“You are just a puppet. You are not in control.”
On Dec. 28, Netflix dropped a surprise episode in its ongoing series “Black Mirror.” Since its inception in 2011, the series has often been compared to the 1980s science fiction show “The Twilight Zone,” which is famous for traversing moral issues through suspense and psychological thrill.
Black Mirror episodes are mostly long, standalone works with varying aesthetics (one episode is an entirely black and white, grisly post-apocalyptic journey while another takes place in a neon 1980s simulation where the dead can choose to upload their consciousness). The show tends to explore ethical dilemmas associated with using advanced technology.
The latest installment, titled “Bandersnatch,” is slightly different. It focuses on storytelling and adventure with clickable choices all throughout; users achieve different endings based on their decisions.
“Bandersnatch” centers on Stefan Butler in 1984, a young gamemaker working from home to create a choose-your-own-adventure video game that he calls “Bandersnatch” based on a popular choose-your-own-adventure novel. Butler wants to publish his game with a large developer and has completed a demo for a company named Tuckersoft, which employs the visionary gamemaker Colin Ritman, whom Butler admires.
At this point, “Bandersnatch” presents the user with the first choice: whether to sign with Tuckersoft — whose director offers Butler an entire team to help build the game — or not. Choosing to sign with Tuckersoft triggers a hard ending which concludes the storyline.
Almost every hard ending in “Bandersnatch” tells if the game is published and what rating it received. With this understanding, players might try to achieve an elusive 5/5 game score, for which there is only one ending. Other viewers might just choose the options they think will be the most amusing.
So, is “Bandersnatch” a video game or a movie? Last year, a raunchy, comedic choose-your-own video game released in August 2018 called “Super Seducer 2” took the gaming community by storm. The format of “Super Seducer 2” is virtually identical to that of “Bandersnatch,” but it was released and marketed as a playable video game, while “Bandersnatch” was released and marketed as a movie. How does the entertainment world resolve this?
It doesn’t need to resolve it. Neither item should fit itself into a predetermined box defined by art from previous decades. Ideally, those who want to play should play, and those who want to watch should watch. A large part of the work’s versatility comes from the different ways a user can experience and interpret it.
Besides pushing the boundaries of its genre, “Bandersnatch” explores issues and philosophies like determinism, mental health, parallel universes, an unreliable narrator, existentialism, and postmodernism, many of which are on-topic for “Black Mirror.”
After continuing to work on the game, Butler deals with these problems in sporadic and almost unrelated scenes, many of which can only be seen by choosing specific paths. In one scene, Butler struggles to finish his game and seeks help from Ritman. Ritman determines that Butler is suffering from a game-maker’s version of writer’s block and gives him LSD for inspiration. This scene is the most exciting: Ritman rants about emotion, inspiration, determinism, time travel and parallel universes, while spouting conspiracy theories about the government drugging food and Pac-Man representing “Program-and-Control Man” as a metaphor.
“He thinks he’s got free will but really he’s trapped in a maze, in a system. All he can do is consume,” Ritman says about Pac-Man. “He’s pursued by demons that are probably just in his own head. And even if he does manage to escape by slipping out one side of the maze, what happens? He just comes right back in the other side.”
This scene concludes with Butler listening to Ritman explain the infinite timelines on his balcony; none of Butler’s decisions matter, Ritman says, because there’s always another timeline out there doing the opposite. Here, Ritman references a watered-down version of quantum multiverse theory in which every decision splits reality into a certain number of distinct, non-communicating parallel universes dependent on how many outcomes could have possibly arisen from the decision. In the context of the movie, this is literally true: millions of users will choose the choice opposite yours and experience a different reality.
Ritman tells Butler that one of them will jump off the balcony, and Butler (but really, the user) gets to choose who does. “How many times have you watched Pac-Man die? It doesn’t bother him,” Ritman says. “He just tries again.”
“Bandersnatch” plays off of the illusion of choice. Not only are Butler’s actions decided for him, but the user’s are also preprogrammed and extremely limited by the piece’s creators. Why can’t the user choose that neither of them jump off the balcony?
Ironically, this brings up a problem with the concept of choose-your-own entertainment in general: the plot will always be predetermined by content creators. The user isn’t truly choosing the adventure, but rather choosing in what order to see various unconnected scenes, sometimes without any effect on the ending. This could be an issue with the entire choose-your-own genre unless artists can find a way to craft the choices so that each one alters the following scenes in a specific way.
All told, “Bandersnatch” fails to move from a one-off innovative format to a work that could shape an entire genre. It relies too heavily on its new format to convince the user to trudge through what feels like unconnected and scattered scenes, rather than employing an engaging storyline with complex character development.
Are the problems with “Bandersnatch” specific to the movie, or applicable to the choose-your-own genre? Does this format have the potential to breach the most powerful entertainment sector ever known? Well, that’s for you to decide.