New Black Mirror episode “Ban­der­snatch” intro­duces ques­tions about choose-your-own-path tech­nology. | Wiki­media Commons

“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.