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Is Black Mirror: Bandersnatch the Dawn of Interactive TV?

Photo: Stuart Hendry/Netflix

Netflix’s interactive movie Black Mirror: Bandersnatch is at once something old and something new. The idea of “choose your own adventure” stories goes back decades — there are plenty of books, movies, and video games designed to let the audience control a story’s outcome — but Bandersnatch feels like a leap forward for the form, one where interactivity is built into the design from the first moments of the story.

It is not like the 1985 theatrical release of Clue, where different movie theaters received one of three possible endings, nor is it like many video games (Bethesda games like Fallout 3, CD Projekt’s The Witcher series) where the bulk of a story stays the same while a few major decisions eliminate some narrative branches along the way. Bandersnatch is compulsively interactive, with decision points never more than a few minutes apart from one another, ranging in significance from the superficial (what brand of cereal to eat?) to the life-altering (should your protagonist jump to his death?).

The story Bandersnatch tells is about a young video-game designer named Stefan Butler (Fionn Whitehead). Stefan’s life goal is to adapt his favorite choose-your-own-adventure book — also called Bandersnatch, of course — and as he gets farther into the weeds of his game’s endless decision trees, he starts to lose his grip. As a viewer, many of your choices control Stefan’s physical actions. Should he exhibit nervousness by pulling on his earlobe, or by biting his nails? Should he spill tea on his computer? But many of the choices are about conscious decisions Stefan needs to make, like whether he should take his meds, work on the game with a partner, or open up to his therapist. After spending a while inside the movie, you’re even given a choice about whether or not you want it to end: Several narrative branches lead to an option to loop back through a major decision point and work through another version of the story, or instead call it quits and “exit to credits.”

In this respect, Bandersnatch isn’t novel. Some video games (like several series by Telltale Games, or the 2010 game Heavy Rain) are built so that decision-making is the primary engine of gameplay, and the classic Choose Your Own Adventure book series also presents major decision points at regular, frequent intervals. What makes Bandersnatch feel so revolutionary is its clean integration of technology and storytelling. It is built from filmed, edited, and painstakingly produced video of living actors, and you’re essentially pausing the story every few minutes to make a choice about what will happen next. But the transitions are absolutely seamless: The action onscreen doesn’t stop while you hover for a few moments to decide whether to karate chop your dad or to kick him in the balls; Stefan continues to move through his life while you make your choice, and once you’ve selected one (I recommend a karate chop), there’s no cut to black, no judder, no dramatic record wiping sound, not even a momentary still frame as Bandersnatch cues up the karate-chop footage. It’s just there, an action that continues from the previous shot as if it were always going to be what happened next.

In every interactive storytelling experience I’ve had, the moment of choice creates at least some momentary interruption in the narrative. The technology of various mediums has always struggled to maintain a sense of immersion while a story pauses for the reader or viewer to make a selection. Flipping back and forth through books that direct you to various page numbers is disruptive, and it often leads to inadvertent glances at the road not traveled. (Who among us has not diligently followed the rules of a Choose Your Own Adventure book and yet still gotten FOMO after flipping past a page where you accidentally see a character get eaten by a shark?) Video games are a cleaner integration of interactive story elements, but the most meaningful decision points tend to arrive as big, flag-waving crisis points, and often involve skill-based fail states that disrupt the narrative flow just as much as flipping around in a physical book does. (Who among us has not completely forgotten what was supposed to be happening in the story because the boss fight was too hard and we kept dying over and over?)

The innovation I’m describing in Bandersnatch seems mostly technological, a kind that has more to do with the underlying streaming engine than it does with a new genre of storytelling. (According to Variety, Netflix’s app had to be reworked so it could pre-cache two potential choices, rather than one, to better ensure a smooth streaming process.) But the most impressive thing about Bandersnatch is how well it proves that technology and narrative are tied together. Most new storytelling forms have been hybrids, combinations of previous genres and forms that coincided with technological advancement in a way that made them newly viable forms of art. In the Western tradition, the first examples of the novel (Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko, Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe) were combinations of travelogue, memoir, and invented fiction, but they were only possible because printing technology had improved to the point where lengthy printed texts could be widely distributed among the reading public (who also had to be educated enough to read). Radio plays weren’t a thing until technology made radios cheap enough for some people to own at home, and broadcasting infrastructure widespread enough to broadcast radio signals. Movies exist as a form because camera and projection technology eventually caught up with filmmakers’ ability to conceive of animated photographic narratives. It’s hard to watch Bandersnatch and not see glimmers of a similar leap in how you can tell a story — a hybridization of “choose your own adventure” novels, video-game logic, and TV, with the technological benefits of a streaming platform to make instantaneous, completely seamless switching from one decision point to another. It is undeniably impressive.

But still, the next tipping point looms. Is this the dawn of a new genre? Will Netflix now be inundated with interactive stories, Bandersnatch copycats that ask us to constantly decide whether our protagonists will put on the green dress or the denim jumpsuit, whether they’ll take the boring office job or strike out to become artists, whether they’ll turn left or turn right?

As impressive as Bandersnatch is, I really hope that won’t be the case. And if it must be, I pray to the gods of interactive television that Bandersnatch won’t be the dominant model. Because underneath its many remarkable bells and whistles, Bandersnatch is still, at its core, an installment of Black Mirror. It’s a story that claims to take a deeply considered, intensive, and probing look at the way technology interacts with our lives, but underneath that high-concept exterior, its characters are thin, its revelations simplistic (free will isn’t free!), and its implications are downright troubling. Chief among those is that many of Bandersnatch’s endings result in punishment, pain, or death for its protagonist, and the few branches that allow Stefan to stay on a healthy path end with creative mediocrity or his untimely end. Viewed solely through the lens of Bandersnatch, technology can be responsible for this fantastically absorbing new way to tell a story, but at the same time, good art and good tech are only possible if you wound people or are wounded yourself.

Bandersnatch is also inescapably self-reflexive. Eventually, Stefan gets the sense that some unseen actor is controlling his actions and he tries to resist the choices that we, the viewers, are making for him. “Who’s doing this to me?” he yells, furious and terrified. His resistance is futile. Your choices have led him down a decision tree that can’t be entirely reversed, and Stefan’s fate is still the result of your decisions. Before he gets there, though, you have the option of revealing exactly who is responsible for his pain. You can tell him that Netflix is doing it. “I don’t understand!” he yells, as you try to explain to a character living in 1984 what 21st-century streaming television is. It’s one of the funniest moments of the whole experience, but it doesn’t go anywhere. Stefan’s glimpse into the future is meaningless, and his frustration that someone else controls his actions plays little part in any of Bandersnatch’s primary endings. It’s cute and it’s creepy, but it, too, is a dead end.

Even in the best iteration of interactive storytelling to date, the biggest, most dramatic narrative twists are still the ones that happen outside your control. Bandersnatch is self-aware enough to weave that truism into the one ending where Stefan makes a successful version of his game: When he finally realizes that free will and choice are the enemies of good storytelling, he writes them out of his code, giving players the illusion of free will without actually allowing for infinite choice. This is the only ending where the story’s ever-present game critic gives Stefan’s game five stars out of five. (It is also one of many endings where Stefan murders his father, chops off his head, and winds up in prison. But I digress.) In both Bandersnatch the game and Bandersnatch the interactive movie, narrative is still most interesting and most satisfying when the person telling the story makes a decision, and when the viewer isn’t the one in the driver’s seat. If that’s not a metaphor for life worthy of Black Mirror, I don’t know what is.