Spoiler Alert for Bandersnatch!
During my time off this winter (totally spent working on my thesis and not at all playing World of Warcraft), I managed to avoid hearing about Bandersnatch. For those, like me, who are out of the loop, Bandersnatch is an “episode” of Netflix’s hugely popular Black Mirror series. Black Mirror is known for its dystopic explorations of modern politics, existentialism, technological advancements, and more. I’ve only seen a few episodes despite being told constantly how great the show is. I’m not one for TV in the first place and would rather spend my time with a good game.
So, how did I end up watching Bandersnatch?
Did you enjoy playing #Bandersnatch?
I myself found it admirable and unpleasant at the same time.
Is it me or was there something strangely inert about the #cutscenes?
Also – I kept losing the game.
— Seo-Young J. Chu (주 서영) (rough draft) (@seoyoung_chu) December 28, 2018
This tweet, like most of Professor Chu’s tweets (follow her!), was thought provoking. I hadn’t considered how the interactivity of this “film” made it essentially a video game. And within minutes of watching this realization was confirmed. You have to “play” (watch) the “game” (movie) with a “controller” (TV Remote, Mouse, etc.) in hand. The game has events where you chose one of two options for the protagonist to take under the pressure of a ten-second clock, a common device in video games called quick time events. As the game began, I was really excited to dig into what it had to say and offer. Who knows, maybe this would convince me to binge Black Mirror and finally join in the chorus of praise.
The story itself was nothing to write home about. It follows teenager Stefan Butler, an amateur video game developer in the 1980s trying to make a game based on a Choose Your Own Adventure book called Bandersnatch. It’s a feat previously unheard of in this era of simplistic games, and quickly begins to overwhelm Stefan. Here is where your choice as a player begins to kick in and the paths begin to branch. You can have Stefan try to work out his issues of being overworked with his therapist and his underlying issues with his father, or run away with another developer acquainted with Stefan who seems to know the “truth” Stefan is seeking. Things devolve quickly from here, as Stefan discovers that his free will is being taken away from him; and we spend most of the time, as Stefan, trying to figure out what exactly is happening, while we are the ones actually infringing on Stefan’s self-determination.
When the credits rolled, I was sorely disappointed.
It took me some time to articulate exactly why Bandersnatch was such a let down. There were plenty of choices, though. It wasn’t well acted. It’s heavily inspired by other narratives of free will, particularly a game called The Stanley Parable released in 2011, but it doesn’t stray from the established tropes of that type of story. The interface is clunky. There’s no chapter select, so if you want to go back and see the outcome of another decision path you have to watch the whole movie again. There are too many arbitrary choices that have no tangible effect, and it’s incredibly easy to tell which ones matter, and which ones don’t. There’s not a lot of nuance. When my thoughts finally coalesced, I figured out why Bandersnatch ultimately fell flat. It’s because, despite all of the creators attempts to mask it, they made a video game when maybe they didn’t want to.
A core part of the experience of video games is how they end. They’re supposed to be satisfying conclusions to hours and hours of gameplay, narrative choices, and story buildup. Bandersnatch’s biggest problem is that it ends like an episode of Black Mirror, and not like a video game. There’s no finality to the ending of Stefan Butler’s tale. In fact, the different endings are so wide ranging, two people can come out of the game with completely different thoughts on the truth of the narrative. Which is maybe an easier pill to swallow in a film, but in a game, where interactivity is paramount, this completely erases any player agency. The wildly different endings, with no indication of any subjective “truth,” only make the game frustrating and feel meaningless at its conclusion. Many games with branching narrative paths have a “true” ending, which is normally only achieved by combining all of the players accumulated knowledge over the course of gameplay and is an incredibly powerful tool. It allows players to feel like they’ve won over the game itself, like they outsmarted the game and are rewarded with an objective truth, at the end. The “canonical” ending, one that is only attainable by players who have paid close attention to the hours prior and are rewarded for their patience, perseverance and dedication to the narrative. I spent four hours watching Bandersnatch, notebook in hand, chronicling all my choices and taking notes on what I assumed to be tiny but ultimately important details. After reaching my first ending, going back over my choices I dove back in, eager to unravel the game’s secrets, only to find out that there weren’t any. There is no benefit to experiencing the other paths, as the game gives you no indication of which pathway tells the true story. And the endings are so vastly different that there’s no way to even properly discuss and debate which is the truth. Stefan is either an overworked game developer suffering from mental illness, or is at the center of a massive government conspiracy. There’s no in between. If these are the outcomes of the endings, and there’s no indication of which is true, why bother playing? The endpoints are so wildly different that it erases any conception that your choices actually matter. You’ve just spent hours agonizing over choices that only funnel you into one of two movies in the end, instead of an interesting singular video game experience.
I think Professor Chu says it best: Bandersnatch was “admirable and unpleasant at the same time.” I can’t say I enjoyed my time with it, but I am happy it was made. I just wished that Netflix leaned into the video game aspect further, and realized the power of what they were doing. This was their opportunity to break into the video game marketplace with a title that was a new twist on the medium, one that was immediately available to a massive audience that didn’t need an expensive game console. It simply wasn’t produced like a video game. If Netflix took some cues from the many video games that have a similar structure, I think Bandersnatch could have been a much more powerful experience, and opened the door for tons of new people to explore spaces and experiences only provided by video games. Part of me doesn’t want to criticize Netflix’s process here because it was a brave thing to do and I have no doubt it was a challenge from a technical standpoint to produce at the level of quality Netflix users expect. The idea of Netflix producing video games is incredibly exciting to me. They’re even doing more work with video game franchises, having announced recently that the media giant will be producing a series based on the popular series of video games and novels The Witcher. I love that Netflix is breaking into video games.
I just hope they do it right, next time.