What the Bandersnatch?! (Spoiler Alert)
Updated: Jan 12, 2019
I've been a big fan of everything Black Mirror. The series has satisfied my nostalgic cravings for The Twilight Zone, and I've found many of the episodes to be sophisticated and disturbing enough to challenge many of the views I have personally about technology and its role in our lives today.
When Netflix picked up the series I think most fans expected some added greatness, particularly for a US audiences where star power carries a lot of weight. For the most part Netflix has delivered.
Its latest release, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, is a clever choose-your-own-adventure feature. For those unfamiliar with the concept already, the idea is to give storyline control to you, the viewer, through a series of interactive on-screen options, a la the Matrix's red pill vs. blue pill. To fully understand it's best to just try it out on a compatible device on Netflix.
It's awesome that Netflix tried something new, from a storytelling and technology perspective. Well, to be fair, Netflix unveiled this for its family audience in 2017 with the Puss in Book: Trapped in an Epic Tale. Nonetheless, It took a lot of backend tinkering to make Bandersnatch work: in short, the interface provides you with two options at each storyline intersection which means the backend has to start cacheing twice as much content for you in order to deliver a seamless experiences. And it's also awesome that Netflix chose to apply this tech to a series like Black Mirror, since it ties in more naturally to a sci-fi franchise than it would much else.
My journey through Bandersnatch took about 90 minutes. We're all confronted at first with some basic life choices for our main character, Stephan. For breakfast I had him choose Frosties over Sugar Puffs, and for his morning commute tunes I forced his hand in selecting a cassette of Now 2 (the story takes place in the 80s).
Decisions become more life-altering pretty quickly, and I found the experience of selecting these paths really engaging. The storyline and acting definitely worked to keep me engaged enough to get through the first half-dozen intersections. At times after that it did get a bit frustrating or slow.
After making Stephan commit suicide during an acid trip, I was taken back to an interface with two previous intersections, presumably to save him and continue down a bit longer of a narrative. I played along.
I tried to extend the story in ways in which I actually wanted to see the character develop, but instead of advancing to a place where he continued to work on the Bandersnatch game he was developing, the story remained in a loop of Stephan continuing to battle either his internal demons tied to childhood trauma, or his state of paralyzing paranoia after finding out, in one iteration, that I [a Netflix viewer] was actually controlling his every decision.
In one ending Stephan kills his father and ends up in prison.
In my second ending, Stephan gets into intense hand-to-hand combat with his psychiatrist and he ends up in the loony bin.
The bottom line is, I spent a good amount of time in the experience. And it wasn't just passive viewing - it was interactive and definitely brought me further into the story than any other traditional storyline likely could.
What I'd like to see in future releases is a bit more flexibility with skipping and browsing through the intersections.