The new Black Mirror has arrived, delivered with the promise of an interactive scenario. Not quite a movie, not at all a video game, but being savoured like a very big budget visual novel , it has the opposite problem of an adaptation from a video game: it’s a playful movie, so it’s not a great movie.
Bandersnatch is a monster from the mythos ofAlice in Wonderland, and the episode of the same name will keep reminding you of it. It’s also episode zero of this fifth season, waiting for the new batch (which we know in the box, but the official announcement is still in front of us) on Netflix of Charlie Brooker’s series. A small bonus gift while waiting for the next one, as White Christmas was in its time.
But here, support and temporality are important: it was Netflix that convinced Brooker to come up with this concept, and the platform wants to democratize it in the future. It’s still a Black Mirror, with its lot of references to all the other episodes of the series (always in small cuts of articles) but also with its fears and its topical references. Here, we call Ready Player One, the references of the latter, the narrative games à la Telltale, and the works that question the meta like Undertale. But to sum up, it’s probably a little more interesting to talk about this episode than to watch it.
My viewing of Bandersnatch lasted a little over two hours, made me make about thirty choices, and exposed me to the vast majority of the available content – in any case, I had no major conclusion to explore. It all started in 84, when Stefan – Fionn Whitehead, seen in Dunkerque – young programmer on ZX Spectrum, woke up on Relax at exposition-land. Taking morning medication, Dad distant, Mum absent, he is in An endless story, and first choices appear: the cereals we are going to eat, the tape to listen to on the bus. If you don’t choose, Netflix does it for you. Stefan gets the job of his life – he’s going to work for a big company and finish Bandersnatch, the game of the book-of-your-own-name-hero.
In real life, this project never came to fruition, and we know we’re going to cross the strata of reality. Stefan meets Colin – Will Poulter, the ugly cop from Detroit – a designer-star he adulates, a type who is obviously very independent in body and mind.
We’re offering Stefan to finish the game in this box. First choice that seems important. No thanks, nothing must hinder the artist’s vision! The episode nods in agreement, and here we are at the shrink’s, where we are forced to “talk about mom” and an original trauma. From then on, the characters will talk more and more heavily about destiny, determinism, the choices that are made and emphasize that they are part of the exhibition.
I used an Xbox controller on my console application, and it vibrated to warn me before each choice. I had no idea it was technically possible for Netflix. All this is relatively well articulated, even if some jump-cuts and connections are awkward. Seeing the actors “stalling” awkwardly while waiting for a decision to be made is always a bit of fun.
Anyway, it buys records, a biography of the original author of the book that gave the game, and it works very hard. Stefan works himself to death, gets angry at his father, who takes him away in front of his shrink. Colin-Morpheus is not far away, choice: to be treated or to follow Colin? Getting treatment. We reach a meta discourse: at the moment when I, the spectator, wants my fictional character to get out of it, he becomes more and more aware that he is being manipulated. As a result, he’s going more and more crazy and is prescribed stronger and stronger happiness pills. That I, a conscientious citizen, make him take it, which provokes a first bad end : the game comes out, and it is judged mediocre and half achieved. Well, good for the message.
Backwards, the pills go in the goggles. We learn that the author of the book became a zinzin, killed his wife and painted a glyph “symbol of branching” with her blood. Stefan, on the other hand, is going to live a very Matrix moment since we will be able to communicate with him in fine-gags where a logo you know well becomes a choice. Of course, admitting that he is “controlled by someone from the future” sends him presto to therapy. If he’s in a movie, “why aren’t you in a more entertaining scenario? “Real question, then it goes into a ninja fight or the end of the shoot.
Going back even further, this time we follow Colin-Morpheus to his home, where we meet his wife and baby and discover his love of LSD which helps to “take a step back”. The moment our two heroes go out on a balcony, we know how it’s going to end. A death (of your choice), a startled awakening, another step backwards. From that point on, I felt like I was playing The Stanley Parable, unintentionally doing all the possible endings. I came across a meta ending where even Stefan’s original trauma is fabricated and filmed (you have to suspend his disbelief strongly), it evokes a brain control program, and oops already a parricide. And another bad end in prison.
Then again a parricide (at this point I was mentally apologizing to my own father) and Stefan for not believing his eyes when I selected the “cut to pieces” option. “My God, really? “Yes yes, really. “Too many dumb choices,” says the TV itself. And yet it’s the closest thing to a perfect ending. The game comes out, five stars out of five, and Colin’s daughter is the one who will direct the interactive Bandersnatch episode. Of course, you also have control over it, over a choice that will be very familiar, and you reach the heights of Quentin Dupiesques recursivity.
It was a good conclusion, but Netflix insisted that I explore other possibilities: other teas were spilled on other keyboards, other dads were cut up, I killed the boss, did the same thing with Colin (always very relaxed about the thing) and even let him go after he saw the dead body. All this brought me back to a more metaphorical, but different end, which ends with a real death on a chair, like Playtest. All this after entering many codes into keyboards with my remote control, and even dialing a number that I was dictated, as if I was in Virtue’s Last Reward.
Underline meta, forget scenario
Which gives us a dozen possible endings. It’s Black Mirror, and none of them are really “satisfactory” or optimistic. If the tone is there, this episode is nevertheless one of the least Black Mirroresque of the whole series, since it doesn’t summon futuristic technology. He prefers a meta-commentary on the narrative, its choices and what can be done with it. Specifically, he likes to underline the metamore than he likes to create it.
As in an episode of The Walking Dead by Telltale, choices don’t always matter. A Reddit user had fun mapping this episode, and we realize that only two nodes are real pivots in the scenario, and that we are constantly being taken back to them. Before, we are only familiarized with the concept, we are bombarded with subversions and false choices, and above all, we play with the player’s expectations. Between this last one and the script, it’s the contest of the one who will be the greatest of the clever ones. Today, if we follow the video game news, forcing a choice between “no” and “no” is not very innovative anymore.
Do you want good for the person? Do you just want a bloody end? Or maybe just make it last? When the script almost begs you to make choice A, you’re tempted to make choice B. Except Charlie Brooker knows how to use reverse psychology. There are as many real branches as there are tricks, and that’s quite normal: the work behind would be impossible. The execution itself is relatively elegant. Sometimes it’s misleading: if you refuse to take LSD, Colin will put it in your tea without your consent. This propensity to force the stakes, to recall X number of times that you force the characters’ hand, makes the thing stand out a little at best – and makes it predictable at worst. Ironically, the reader too has an invisible hand on his, sometimes.
Bandersnatch is experimental, it tries something very ambitious, and makes a copy that doesn’t reach the heights of the good Black Mirror. It was an impossible Venn diagram. Colin’s personality sums up the whole thing: ethereal, a concept in itself, but not that important.
Moments of Bravery
- The whole “Netflix route”, from initial cable peering to meta delirium
- The most relaxed and resigned murder scene in existence…
- Charlie Brooker’s love of ’80s music and Eurythmics…