Black Mirror's New Interactive Netflix Movie Is A Letdown

Last night, Netflix released a special interactive episode of Black Mirror. From a technical perspective, it’s impressive. The story, on the other hand, blows.

“Bandersnatch” is a Black Mirror special about a young man, Stefan Butler, who is making a video game based on a fictional book of the same name in 1984. It’s an early adventure game, with many branching paths and a complex narrative.

The episode also has branching paths - just like Stefan’s game, it’s a Choose Your Own Adventure story. It’s essentially a FMV game like Phantasmagoria, but on Netflix.

Throughout the episode, you’re given the option to make choices, which you can do via clicking the screen, if you’re watching on a computer like I was, though each platform has its own control scheme. Early on it’s little stuff, like what cereal Stefan eats or what music he listens to. As the narrative goes on, the choices becomes more extreme.

As a technical achievement, “Bandersnatch” is a complete success. For the viewer, scenes flow neatly from one into the next as you branch the narrative, and subtle things change in your playthrough for each decision you make. When you fail, or get joke endings, you’ll get a brief recap of your choices before going back to your last decision, instead of having to sit through the whole episode again.

Narratively, however, “Bandersnatch” is a bit too in love with its own novelty to ever come together. Black Mirror’s biggest strength has always been its eagerness to comment on our own lives and relationship to technology. Despite how complex this episode is—or probably because it is so complex—that commentary does not ever come to the surface.

This is the most Black Mirror has ever been “what if phones but too much?” It’s grim for the sake of grimness, instead of a thought-provoking modern take on The Twilight Zone. Things go badly no matter what you do, and no matter how much pontificating the episode offers on the nature of free will, the narrative never reaches a satisfying conclusion.

There always feels like there’s some stone unturned, some way you could have made things better, some hint or clue you could have picked up on, but after tooling around with “Bandersnatch” for two and a half hours, I can confidently say there isn’t. There’s just a rote, clichéd narrative that offers no new perspective on the world outside of its confines and usually ends in someone’s death.

That’s the problem with Choose Your Own Adventure stories. If you set up foreshadowing or try to establish a narrative arc, you have to account for readers or viewers not picking up on it or going another way. No matter which ending you get, and I’ve seen all of them, there’s always a loose end that feels unfinished.

In some ways, one of the jokiest endings feels closest to a proper conclusion. Stefan tells his therapist that he believes he’s being controlled by someone watching him as entertainment in the future, and his therapist asks why his life isn’t very entertaining if that were true.

They then get into an over the top brawl, where his therapist whips out two batons, with Stefan’s father later hauling him out of the office after he joins the fray. Stefan calls out, “How’d you like that, you psychiatric fuck?” It’s just about as much of a thoughtless waste of time as the rest of the episode.


Comments

    Got to agree whole heartedly. Ultimately felt let down. You know what episode they should've refilmed for this? The AR haunted house episode from, I think season 3? Where the guy has the implant in his neck. Should've refilmed that and added new options, footage etc. That would've been a prime choice.

    Put some spoilers warnings next time.

    And this is a Black Mirror episode. There are no happy endings. Not all questions are answered. The real ending is the sum of all endings.

    It was an interesting experiment, but it's just not very entertaining. The narrative becomes a bit too convoluted when you get taken back to decision points to try again - which is kind of an achievement because the underlying theme is pretty simple. They have the 'flashback summaries' but it all feels a bit too disingenuous and... I don't know, like a poor compromise to acknowledge that there's really only so many ways to go.

    These sorts of 'choose your own adventure' books mostly died out after video games became a thing - and with good reason, because they struggle to be entertaining. The vast majority of plot points go absolutely nowhere with unsatisfying endings. It's forcing an inherently passively-absorbed media to be interactive - and it fails. Video games can be just as linear but entertaining because there's actual interactivity. It's why so many people don't like those 'interactive stories' being passed off as 'games' (like Gone Home, or The Path). Ironically, that's probably Bandersnatch's real message - movies and games don't mix.

    Brief criticism of article:
    “what if phones but too much?” This is nonsensical, even for an internet article.

      I'm not sure if you clicked through on the link, but in case you didn't, "what if phones but too much" is meant to be a stupid sentence and originally appeared in a joke article that was criticising Black Mirror for being predictable and smug (I don't agree). Charlie Brooker found the article funny and the quote went on to pen season 3's episode "Playtest" inspired by the quote. This is from an interview with Brooker:

      I was partly amusing myself, because there’s a funny criticism of Black Mirror from Mallory Ortberg who wrote, “Next on Black Mirror: What if phones, but too much?” And I thought: “Right, that’s what I’m going to do. Let’s do that episode!”

      https://ew.com/article/2016/10/23/black-mirror-postmortem-interview-season-3/

        I did click the link and I get the statement, but even for that it's still an awful sentence. It's slightly better with a separating comma though.

          Or even: What if “phones”, but “too much”?

          That’s about as grammatically correct as you can make it without adding words, and even then it’s bad.

    TBH I’m kind of reluctant to watch Bandersnatch. This article and the comments above confirms why it’s not worth my time. Bring on season 5.

      I’m with you. And I’m a huge fan of the series. This just seemed wrong from the outset. The series hinges on thoughtful narrative and ideas. Without that it becomes pointless

        The idea Is what if someone else is in control of your decisions. I dunno I really enjoyed find all the endings last night. Was good fun.

      Yeah champ, well done. Just go through life letting other people's opinions guide you instead of experiencing things for yourself and forming your own solid view about things.

      I recommend giving it 15 mins of your time to see if you're feeling it. I'm only 28 but the 80s aesthetic really had me feeling the atmosphere

      I actually really enjoyed this.
      My tips are:
      1) Watch it with a good friend or your partner. The decisions feel much more charged when someone is witnessing the choices you make. The time limit on choosing also builds tension in the room when someone else is watching with you. Its a very different experience to watching on your own and leads to moments of "I can't believe you chose that" and fun discussion.
      2) Don't watch it on PC or phone, watch it on a PS4/Xbox etc. The experience is much better with a controller. The rumble that happens when a decision is approaching gets to be quite foreboding. It also feels more natural. It also plays into the theme of controlling this person's life as if it is a game or entertainment.

      I felt the endings were actually really good, especially when you watch all the way through and go back, the previous scenes change, and it gets very meta, but in a good way.
      The show starts to make you feel guilty for taking control, and the best ending only happens if you have gone through the story already, choosing yes or no when you are the little boy again is actually wrenching.

      It's way more than a choose your own adventure style story, multiple play-throughs change the story retroactively, and the characters, and the endings. Time runs both ways. It would have been very hard to write this to work, but I feel it does.

      I think some people won't like it, but you get back what you put in. Watch it in good spirit, watch it with a friend, control it with a game controller and it is very rewarding, and we are still discussing it with each other a day later.

      I think it's worth a watch.

    Wtf is the author on about with this..
    "Despite how complex this episode is—or probably because it is so complex—that commentary does not ever come to the surface."

    The episode beats you over the head with it's themes and commentary. If anything, it is one of the less subtle episodes of Black Mirror.

    I think the story was okay, not fantastic... but to say the themes and commentary does not come to the surface requires you to ignore or have missed over half the scenes.

    "Things go badly no matter what you do"

    If Black Mirror has taught me anything, it's probably that this was the point it was trying to make.

    But I dunno. I haven't watched it yet. I was excited when I first heard about Bandersnatch but then discovered only recently it was interactive and that has pretty much put me off watching it. Having to make choices and then go back and make other choices and then wondering if I made the right choice right at the start or not and then having to start over completely. Too much stress, man. I watch movies to escape that kind of decision making. lol

      I'm generally the same however it was fun and not terribly time consuming to take different paths. You can press the skip ahead by 10 sec button to get to the choices faster. Super easy barely an inconvenience.

    This sounds absolutely nothing like Phantasmagoria, which was a classic point and click adventure game, with FMV sequences through it. If anything it sounds more like the D&D DVD games that came out in the 90s, where you would make choices throughout it... and fail horribly in your quest in my case.

    There's a reason interactive DVDs never took off as a concept... The delivery mechanism was not it.

    If you're an old school gamer, this episode is worth checking out. Beneath all the Donnie Darko alternate-reality wankery is a love letter to the fledgling UK games industry of the '80s. (Not surprising given Charlie Brooker wrote it.) Would have loved to spend more time at the Tuckersoft studio shooting shit with the devs.

    Also, fun fact: 'Bandersnatch' was the working title for Brataccas, one of the first games released by Psygnosis. Roger Dead did the box art.

    You guys need to get over yourselves. The show was entertaining and showed great potential for more.

      I agree, people are taking it too seriously. Just think of it as a bit of an experiment and some light entertainment. I also liked it because of all the 70s/80s references and also links back to other Black Mirror episodes.
      (took me a while to figure out who the actor was that played Colin.. it's Eustace from Narnia)

    It did feel a bit like a cross between The Butterfly Effect and Donnie Darko.

    I feel like by the time it started to get really good - when it started to become almost a fight between you and him - it was already over.

    I do have to comment on this part of the article though;
    Things go badly no matter what you do, and no matter how much pontificating the episode offers on the nature of free will, the narrative never reaches a satisfying conclusion.

    Thats sort of the point. He even says it right there in the show, he comments that the main problem was that he was giving the player too much choice, and in the end he just stripped it all out and only gave them then illusion of choice, he controlled the outcome from the beginning.

    You never have choice, not really. What kind of cereal do you want? Doesn't matter, and even if it did, you're having cereal no matter what you want. More than once - and more the later you get in the 'movie' - the options you get aren't actually options, they are just two versions of the same thing that end up at the same outcome.

    Its the illusion of choice.

    Last edited 31/12/18 6:59 pm

    Given how short the episode is, its surprising how much railroading there is. I don't think this is a particularly novel idea, in fact, it's been done to death recently. Compared to other examples (i.e. Telltales: the walking dead), it was a pretty lousy example of the form.

      I think it is much better actually, but it does require you to play through multiple times to get the good stuff. It unfolds on multiple watchings, the decisions made on previous viewings actually change the narrative on subsequent play throughs. I think it is unique in this, and did it well.

    Well I'll be the one to completely disagree - I thought it was brilliant. Taking the choose-your-own-adventure aspect and turning it in on itself with the free will question was great and I thoroughly enjoyed going back through choices and seeing the small changes (and some not so small). Very Black Mirror and very well done.

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