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Black Mirror, Channel 4 and Netflix’s sci-fi anthology series, has gained critical and commercial acclaim for its often chilling portrayal of the relationship between humans and technology. While many of the episodes, each of which tells a standalone story, are set in a world outside of our reality, the themes they cover typically hit close to home, like the look at a society controlled by social media offered by “Nosedive” and the study of the limits of love in “San Junipero.”

The most recent episode—”Bandersnatch”—continues the series’ technology-centric formula. However, in a first for the show, it also introduces an interactive element. Viewers participate in the viewing experience by choosing alternate paths that dictate how the story will unfold using a game controller, TV remote, or the touchscreen on a smartphone. The overall narrative of “Bandersnatch,” which follows a young video game programmer Stefan (Fionn Whitehead) looking to adapt his favorite choose-your-own-fantasy novel into an interactive video game, echoes the viewer’s role as the controller of the story. In turn, the episode delivers an experience that all viewers will interpret differently, from avid game players to sci-fi fans.

Michael, Emma, and Evan are here to discuss those various paths, how the show affected them, and to bridge the gap between “Bandersnatch” as a video game and an episode of television.

Emma Schaefer This was my first episode of Black Mirror, though I’ve been meaning to check out the show for a while. I was a fan of those Choose Your Own Adventure books as a kid (though I’d usually cheat to find every ending), and I’m a fan now of narrative games like Life is Strange and Telltale’s offerings (R.I.P). This is the first time I’ve seen the concept explored in an interactive way in a TV show, and it definitely gave the episode a very game-y feel—especially when the whole premise is based around the development of an early ’80s computer game.
Evan Slead I know there have been a few movies in recent years that have used the same interactive element that “Bandersnatch” uses, but like you said Emma, I hadn’t ever experienced a TV episode like it. Before I watched, all I knew was that we could pick what path we wanted to take and that the narrative was focused on a game developer. So, I was pretty intrigued to see how it would all come together. I agree that overall it felt like a game, which seems undoubtedly intentional, but I didn’t expect it to be a commentary and study on how death or “repeats” work in a game compared to real life. At least, I thought there were some connections to make there. Am I alone in that?
Emma It’s an interesting tie-in for sure, almost a Groundhog Day-style loop. Except, of course, it’s not a perfect loop. A few of your choices stick around. In my watch/playthrough, for example, you have the choice of (spoilers!) either jumping off a balcony or asking your fellow programmer, Colin, to jump off the balcony in your place. I asked Colin to jump, and, in my viewing, Colin never showed up again—even when I went back to points where Colin should have been sitting at his desk or walking past. Even though Colin insisted his death wouldn’t matter in the grand, overarching view of all the different timelines, in my viewing, he effectively died.
Michael Goroff You’re not alone in that, Evan. They thoroughly hammered home the whole “parallel timelines/reset button” theme, especially in how the whole episode was structured. I, like Emma, experienced Colin’s “death” and he didn’t come back in my experience (should we call it “playthrough”?) either. But that entire segment, to me, was the crux of my viewing, in that things Colin said to Stefan in that timeline effectively “stuck with” Stefan in different timelines, which I thought undercut the entire idea of narrative choice. It all seemed to be pushing me in one direction, where choices I made sort of seeped into other “timelines,” but I didn’t really feel like those choices had the sorts of consequences we’ve come to expect from games like Life is Strange or any of the Telltale games, or even RPGs like Fallout and The Witcher 3 for that matter. Did you feel like the choices you made were overall significant, especially keeping in mind the themes of resets?
Evan I also chose to have Colin jump, so it sounds like we all were thinking the same way. I would say I half agree with the idea that the balcony moment undercut the rest of the narrative choices. It felt that way for a while, especially considering that Stefan was pretty overwhelmed and was believing in Colin’s conspiracy theories, but then the later portion of the episode went back to feeling like I was in control. This was actually my first Choose Your Own Adventure–style experience outside of books when I was a kid (sorry, I haven’t played Mass Effect) so I had no clue what to expect here. But once the story expanded on the conspiracy and started introducing the option to talk directly to Stefan through his computer, it felt more akin to what I had heard these types of games were like. Now, the problem I had at this point was that there were way too many narrative threads to keep track of, from Stefan’s relationship with his dad to his mom’s death to his therapist to his video game. It got extremely confusing and I think I missed a lot of the themes and symbolism that the show was trying to convey. I’m assuming some of the games you’ve both mentioned, like Life is Strange, don’t offer that same kind of mess?

Emma
Right. I noticed that there’s a distinct lack of “truth” in “Bandersnatch,” and I think that causes the mess you spoke of. In games like Life is Strange, you have choices, but those choices are consistent within the game’s universe. In “Bandersnatch,” if you go down one path, there’s a government conspiracy. You go down another, and it turns out Stefan was an actor in a TV show all along. Choose yet another, and it’s all Stefan’s meds acting up. You don’t explore reality with your choices—you create reality. It leads to this somewhat confusing scenario where there’s simultaneously maybe a conspiracy, maybe a hallucination, maybe a metaplot, and maybe none of the above, all at the same time. Maybe the episode was trying to make a point about the flexible nature of reality, but for me, many of the episode’s questions—like “is there a conspiracy, or is it all in his head?”—are never actually answered. Did either of you reach a different conclusion with your playthroughs?
Michael I don’t think those questions are necessarily meant to be answered, especially because Stefan’s illness and the meta aspects of the episode’s narrative structure seem so thematically intertwined. But maybe I’m just saying that because of the ending I got. I experienced multiple endings throughout “Bandersnatch,” but the one that automatically triggered end credits, which makes me think it was my “true” ending, involved Stefan going back in time through a mirror, finding his toy rabbit, and joining his mother on the train where they both die, before flash-forwarding back to what I assumed was a parallel Stefan dying quietly in his therapist’s office. It was pretty satisfying narratively, in that it forced his dad to face the consequences of his own actions, but in terms of gameplay, it made me think that the choices I made before funneled me into this one ending, since no matter how many times I killed Stefan or had him kill others, in the end, I wound up in a seemingly fantastical place that seemed ungrounded compared to the rest of the narrative. But maybe I’m judging this too much as a game when as a TV episode I found it very satisfying. Now I feel like I’m just rambling, but I’m curious as to whether you both would consider “Bandersnatch” a “game.” Does interactivity automatically make this a game?
Evan I wouldn’t go so far as to say that “Bandersnatch” is a game. Sure, a lot of modern games have deep narratives and progress the story through lengthy cutscenes, but in the end, they’re still more game than movie. There are exceptions I’m sure, but I never felt like “Bandersnatch” fully embraced the “game” side of its story. In fact, that’s where I was slightly disappointed. As Mike said, I enjoyed this episode as an episode of Black Mirror, but I wouldn’t say that its interactivity was stellar or meta enough. There’s the scene in the therapist’s office where Stefan tries to explain that someone watching Netflix, presumably us, has been controlling him. It’s there that the narrative starts to go slightly off the rails and really embraces the idea that we as the viewer are controlling Stefan’s life as if it were a game. You can choose to fight the therapist, kick your dad in the balls, and all that kind of over-the-top action you would get in a game. I thought the rest of the episode was going to be us choosing increasingly outlandish scenarios for Stefan to overcome, making an experience where we’re watching a real person be forced to do things only done in a game. But that’s not really the direction it went. It touched on it and then went back to focusing on Stefan’s relationship with his mom and dad. I understand that this was the right choice for an episode of TV, but for one commenting on the infinite life system of a game, it felt like it was throwing too much at the wall.

Emma
I thought the most game-y part of it was, oddly enough, the timer. That was reminiscent of having to make a quick choice in a Telltale game or act fast to ace a quick time event. I was disappointed, though, that there didn’t seem to be a “no choice” path. I only tested it in one or two spots, but each time Stefan would just pick one of the options on his own. In a lot of games, choosing “not to choose” is just as much of a choice as Dialogue A or Dialogue B. I wish we could have had that path, where Stefan regains some control over his own life, to see how he acts when he only thinks someone else is choosing for him.
Michael I don’t even know if “Bandersnatch” is satisfying as a Black Mirror episode, specifically. The thing I love about that show (and I’ve watched every episode except for the last one in the most recent season) is how it shows not necessarily the “dangers of technology,” but instead the ways that humans pervert technology (or, in special episodes like “San Junipero” and “Be Right Back,” how technology and humanity can come together in more meaningful and positive ways). This seems like the constant thread in every good Black Mirror episode, so I was surprised that “Bandersnatch”—which uses the “new” technology of interactive movies to tell its story—didn’t really touch on these themes at all. Sure, all the markings of a Black Mirror episode are there, but it doesn’t seem to have much to say in how people may use interactive storytelling or games to disrupt their own sense of humanity. Because all the choices offered lead Stefan to going down a really bad rabbit hole, I felt like Charlie Booker, the writer, was more responsible for perverting technology than me, the viewer, who is ostensibly the true subject of the episode. Still, was it stressful, immersive, and engaging? Absolutely, and I’ll probably watch it again just to see if I can find any more hidden endings.

Emma
I agree with that. Evan touched on this above, but I think the episode just missed making a statement on how far we, as viewers/players, will drive a character for the sake of our own entertainment. The episode could have given us some good choices that are boring (let Stefan work in a healthy environment, fix his relationships, take his meds, and finish his game on time) and some bad choices that are more interesting (yelling at his dad, fighting his therapist, following the conspiracy rabbit hole). It would have given us a little more of a connection with Stefan, allowing us the option to use our powers for good to get his life back on track or to use them for evil and push him towards murder and a breakdown in the name of selfish entertainment. You could drive home the point that you, the player, are haunting him, not the demon in his game. As the episode stands, Stefan starts off in a somewhat unhealthy place and ends in disaster, and you have no choice but to keep messing with him. A little more freedom to choose a different course for Stefan would have gone a long way towards making you connect with him, I think—though at that point, you’d likely be far outside the budget of a TV episode and more into outright game development.
Evan That’s true, Emma. There are definitely flaws in the execution of the episode’s interactivity, but a majority of that likely comes down to this being a TV show first and a game second. The amount of time and money that would have to go into a TV episode that’s as immersive and customizable as, let’s say a Mass Effect game, wasn’t on the table. Still, overall it was an interesting experiment that likely gave many viewers a taste of how games can deliver a rich narrative. Perhaps there will be more like this down the line in Black Mirror‘s upcoming season, or maybe another developer is already working on what we were hoping “Bandersnatch” would be.

 

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The good and bad of Black Mirror’s “Bandersnatch”

We've come together to discuss if Black Mirror's "Bandersnatch" episode is actually a video game—and how well it works as TV.

By EGM Staff | 01/4/2019 02:30 PM PT

Reviews

Black Mirror, Channel 4 and Netflix’s sci-fi anthology series, has gained critical and commercial acclaim for its often chilling portrayal of the relationship between humans and technology. While many of the episodes, each of which tells a standalone story, are set in a world outside of our reality, the themes they cover typically hit close to home, like the look at a society controlled by social media offered by “Nosedive” and the study of the limits of love in “San Junipero.”

The most recent episode—”Bandersnatch”—continues the series’ technology-centric formula. However, in a first for the show, it also introduces an interactive element. Viewers participate in the viewing experience by choosing alternate paths that dictate how the story will unfold using a game controller, TV remote, or the touchscreen on a smartphone. The overall narrative of “Bandersnatch,” which follows a young video game programmer Stefan (Fionn Whitehead) looking to adapt his favorite choose-your-own-fantasy novel into an interactive video game, echoes the viewer’s role as the controller of the story. In turn, the episode delivers an experience that all viewers will interpret differently, from avid game players to sci-fi fans.

Michael, Emma, and Evan are here to discuss those various paths, how the show affected them, and to bridge the gap between “Bandersnatch” as a video game and an episode of television.

Emma Schaefer This was my first episode of Black Mirror, though I’ve been meaning to check out the show for a while. I was a fan of those Choose Your Own Adventure books as a kid (though I’d usually cheat to find every ending), and I’m a fan now of narrative games like Life is Strange and Telltale’s offerings (R.I.P). This is the first time I’ve seen the concept explored in an interactive way in a TV show, and it definitely gave the episode a very game-y feel—especially when the whole premise is based around the development of an early ’80s computer game.
Evan Slead I know there have been a few movies in recent years that have used the same interactive element that “Bandersnatch” uses, but like you said Emma, I hadn’t ever experienced a TV episode like it. Before I watched, all I knew was that we could pick what path we wanted to take and that the narrative was focused on a game developer. So, I was pretty intrigued to see how it would all come together. I agree that overall it felt like a game, which seems undoubtedly intentional, but I didn’t expect it to be a commentary and study on how death or “repeats” work in a game compared to real life. At least, I thought there were some connections to make there. Am I alone in that?
Emma It’s an interesting tie-in for sure, almost a Groundhog Day-style loop. Except, of course, it’s not a perfect loop. A few of your choices stick around. In my watch/playthrough, for example, you have the choice of (spoilers!) either jumping off a balcony or asking your fellow programmer, Colin, to jump off the balcony in your place. I asked Colin to jump, and, in my viewing, Colin never showed up again—even when I went back to points where Colin should have been sitting at his desk or walking past. Even though Colin insisted his death wouldn’t matter in the grand, overarching view of all the different timelines, in my viewing, he effectively died.
Michael Goroff You’re not alone in that, Evan. They thoroughly hammered home the whole “parallel timelines/reset button” theme, especially in how the whole episode was structured. I, like Emma, experienced Colin’s “death” and he didn’t come back in my experience (should we call it “playthrough”?) either. But that entire segment, to me, was the crux of my viewing, in that things Colin said to Stefan in that timeline effectively “stuck with” Stefan in different timelines, which I thought undercut the entire idea of narrative choice. It all seemed to be pushing me in one direction, where choices I made sort of seeped into other “timelines,” but I didn’t really feel like those choices had the sorts of consequences we’ve come to expect from games like Life is Strange or any of the Telltale games, or even RPGs like Fallout and The Witcher 3 for that matter. Did you feel like the choices you made were overall significant, especially keeping in mind the themes of resets?
Evan I also chose to have Colin jump, so it sounds like we all were thinking the same way. I would say I half agree with the idea that the balcony moment undercut the rest of the narrative choices. It felt that way for a while, especially considering that Stefan was pretty overwhelmed and was believing in Colin’s conspiracy theories, but then the later portion of the episode went back to feeling like I was in control. This was actually my first Choose Your Own Adventure–style experience outside of books when I was a kid (sorry, I haven’t played Mass Effect) so I had no clue what to expect here. But once the story expanded on the conspiracy and started introducing the option to talk directly to Stefan through his computer, it felt more akin to what I had heard these types of games were like. Now, the problem I had at this point was that there were way too many narrative threads to keep track of, from Stefan’s relationship with his dad to his mom’s death to his therapist to his video game. It got extremely confusing and I think I missed a lot of the themes and symbolism that the show was trying to convey. I’m assuming some of the games you’ve both mentioned, like Life is Strange, don’t offer that same kind of mess?

Emma
Right. I noticed that there’s a distinct lack of “truth” in “Bandersnatch,” and I think that causes the mess you spoke of. In games like Life is Strange, you have choices, but those choices are consistent within the game’s universe. In “Bandersnatch,” if you go down one path, there’s a government conspiracy. You go down another, and it turns out Stefan was an actor in a TV show all along. Choose yet another, and it’s all Stefan’s meds acting up. You don’t explore reality with your choices—you create reality. It leads to this somewhat confusing scenario where there’s simultaneously maybe a conspiracy, maybe a hallucination, maybe a metaplot, and maybe none of the above, all at the same time. Maybe the episode was trying to make a point about the flexible nature of reality, but for me, many of the episode’s questions—like “is there a conspiracy, or is it all in his head?”—are never actually answered. Did either of you reach a different conclusion with your playthroughs?
Michael I don’t think those questions are necessarily meant to be answered, especially because Stefan’s illness and the meta aspects of the episode’s narrative structure seem so thematically intertwined. But maybe I’m just saying that because of the ending I got. I experienced multiple endings throughout “Bandersnatch,” but the one that automatically triggered end credits, which makes me think it was my “true” ending, involved Stefan going back in time through a mirror, finding his toy rabbit, and joining his mother on the train where they both die, before flash-forwarding back to what I assumed was a parallel Stefan dying quietly in his therapist’s office. It was pretty satisfying narratively, in that it forced his dad to face the consequences of his own actions, but in terms of gameplay, it made me think that the choices I made before funneled me into this one ending, since no matter how many times I killed Stefan or had him kill others, in the end, I wound up in a seemingly fantastical place that seemed ungrounded compared to the rest of the narrative. But maybe I’m judging this too much as a game when as a TV episode I found it very satisfying. Now I feel like I’m just rambling, but I’m curious as to whether you both would consider “Bandersnatch” a “game.” Does interactivity automatically make this a game?
Evan I wouldn’t go so far as to say that “Bandersnatch” is a game. Sure, a lot of modern games have deep narratives and progress the story through lengthy cutscenes, but in the end, they’re still more game than movie. There are exceptions I’m sure, but I never felt like “Bandersnatch” fully embraced the “game” side of its story. In fact, that’s where I was slightly disappointed. As Mike said, I enjoyed this episode as an episode of Black Mirror, but I wouldn’t say that its interactivity was stellar or meta enough. There’s the scene in the therapist’s office where Stefan tries to explain that someone watching Netflix, presumably us, has been controlling him. It’s there that the narrative starts to go slightly off the rails and really embraces the idea that we as the viewer are controlling Stefan’s life as if it were a game. You can choose to fight the therapist, kick your dad in the balls, and all that kind of over-the-top action you would get in a game. I thought the rest of the episode was going to be us choosing increasingly outlandish scenarios for Stefan to overcome, making an experience where we’re watching a real person be forced to do things only done in a game. But that’s not really the direction it went. It touched on it and then went back to focusing on Stefan’s relationship with his mom and dad. I understand that this was the right choice for an episode of TV, but for one commenting on the infinite life system of a game, it felt like it was throwing too much at the wall.

Emma
I thought the most game-y part of it was, oddly enough, the timer. That was reminiscent of having to make a quick choice in a Telltale game or act fast to ace a quick time event. I was disappointed, though, that there didn’t seem to be a “no choice” path. I only tested it in one or two spots, but each time Stefan would just pick one of the options on his own. In a lot of games, choosing “not to choose” is just as much of a choice as Dialogue A or Dialogue B. I wish we could have had that path, where Stefan regains some control over his own life, to see how he acts when he only thinks someone else is choosing for him.
Michael I don’t even know if “Bandersnatch” is satisfying as a Black Mirror episode, specifically. The thing I love about that show (and I’ve watched every episode except for the last one in the most recent season) is how it shows not necessarily the “dangers of technology,” but instead the ways that humans pervert technology (or, in special episodes like “San Junipero” and “Be Right Back,” how technology and humanity can come together in more meaningful and positive ways). This seems like the constant thread in every good Black Mirror episode, so I was surprised that “Bandersnatch”—which uses the “new” technology of interactive movies to tell its story—didn’t really touch on these themes at all. Sure, all the markings of a Black Mirror episode are there, but it doesn’t seem to have much to say in how people may use interactive storytelling or games to disrupt their own sense of humanity. Because all the choices offered lead Stefan to going down a really bad rabbit hole, I felt like Charlie Booker, the writer, was more responsible for perverting technology than me, the viewer, who is ostensibly the true subject of the episode. Still, was it stressful, immersive, and engaging? Absolutely, and I’ll probably watch it again just to see if I can find any more hidden endings.

Emma
I agree with that. Evan touched on this above, but I think the episode just missed making a statement on how far we, as viewers/players, will drive a character for the sake of our own entertainment. The episode could have given us some good choices that are boring (let Stefan work in a healthy environment, fix his relationships, take his meds, and finish his game on time) and some bad choices that are more interesting (yelling at his dad, fighting his therapist, following the conspiracy rabbit hole). It would have given us a little more of a connection with Stefan, allowing us the option to use our powers for good to get his life back on track or to use them for evil and push him towards murder and a breakdown in the name of selfish entertainment. You could drive home the point that you, the player, are haunting him, not the demon in his game. As the episode stands, Stefan starts off in a somewhat unhealthy place and ends in disaster, and you have no choice but to keep messing with him. A little more freedom to choose a different course for Stefan would have gone a long way towards making you connect with him, I think—though at that point, you’d likely be far outside the budget of a TV episode and more into outright game development.
Evan That’s true, Emma. There are definitely flaws in the execution of the episode’s interactivity, but a majority of that likely comes down to this being a TV show first and a game second. The amount of time and money that would have to go into a TV episode that’s as immersive and customizable as, let’s say a Mass Effect game, wasn’t on the table. Still, overall it was an interesting experiment that likely gave many viewers a taste of how games can deliver a rich narrative. Perhaps there will be more like this down the line in Black Mirror‘s upcoming season, or maybe another developer is already working on what we were hoping “Bandersnatch” would be.

 

Read More