When a new technology comes to the forefront, often art communicating that new technology in the mainstream merely floats around superficial ideas surrounding it. Except in this case Netflix has spent a significant amount of money enabling people to do with their remotes what could have been installed in the 80s; people are talking about Bandersnatch a revolution in the TV industry, but as the episode itself shows, this technology has been around for decades.
I’ve spent hundreds of hours working on ‘choose your own’ adventure games (mostly now referred to as interactive fiction, because they’ve moved so far beyond their original book format, and the ‘choose your own’ brand name). Working on text-based adventures was my big teenage passion, and as I’ve spent so long arguing myself for interactive fiction to be the next step in the future of immersive artwork, it’s been fascinating to see this format finally come to mainstream attention.
From a design perspective, Bandersnatch falls into a lot of traps. Choices are quite infrequent and always binary, whereas it’s standard for most interactive fiction games to allow you to choose almost every line of character dialogue. It’s fine as an introduction, but it’s ultimately incredibly basic as an example of the format. Many of the choices are meaningless and lead you towards instant failures you have to rewind, or you get railroaded where the choice you make gets overwritten and the opposite happens anyway. Because of all the dead ends, I didn’t necessarily feel much was at stake, since I could end up getting killed or forced to take an action regardless of my input.
It is very likely that Bandersnatch takes inspiration from one of the more famous visual novel game series Zero Escape (starting in 2009), the premise of which is that certain individuals can see into different pathways of fate, and learn information from the player’s successes or failings in those other paths. The speeches on the nature of clairvoyance and pathway convergence by Will Poulter as Colin are some of the most memorable moments of the episode, and the episode is at its best whenever there is a recognition of the player’s presence, and the primal fear protagonist Stefan has at the concept of Netflix watching over him. However, as with all Black Mirror episodes, Bandersnatch tries to say too many things at once. At times life seems presented as inherently futile and deterministic, at others it seems that this determinism is presented as a result of human consumerism (and Netflix use), at other times the bondage of fate and inevitability of certain outcomes (think of the ending where Stefan boards the 8:45 train) is presented as beautiful. Black Mirror is strong when it engages in social commentary, but one ending will feel like it backtracks on social commentary made by another, rather than working together as a cohesive entity to try and question what fate is.
Above all, I think that interactive fiction deals with emotive response in an entirely different way to other artwork. You are the player, characters are your friends or enemies, and because their relationships with you are determined entirely by your actions – when you feel that fraction of real feeling as a result of your own responsibility for what has happened in the game, that’s the mark by which I would judge its success. There’s a reason why so many interactive fiction games include strong romance subplots (for example the Choice of Games publisher). Interactive fiction novels, which can reach millions of words in length, and contain thousands of player choices are the closest substitution current technology has for a real relationship. This desire for an escape into another world you have more agency over, where decisions are clearly presented, and where if you just take the right steps anyone can love you – these are some of the key temptations of interactive fiction. Hence, I would say that the USS Callister episode of Black Mirror is as much about the cruelty of an interactive media world the player has agency over as Bandersnatch, wherein a developer uses a simulation to enact fantasies about his real-world relationships.
Choice in a piece of media doesn’t devalue the decision-making process we face in real life, as Bandersnatch often suggests – instead it brings that piece of media terrifyingly closer and closer to real life. Look at the forums of interactive fiction fan communities – they aren’t filled with people obsessed with the butterfly effect, who have started to see life cynically as a series of algorithmic choices, as is reflected Bandersnatch. They’re filled with people who love having complete control over their friends, as long as they are fictional, and want to live in worlds where the meaning of their actions is made clear through a mapped-out pathway. I mention this because Bandersnatch is about the existential crises behind interactive fiction developers, and I think it doesn’t get to the heart of the enwrapped, tortured obsessions with controlled worlds that fans of these games can have.
Bandersnatch is perpetually exciting, and many of its gimmicks put a smile on your face. A lot of Netflix shows try to inject themselves with cliffhangers just to make themselves ready for binge-watching addictions. Bandersnatch is a single entity that contains a lot of jokes about demands for action in entertainment and all its frustrating dead-ends that encourage you to keep watching mocks Netflix effectively. But it is not really a social commentary about consumerism in television, nor about determinism, nor about the issues of applying game logic to life, although it seems to try its hand at all of these. As much as I hope this kind of technology is used in more and more mainstream media, I doubt this quite messy episode will be the breakthrough to start it.