Bandersnatch Criticism

(Welcome to The Soapbox, the space where we get loud, feisty, political, and opinionated about anything and everything. In this edition: “Bandersnatch” is the worst episode of Black Mirror and does nothing video games haven’t been doing better for years.)

Netflix’s latest bit of interactive entertainment has certainly lit the internet on fire. The first piece of such content for grown-ups (following Puss in Book: Trapped in an Epic Tale for kids and Minecraft: Story Mode for families), it’s a typically well-produced episode of Black Mirror entitled “Bandersnatch,” and it uses interactivity in a number of ways. Through a series of binary choices, the viewer guides its young game-developer character through the process of making their game – meeting game-design legends, facing family trauma, and possibly dealing with a cosmic conspiracy along the way.

Just as “Bandersnatch” splits into multiple paths and endings, so too has its audience split with regards to their opinions on it. From my observations, those opinions tend to split down two particular lines, both of which offer intriguing insights into the piece.

The Splits

The first split is somewhat predictable. About half of all Americans play video games of some description, but not all of those will be familiar with interactive storytelling. Many of the most popular games amongst non-gamers – the likes of Candy Crush – have no narrative element at all, let alone branching narrative. So for these audience members, “Bandersnatch” will feel totally new: a piece of screen entertainment that lets you decide what happens. I’ve seen gasping responses from these audiences. It feels unlikely many of these people will venture outside of Netflix for more interactive storytelling. I hope they will, though; there’s plenty out there.

Obviously, “Bandersnatch” is nothing new. Tech-wise, it’s not even new to Netflix. It was written in Twine, an interactive fiction framework that’s been around for years. Video games, choose-your-own-adventure books like the one featured in the episode, and even theatre productions have been allowing their audiences to choose narrative paths for decades upon decades. It’s even been a thing in filmed work, with “FMV” games and interactive DVDs having been around a long time. Black Mirror is merely the first piece of entertainment to have the resources, name recognition, and technical platform to bring a piece of interactive, live-action storytelling to a wide audience.

And it’s what it does with its newfound interactivity that rubs me, and others, the wrong way.

The other major divide comes as a bit more of a surprise, and follows the line between consumers and creators. For consumers, “Bandersnatch” is a novel experience that’s fun to play through. Creators, though – especially creators of interactive media – know how this all works. They can see the Matrix, so to speak, and also crucially know what the medium is capable of. And believe it or not, it’s capable of much more than simply telling a story about the nature of choice and interactivity. In fact, that’s been done so often that it takes something truly unique to make it not feel hacky. “Bandersnatch” is not that kind of unique.

Now, I’m both a game critic and a game writer, so I fall into perhaps the worst possible demographic niche for “Bandersnatch”. That said: let’s dive in.

The Critique

A major element of “Bandersnatch” is the illusion of choice, which for newcomers to the medium is a mind-blowing concept, but for creators is literally their job. Very few interactive narratives genuinely allow the player to push the story in any direction. For one thing, the amount of work involved in creating content for an always-splintering narrative would be astronomical. But narrative designers and their ilk also do what they do to tell stories, and that by default means controlling the story somewhat. So a great deal of the job involves making players feel like they’re in control, when they’re actually being guided down a path that’s set, to one degree or another. It’s just what you do. You tell your story, but make players feel like it’s theirs.

Centring the story around the storytelling medium itself also results in the greatest flaw of “Bandersnatch”, irrespective of your experience with interactivity. It’s so obsessed with blowing viewers’ minds with its mechanics, so focused on the mechanics as the drivers of the story, that there’s barely any room for creating characters we care about. There’s no clear goal for the main character other than finishing his game, but that’s not really what the interactivity drives towards, and it doesn’t result in satisfying endings. At no point did I, or the people I watched with, feel any connection to the character at all.

Instead, we’re meant to engage with the concept of branching paths itself, which immediately removes us from the story underneath those paths. At one point, game designer Colin Ritman (Will Poulter) delivers a LSD-fueled rambling speech about infinitely splintering decisions which forms the core of both the episode’s narrative and meta-narrative. “Bandersnatch” as a whole closely resembles that speech, and that character: convinced of its supernal cleverness, but actually kind of garden-variety insufferable stoner shit. That’s not a story; it’s a thesis. The result is the least-emotional, least-compelling episode of Black Mirror yet made. “Going meta” was supposedly what convinced series creator Charlie Brooker to make the episode, but dramatically speaking it was also the worst decision made on the show.

There are further problems. The specific structure of the piece – in which the player is guided to experience multiple endings – is a clever way to ensure one experiences a large portion of the footage, but in practice, it’s teeth-grindingly irritating. We end up annoyed at characters rather than interested in them. There’s no way to simply backtrack to your last decision; you have to watch entire sequences you’ve already seen, which gets old pretty fast. Not to mention the fact that there’s almost no communication to the viewer about the weight or potential consequences of any given decision, and so little consistency in the piece’s sense of reality that I’m honestly shocked there’s no “it was all a dream” ending.

The truly bizarre thing about “Bandersnatch”, for people intimately familiar with its subject matter, is how it fits into the themes of Black Mirror. Every episode of the series focuses on a different technology that exposes a different element of human nature. “The Complete History Of You” explores regret and jealousy through memory-recording implants. “U.S.S. Callister” looks at dark personal fantasies through a virtual-reality simulation. “White Bear” dissects crime and punishment through social-media voyeurism. “Bandersnatch,” on the other hand, isn’t set in a sci-fi or satirical world. It’s more like magical realism, and instead of being about a technology, it’s about a storytelling technique. There isn’t much of a point to be made in it, other than the vague, stonery ramblings espoused by Poulter’s character – or perhaps, a demonisation of the mental health system. Charlie Brooker has made his viewers feel like the story is theirs, to a degree, but he hasn’t told any clear story in the process.

He should know better. In Black Mirror and elsewhere, Brooker has written an immense amount of drama that touches on masterful. I’ve got a great deal of respect for him. But it’s shocking that, in “Bandersnatch”, he would turn in something so surface-level. Brooker’s a long-time gamer, and clearly familiar with interactive narrative. He gets how the form works, and he knows the history – hell, the title “Bandersnatch” itself stems from a Lewis Carroll creature, but also a vaporware game from the early ‘80s that later became the Amiga/Atari/Mac game Brataccas. But his first foray (publicly, anyway) into the medium smacks of a newbie discovering it for the first time. It’s like someone who’s just discovered the star-wipe feature of their video editing software and designs an entire film around it.

Black Mirror Bandersnatch

Would You Like to Know More?

If you liked “Bandersnatch” and thought it was something revolutionary, I’m happy for you, and I’ve got a bunch of recommendations for what to check out next. They will, however, require you to dip your toe into the medium of video games, which you might not be aware is not all about shooting soldiers and aliens. Gaming is as rich and varied a medium as cinema – maybe even more so, given that it encompasses all cinema genres and adds a wide array of types of interaction. I know a lot of Netflix viewers out there never give games a shot, because things like Call of Duty tend to represent the medium to the public, but that’s like judging the entire art form of cinema on Transformers because they’re more heavily marketed than indie films.

Want a slasher movie where you can choose the fate of every character? Try Until Dawn. Want to experience a really unique crime mystery? Her Story is for you. Want something simple for on the go? Reigns works on any mobile phone. Something surreal, meta, and hilarious? The Stanley Parable. A modern Lynchian dark fantasy, with a nifty rewind mechanic that actually works? Life Is Strange. And if you want to play through stories as some of your favourite pop-culture characters, the Telltale Games back-catalogue features Batman, Guardians of the Galaxy, The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, and more – all near-entirely focused on story and dialogue. These are just a few of many, many games that can give you the same interactive thrills “Bandersnatch” did. They’re well-written, well-produced, and exceptionally smart products of people who’ve been writing interactive stories for decades.

Try a new medium, or branch out your tastes in that medium, and you might discover something new that you love.

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