(The following is a review/recap/pile of disconnected thoughts about the Netflix “interactive film” Black Mirror: Bandersnatch. If you’d prefer to spend the next few minutes in a more productive, enjoyable way, click here. The choice is up to you. No pressure.)
Back in the mid-’90s, when CD-ROM games were in their heyday, I remember playing a weird little “interactive movie” based on William Gibson’s Johnny Mnemonic. It was an odd PC game/movie hybrid that was loosely connected to the Keanu Reeves flick that came out around the same time, but with different actors. It didn’t really work, but it was an interesting experiment. What if you could watch a movie where you told the main character what to do? What if, instead of just sitting there like a slug and letting the images wash over you, you could sit there like a slug and make the images do what you wanted?
Here’s what it looked like, if you were watching somebody else play it:
Yeah, I know. It was the ’90s.
It took almost a quarter of a century, but Netflix has finally figured out how to make this idea work. I think? The latest episode of their Black Mirror anthology series is an “interactive film” called Bandersnatch, which even its creator, Charlie Brooker, isn’t sure how to describe. In it, you guide the fate of Stefan Butler, a young computer programmer in 1980s Britain, as he tries to write a PC game based on an epic Choose Your Own Adventure novel left to him by his dead mother. Along the way, Stefan begins to question the nature of his reality, or if there’s even such a thing as reality. (That’s all I really want to say about the plot, both to avoid spoilers and to avoid going insane trying to describe it. This thing is really bonkers.)
As the movie/game opens, Stefan wakes up on July 9, 1984, and goes downstairs to join his father for breakfast. Your first choice as viewer/player is… Sugar Puffs or Frosted Flakes?
You’re given about 10 seconds to decide, as indicated by an onscreen prompt. This first choice is the easiest one you’re expected to make. Unless you’re gluten-free, I suppose.
From there, the movie/game gives you various choices along the way that affect the way the story progresses. Or doesn’t progress. Apparently, there are over five hours of available footage, which means I’ve seen/played maybe half of it so far.
I’ll let the TV critics decide how well it works as a story, but as a gamer, I give it a perfect 10. On a technical level, this thing is flawless. One problem Netflix has solved, something that’s plagued previous attempts at interactive movies, is the pause in the narrative while the viewer/player makes a choice. That’s always been a deal-breaker for me. Just when I get engaged in the story, everything freezes while I’m expected to make up my mind. But in Bandersnatch, the effect is seamless. The characters are still moving around and talking, while the character whose fate you’re deciding is sitting there waiting for you to tell him what to do. It feels more like you’re an active participant in what’s happening onscreen. You’re like a ghost in the room, rather than sitting outside looking in. It’s more immersive.
It’s also much better acted and directed than any previous attempt at interactive movies. It’s got the same production value as any other episode of the series. They’ve lovingly re-created 1980s Britain, Thompson Twins tapes and suitcase-sized VCRs and flippy hairstyles and all. There’s even a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reference to The Young Ones, my favorite British comedy from that era. They thought of everything.
If you want to just watch it like a movie, it will make default choices on its own without your input. If you want to nerd out and explore every possible choice, people are already making spoiler-packed flowcharts to guide you. Or, if it all sounds like too much of a headache, you’ve also got the interactive option to not watch it at all. That’s what happened to The Break with Michelle Wolf.
Is Bandersnatch the future of entertainment? That’s how it’s being presented, but I’m skeptical. Netflix has overcome a lot of the technical hurdles that hampered previous efforts, and Charlie Brooker has cleverly used the format to comment on itself. It’s an interactive movie about an interactive game about an interactive book, and it’s also a critique of the whole concept of interactive entertainment. It’s a celebration of technology and a warning about it simultaneously, because it’s Black Mirror. It’s a remarkable achievement. But it feels like a one-off. Netflix is talking about doing interactive comedies and horror movies and such, but I’m not sure how well this format will work in lesser hands. Then again, that’s true of every other medium of communication, isn’t it?
And now that I’ve participated in this little experiment, Netflix has collected a lot more data about my personal choices. I’m sure they’ll use it in an ethical, responsible manner. What’s the harm? It’s not like this is an episode of Black Mirror, right?