the runtime, I found myself thinking of games like Thomas Was Alone, Her Story, The Stanley Parable, Life is Strange, and many others. These are branching narrative games defined by the experience of a story defined in a few choices rather than a more traditional linear drive to a conclusion. The Stanley Parable, in particular, begins to bend and break your understanding of traditional narrative structure with the narrator remembering and responding to other choices you’ve made before. Even when the game resets to the beginning, your older choices impact how the game continues to play. These games don’t always have a fixed ending, though the endings you can reach are variants of minor details rather than a tonally different ending.
Bandersnatch is no different in that regard. I spent a long time going through this, trying out different branches and seeing what impact they actually had on the film. Shoot, I even had my laptop and my PC going to see how different non-essential choices changed your experience. The plots are quite different, but the tone and style are what you would expect from Black Mirror. It’s a bittersweet, unnerving story about a young man’s obsession with the past and the future at the same time.
The experience is at its best when it starts to mess with your expectations of narrative structure. I almost envy people who aren’t used to this style of adventure game. I can’t even remember the first time I experienced a game that really played with the boundaries between the real world and game narrative. It might have been Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem on the GameCube, a game with a fairly linear plot that would mess with the player depending on a sanity meter; you would give game crash errors pop up on screen, changes in color scheme, a loss of controls, or even a super realistic animated fly buzzing about on your screen. When done well, this is a really effective narrative technique to make you more involved in the story.
Bandersnatch works as well as it does not because of the branching narratives (some are significantly weaker than others, reaching for a cheap gag rather than staying true to the story) but because of the lead performance. Fionn Whitehead (Dunkirk) is phenomenal here. He has to do most of the heavy lifting on the choice screens, essentially idling in his action like a video game character as you get 10 seconds to decide which path to choose at each branch. He’s always in the moment and draws you in. When his character begins to realize something is wrong, it only becomes more powerful. Stefan begins to fight back against the pressure in his life and you, as the omnipotent viewer seemingly controlling his life, become his main source of rebellion.
So how does one classify Bandersnatch? I’m firmly on the game side of this discussion. The film was actually written in Twine, a video game development software specifically set up for branching text-based adventure games. Your progression in the story relies on your physical input. The game will reset to the last significant check point, letting you choose the other option or see what smaller future options change the story. These smaller options toward the end can make a huge difference in the outcome.
What does that mean for you? Bandersnatch is very accessible and forgiving for a game. You are going to use your normal controls for Netflix (mouse or remote) and you have plenty of time to respond to, at most, four word options of what to do. You also mostly watch the story rather than play it. Very few scenes have multiple inputs, and those scenes still give you the full 10 seconds to make your choice. You can also pause Bandersnatch if you need a break, though you can’t do your typical fast forward or rewind on this episode.
Best of all, if you do hit an ending and the game offers to restart at the last checkpoint, you get an edited recap of all the major events that impact your narrative at the time. Minor choices—pick your cereal, pick your music—are superficial, designed to give you a feel for the level of control you have. Major choices are obviously major choices, and what you think you want to do isn’t necessarily what you should do. The completeness of your ending is also judged with a final score, a “[number] out of five” video game review of Bandersnatch. It’s a great conceit to convince you to do what you need to do to make perfect game, even if the perfect game seems like the wrong choice for your character.
Black Mirror: Bandersnatch is currently streaming on Netflix.
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