Sidetracked: Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, Netflix’s first interactive film for adults

Firstly, the reason behind the word “sidetracked”: I originally planned to publish a year-ender post to recap the year 2018 and preview 2019 in tech (in which the post is still being drafted), but having watched Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, I felt a sense of urgency to comment a thing or two about the show and its concept of using “Choose Your Adventure” interactive element as a way of storytelling – hence the original plan is being sidetracked.

And also the fact that writing about a show could be deemed as a sidetrack to what this site usually discusses. But I will try to somehow inject some sort of relevancy nonetheless.

For those (regrettably) uninformed, Black Mirror is a television series created by Charlie Brooker which falls under the genre of “science fiction”, “dystopian”, “satire”, “horror” and “anthology” as described by Wikipedia. The show premiered two seasons on Channel Four, and later was purchased by Netflix where the show continued for another two seasons. Season 5 is expected to be released in 2019, whereas Bandersnatch was released on 28 December 2018.

Bandersnatch is an interactive film where the audience makes decisions for the main character, Stefan Butler, a young programmer that attempts to adapt a fantasy novel into a “Choose Your Adventure” video game. You could see how “meta”-esque this film can be: viewers play a game to choose the narrative of a young programmer which designs a game allowing players to choose their own narrative.

Without trying to spoil too much of the story, I felt that this film was a critique on Black Mirror fans, which usually takes pleasure in the demise of show’s main characters. This was even explicitly proclaimed by the main character in one of the endings having experienced a “break the fourth wall” element.

This film is also taking an aim at the nature of “Choose Your Adventure” games (and now, films), where there is an illusion of free will for the player-audience. The film has multiple ways to end, but only a handful can be considered seriously as possible conclusions to the story. Certain pathways would lead to the story ending abruptly, while others will leave audience in a rather unsatisfactory end; either way, the film will offer choices for the audience to go back and alter their previous decision(s). In short, the choices offered at each point to the player-audience is an illusion; the player-audience is still subjected to the story line set out by the show’s creators and writers. And in a way, the player-audience can relate to the film’s main character when he suspects of being controlled.

Now, coming back to how a discussion of Bandersnatch may be relevant to a site that discusses about tech. It is obvious that this film is unlike most (if not any) other films due to its ability to get viewers involved actively in the progression of the show’s story. And this is made possible thanks to the show being on the online-based Netflix; this film would not happen on terrestrial television which lacks the possibility of user input and engagement due to the sheer state of infrastructure.

It is then not surprising that Bandersnatch, despite being one-of-a-kind, is not the first interactive show on Netflix: there are at least two shows for children which enables audience to choose their own adventure as well.

Could the idea of play-watching be the future of television entertainment moving forward? (And I meant beyond real-time game shows, which are a thing now.) I predict that more show creators would see this as a viable way to express creativity, although it would involved a far more complex production than conventional shows – Bandersnatch is timed at around 90 minutes, but all footage for the production reportedly clocked at over 5 hours.

Personally, as much as I enjoy the “Choose Your Adventure” show in general, I felt that the pursuit of other conclusions apart from the first conclusion reached is a confusing method of storytelling at first, especially if different endings are supposed to differ drastically from each other – you would not know which was the “true” ending intended by the showrunners.

But as far as Black Mirror: Bandersnatch is concerned, all endings lived up to what Black Mirror is known for: its psychiatric, dystopian darkness that amass a cult following comparable to other major cable TV shows.

I like how Vox have reviewed the film (and how The Verge mentioned about Reddit detectives cracking all endings and Easter eggs), but by now there would be many reviews from different sources, ranging from news sites to YouTube channels published. So go ahead and choose your own review to read. Or better yet, choose your own adventure by play-watching yourself.

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