I was a huge fan of Choose your Own Adventure books when I was a kid. I read as many as I could and I couldn’t get enough of them for years. It was all I would check out at the library and all I would buy at the book fairs for a good while.
Earlier this year I finally decided to dig in and binge Black Mirror, one of Netflix’s highly acclaimed shows that has drawn major comparisons to The Twilight Zone because of its anthology structure and creepy good cautionary warnings about technology’s effect on our lives. I binged it all in a matter of days and have been suffering withdrawal waiting for the next season to release.
Imagine my giddiness when I found out like everyone else that the show was doing a Choose Your Own Adventure style standalone episode film called “Bandersnatch,” released on its own as the first interactive story from Netflix. The possibilities with something like this were beyond exciting, even if potentially limited by Netflix structure and the design of streaming TV storytelling and production.
Seriously though, it’s a BRILLIANT piece of work by the creators that manages to make an interactive story work in a solid way while still maintaining the core principle of Black Mirror. In fact, it makes YOU that core principle.
“Bandersnatch” takes place in England 1984 and is about a young British video game programmer named Stefan Butler, played by Fionn Whitehead, that is coding and hoping to release a video game based on a massive Choose your Own Adventure book written by a Jerome F. Davies, called Bandersnatch. As he digs deeper into his obsession with building and releasing this game, Stefan gets caught up in a mind bending situation where he begins to question reality after realizing that he is not completely in control of his actions. Even the tiniest things, like which cereal he’s going to eat or which music he is going to listen to, don’t seem to be his own genuine decision making. He becomes convinced that someone is pulling his strings and heads down the same dark path that befell Davies, the original author of the Bandersnatch book.
The beauty of this scenario is of course that Stefan is absolutely right, because YOU are the someone that is pulling his strings the entire time. With each decision you make for him, he reacts in a different way and depending on what you make him do, he either resists and questions your motives, or he goes along with it, and even at one point asks you what you want him to do. My favorite part of the whole thing is an option within the episode that allows you to “speak” to Stefan after he acknowledges you are there controlling his actions. That whole sequence where you try to explain to him what is going on is absolutely priceless, and it brilliantly harkens back to the central theme of Black Mirror as a show.
A number of episodes of Black Mirror across its four seasons deal with the subject of control and people controlling the actions of others through some form of technological means, either unwillingly or in some cases submissively. Throughout “Bandersnatch” the viewer is placed in control of Stefan’s actions through the technological means of Netflix itself and it does a great job of actually putting you in that same scenario as though you are actively part of the episode. YOU are the cautionary tale about the dangers of technology because your need for entertainment that is being satisfied by this app, is in turn driving this poor kid out of his mind and forcing him to do mundane, crazy, twisted and in some cases incredibly morbid things. Seriously, you can torture this kid if you want to and as an actor, Whitehead does a great job of expressing the pained emotions and twisted behavior of someone that doesn’t know if he’s got serious mental issues, or if he’s truly being controlled by you when you’re watching him.
A lot of people will and already have found the structure of the standalone film to be repetitive, mostly because some of the choices you are given do loop around and bring you back to a point where you need to choose the other option to move forward in the story. For what it’s worth though, that happened in Choose Your Own Adventure books as a rule and there are a handful of actual endings in this thing that will roll credits for you when it’s all said and done. It’s also loaded with Black Mirror easter eggs that fans of the show will notice and appreciate greatly when they see them, though you might not catch them all. Some are very obvious, while others require you to pay close attention and probably remember a particular detail about one of the past episodes, but it’s worth it when you figure out what it is.
I have no idea if Netflix or Black Mirror is going to continue to do standalone episode films like this, but one would think that if Bandersnatch becomes a popular item for the network that they would certainly make another interactive episode for consumption. For now though, just enjoy this one and try not to be too hard on Stefan……unless you really want to be cold-hearted and just break the kid. You make the choice.