NEWS

Bandersnatch and the frustration with freedom of choice

The concept of Netflix’s latest Black Mirror episode Bandersnatch was compelling to say the least, but it’s execution was a little problematic.

Profile shot of Stefan with a doppler effect applied

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Bandersnatch continues the themes that run through all Black Mirror episodes, innovation impacting on free will and how our integration with technology will potentially affect how we think and feel. The huge point of difference for this one though is that my free will would impact on the story, the ending was determined by the choices I made throughout the movie.

Choose Your Own Adventure books were huge when I was a kid in the 80’s and what we have here is the same concept committed to screen and enabled by the wonders of modern technology. In other words, throughout the narrative you are presented with choices and, via the magic of your remote, those choices impact the direction of the story.

The creators

I imagine the process of crafting this narrative would be a massive challenge.

That challenge was set by Netflix and put to Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker in May 2017, when they asked them to produce the first ever interactive film for adults. Brooker initially ignored the idea but Netflix forged ahead and experimented with a few other kids movies just to prove that it could work. At their next meeting Brooker decided to pitch this story about a game developer who became convinced he was being controlled by external forces making his life play out like one of his games.

So Netflix go, “yep, make that the interactive thing we were talking about”.

Brooker goes, “yeah great idea” and then thinks “oh shit, that’s actually going to be really complicated”.

And it is.

Two and a half hours of footage divided into 250 segments that are dropped in or out based on decisions the viewer makes at various times throughout the story. Netflix even had to build their own software to make it happen without putting too much of a load on the system, causing everything to buffer during a transition to the next path of the story.

Director David Slade who has been behind some awesome productions like American Gods and 30 Days of Night had his work cut out for him. And as far as the technical execution of such a lofty production goes, you can’t fault the great job he and the entire crew have done to preserve continuity when the narrative splits off in so many different directions.

The story

The flipside meant that story is needs to be relatively simple. It’s set in the 80’s, like pretty much everything I’ve seen in the past six months, and follows the story of Stefan, a whiz kid video game programmer who is developing a super intricate adventure game called ‘Bandersnatch’ which is based on an elaborate choose your own adventure novel of the same name. He finds that the deeper he goes in developing the game, the more obsessed he becomes and the less in control of he own actions he seems to be. And I don’t want to say much more than that.

The choices you make on behalf the character start with mundane tasks—like choosing what breakfast cereal to eat or what tape to chuck in Stephan’s Walkman while he rides the bus—and the options become more dramatic as the plot evolves. Oh, and no pressure by the way, but you only have about 8 seconds to make a choice.

The cast

The cast kind of take a backseat to the concept but their performances are all ok. Fionn Whitehead of Dunkirk fame takes the lead as Stephan, Craig Parkinson plays Stephan’s dad Peter, Alice Lowe plays Stephan’s psychiatrist Dr Haynes and Will Poulter who—you might recognise from We’re The Millers or the Maze Runner—plays fellow game programmer Colin Ritman and his character is the highlight of this movie for me.

The verdict

I couldn’t think of a better brand to apply this style of storytelling to but it’s not without it’s problems. For the first three quarters of the film I did enjoy the option of being able to interact with the story but as the story hurtled towards the final act, and the options came thick and fast, I found it really demanding, more passive consumers will hate this. The other problem I had with that was when you reached a dead end the story would take you back to the point where the pivotal decision led to that conclusion. This meant you could choose another path and be exposed to a different outcome. There are so many outcomes though, and it became really onerous when you had to embark on this for the fourth or fifth time, which meant sitting through a series of flashbacks before kicking into the story again.

It also gets to the point where you’re fairly certain that even though you have these choices there is still a set direction they want you to stick to, for example pour tea on the computer or smash it, I mean, both are gonna fuck it up. However, there is an option once you reach the end of certain arcs to exit to the credits so perhaps the fact that I didn’t says more about me than the show.

I think we’re either not quite ready for this concept, without a better story at least or is it just a gimmick that will go the way of other things like 3DTV. Watching TV is very much a leisure activity, and for those of us that work hard all day and settle in for the night to kick back and relax, an interactive experience where we’re forced to make more decisions might not be what we’re after. My decision was to watch TV, that’s it, don’t do this shit to me, if I wanted interaction I’d fire up a video game and play that.

While I think Charlie Brooker and the team behind Black Mirror should be commended for trying something outside of the box with Bandersnatch, I can’t say that I found the end result all that enjoyable. I am excited for what they are going to do next though.

For me the experience was not dissimilar to running through an automated process on the phone, if you want this press 1, to go here press 2, I’m sorry I didn’t get that, returning you to the main menu.

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