Black Mirror's Bandersnatch and the unbearable emptiness of interactive storytelling
After months of teasing, rumors and accidental (or accidentally on purpose) leaks, the mysterious choose-your-own-adventured-styled Black Mirror episode, Bandersnatch suddenly appeared on Netflix. Over a year in the making, Bandersnatch presented audiences with one of the most sophisticated interactive film experiences to date but is this a glimpse of the future of entertainment, or a dead-end experiment that leeches out everything fundamentally important to storytelling?
Over the last decade Netflix has pioneered, and subsequently dominated, the world of online streaming. Linear television models have slowly disintegrated, and while broadcast television still exists, it is not difficult to imagine a future where broadcast streams are simply one model in a larger streaming ecosystem.
Considering the preexisting interface technology, it is not surprising Netflix has dipped its toe into the interactive storytelling waters. Initially the company toyed with the concept for its children's content, releasing a small handful of mildly interactive episodes over the past couple of years. These entries were relatively simplistic, offering a few straightforward branching choices to kids at various points in a story. The Black Mirror experiment, on the other hand, was a much more complicated enterprise.
Note: Mild spoilers for the Black Mirror: Bandersnatch experience follow, in as much as something like this can be spoiled.
What is Bandersnatch?
If anything in Bandersnatch is inarguably successful, it is the fusion of form and content. Not only is Black Mirror – the anthology series that interrogates the effects of technology on society – a perfect capsule for an interactive story, but the narrative itself is wholly about the production of an interactive story. Yep, we are in meta-storytelling territory, and this is only the absolute surface of how deeply referential this film ultimately becomes, but more on this later.
Bandersnatch tells a pretty simple story. It is the 1980s, and a genius computer programmer is recruited by a major video game company to make a new game. The game, a choose-your-own-adventure-styled experience, grows in complexity as the programmer maps out more and more different story branches, and slowly loses his grip on reality. From here the story spins off into a variety of different conclusions, with each end-point offering you the choice to return and play/view/experience a different narrative branch.
Are we playing Bandersnatch? Watching an episode of Black Mirror? Or is this an entirely different type of experience altogether? Netflix VP Todd Yellin is keen to call Bandersnatch an "interactive film" that is ultimately closer to a traditional Black Mirror episode than a modern video game.
The experience of Bandersnatch is compelling at first. The novelty of the first few choices are undeniably engaging, even if they are initially quite irrelevant. Deciding what cereal or music our protagonist prefers may have subtle reverberations later on but they are basically innocuous amusements. Soon the story reaches some fundamental branching decisions, and it is here where the participant, or watcher, is faced with a strange decision.
Stories are not just random assemblages of scenes. Stories have meaning, sub-text and thematic richness. Choices characters make in stories have repercussions, and these events build to climaxes. Every creative choice a storyteller makes means something. And while that meaning is not prescriptive, it certainly results in a discourse that an audience can grapple with when interrogating the richness of a story.
So what happens to the meaning of a story when a viewer controls the decisions of the characters?
It is in this weird limbo space that Bandersnatch operates, and in the end presents interactive storytelling to be an oxymoronic dead-end. The story becomes increasingly vacuous with every subsequent decision.
One of the first major decisions Bandersnatch offers comes when our programmer is offered a job by the video game company. Do we accept this too-good-to-be-true offer? Or refuse? I decided to accept the offer and this quickly turned into the first branching dead-end, with many to come. Accepting the offer suddenly time-jumped the story to several months in the future after the game had been released, and it was receiving mediocre reviews. A critic called it rushed, and the programmer frustrated, leaps off his couch suggesting to his father that he is going to try again. The viewer is then thrust into an end-screen with the option of going back and making a different decision, or more specifically, the other decision.
From this point on the viewer will continually loop through different iterations and different endings. Certain choices result in abrupt endings, while others traverse quite baroque and strange tangents. But we always end up in the same place, an end-screen offering us the choice to loop back and make a different decision. One can spend half an hour with the episode, stopping at the first end-point reached, or spend hours looping around, making different decisions, finding different endings.
To Netflix's credit, the technology behind this interactive interface is impressive. The system doesn't just offer simple A or B branches, but rather it evaluates the entire volume of past decisions up to a given point. So, for example, at one point our protagonist is faced with entering a code to access a safe. Not only are there more than two options presented, depending on prior decisions made that led to this point, but the results of the same decision can differ if two viewers got to this point by different pathways.
It's mind-bendingly complicated the more you think about it, and the fact that it all runs smoothly is an incredible technical accomplishment. Netflix has literally spent years building the technology to achieve this result and it is exciting to experience.
Until it isn't …
Bandersnatch quickly becomes a vacuous and exhausting experience. After you have rewound the narrative a couple of times the entire enterprise rapidly feels hollow and meaningless. There is no "point" to the story, no overarching thematic weight. It rapidly becomes just a series of interlinked scenes where the only impetus to go back and try something different is the curious concern that you may be missing something "cool."
Of course, writer, and Black Mirror creator, Charlie Brooker isn't unaware of all of these potential problems, in fact he leans into those limitations. And it is here that Bandersnatch represents both the beginning and end of the interactive film experiment. As previously mentioned, the narrative is in itself a meta examination of storytelling, but things go much further down the rabbit hole than that. Brooker turns his Bandersnatch narrative onto the audience, with the main character progressively becoming aware he is being controlled by an external entity. There are decisions made later in the story that the protagonist actively fights against. You want him to hit his computer, well he won't do that, despite his hand almost autonomously fighting to do it against his will. It is these moments that the entire exercise becomes genuinely thrilling.
Bandersnatch peaks with a bizarre narrative cul-de-sac that not only introduces the existence of Netflix as controlling entity, but concludes with a flash to the present day where a Netflix creative is making the show we are literally watching and begins to lose her mind as the audience – us – is given control over her decisions. This absolute fourth-wall dissolving insanity is the only point Bandersnatch feels authentically novel.
So, in the end Bandersnatch becomes an interrogation of interactive storytelling by embedding the whole nature of the experiment into every level of the narrative. It feels like this is the only way this kind of thing could ever truly work, and even then, it turns out to be just mildly interesting for a time. After about an hour of back and forth, I grew tired of "playing"the story. I was a little exhausted with the relentless decisions sapping any momentum from the story, and the more times I jumped backwards the more the narrative became pointlessly confusing.
Ultimately, Bandersnatch becomes a weird critique of interactive storytelling asa valid narrative medium. One story branch suggests our programmer finally making a breakthrough in developing his game. He realizes he can never give an audience true free will of choice, as that would result in an impossibly infinite number of story branches, but he can generate the "illusion" of free choice, while driving the audience in the direction he, as the true creator, wants to go.
Here Brooker, and his team, essentially dismantle the entire pretense of an interactive film, offering the Bandersnatch viewer an increasing array of futile decisions that all lead to the same place. And if you choose the wrong path your course will be corrected. In many ways Bandersnatch is the ultimate Black Mirror episode, trapping the viewer in a technologically mediated loop, slowly making us aware we have no freewill and are increasingly controlled by this new technological device.
So, is this a new form of storytelling that will pave the way for a whole fresh 21st century genre?
Netflix has undoubtedly invested a lot into this so there will be more interactive "things" on the platform, but will audiences engage with them more than once? I doubt it.
And did Netflix make a weird mistake by premiering the technology to a new audience in a form that essentially deconstructs and criticizes the idea of interactive storytelling? Maybe.
So, what is Netflix's greater plan here? If interactive films don't completely take off with audiences what else has the company gained from this expensive and time-consuming experiment?
Lots of novel data.
For a company obsessed with audience data, an interactive story presents Netflix with an astounding array of new insights into the behavior and wants of its content consumers. If the majority of the audience choose one narrative path over another then that could help guide its future linear productions. How many times did you loop back in the story? What music did you choose early on in the story? Datapoints like this are solid gold for a company like Netflix. So even if Bandersnatch turns out to be a failed experiment in interactive filmmaking, Netflix will come away with even more personalized insights into every customer that "played" its game.