Black Mirror: Bandersnatch isn’t the first movie to test the concept of a Choose Your Own Adventure-style narrative with diverging pathways on-screen. In late 2017 and early 2018, Steven Soderbergh did it with his murder mystery app and HBO movie, Mosaic. With its availability on the worldwide streaming service of Netflix, however, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch has taken the concept to a new level, giving a global viewing platform to a new kind of interactive cinematic storytelling.

In the movie, the viewer becomes a backseat driver for the main character, but while it might feel like you’re steering the story for a while, it soon becomes clear that Bandersnatch — to quote Lost — “has a way of course-correcting itself.” As it presents viewers with decisions, it doesn’t quite go all-in on the idea of a branching narrative with different conclusions. Instead, it wants to mix and match endings, showing you multiple outcomes without committing to any single one.

The movie prefers you to make certain choices over others, so much so that it will return you to those choices and give you a second chance to choose the right one, as it were. In a way, this goes along with the idea of a video game, with Pac-Man not giving up on reaching the final level even though he’s died. It also goes along with the age-old theme of free will versus determinism, which is something that Bandersnatch has on its mind. Let’s take a spoiler-filled look at the movie’s tangled decision web and examine how viewer missteps and system course-corrections enforce the notion of choice as an illusion.

Multiple Ending Syndrome

Wikipedia classifies the official Choose Your Own Adventure books as “gamebooks.” For lack of a better word, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch is a “gamemovie” that heightens the subjectivity of the normal viewing experience. Your mileage may vary, but the two times I watched it, I had vastly different emotional experiences as a viewer.

The nature of the movie is such that everyone watching it will see the scenes in a different order, but that’s the thing: whichever order you watch it, you will see Bandersnatch hit the same major beats, some of them two or even three times, possibly. With every viewing, you’ll see the protagonist, Stefan, talking to his dad at the breakfast table, visiting the game company Tuckersoft, going to therapy and the record store, having an acid trip at an associate’s apartment, and so on.

Then, unless you opt to exit to the credits sooner, you’ll inevitably reach the wild package of multiple endings. As if to spite The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Bandersnatch has no fewer than five main endings (this, according to Netflix, via THR). Regardless of how you choose, you’ll see most of them play out on-screen in a staggered fashion, with Stefan doing some mixture of the following:

1. Fighting his therapist and getting dragged away or suddenly discovering he’s on a movie set.

2. Killing his dad, burying him or chopping him up, getting caught, and going to prison, where he’s left to scratch glyphs on the walls.

3. Learning of a government conspiracy called “Program and Control,” whereby his whole life has been part of a controlled study since childhood.

4. Going back in time and dying on the train with his mother, thereby causing his present-day self to die with no visible cause in his therapist’s office.

5. Seeing some version of the Bandersnatch game released and reviewed, with another coder taking up the task of redesigning it years later after it’s been pulled from shelves.

I could be off, but that’s a rough approximation of the five main endings, based on memory and my own haphazard notes (which I had to finally abandon, lest I go the lunatic route of Stefan in his prison cell). It’s how you get to those endings that forms the maddening endeavor of Bandersnatch as a subjective viewing experience.

Choices and Pseudo-Choices

On my second viewing, I found myself back at the computer desk, being given the option of telling Stefan about Netflix three separate times. At least once, it and the other option were couched in similar terms, making it painfully obvious that there was little to no difference between the two choices, or pseudo-choices. Tell Him More or Try to Explain? Those two options essentially mean the same thing.

Aside from the overall order of scenes, it’s only immaterial flourishes in Bandersnatch that appear to be different each time. Which brand of cereal do you want Stefan to eat, Sugar Puffs or Frosties? Which music album do you want him to listen to, Thompson Twins or Now 2? Phaedra or The Bermuda Triangle?

The placebo effect of choices is not limited to the one at the computer desk, either. Many times you’re given two choices where the wording is different but the core decision is the same, and it leads to the same result, either way.

Bite Nails or Pull Earlobe? Same difference. The core decision is: display nervousness.

Throw Tea Over Computer or Destroy Computer? Same difference. The core decision is: inflict damage on the computer.

When the game-designing legend, Colin Ritman, offers Stefan a hit of LSD, it’s almost framed like a callback to the red-or-blue-pill scene in The Matrix. However, in this instance, your all-important choice, such as it were, is entirely inconsequential. Even if you refuse the drugs, Colin will promptly slip you a mickey when you’re not looking.

The biggest choice I was interested to see play out differently on my second viewing was the one about who goes over the side of the balcony railing, Stefan or Colin. As it turns out, it doesn’t matter. The movie wants Colin dead and it will compel you to make that happen.

Another example of pseudo-choice in Bandersnatch is the decision about whether or not to have Stefan talk about what happened with his mother when he was little. If you choose “No” the first time, Stefan’s therapist (and secret mother?), Dr. Haynes, grows insistent and asks again if Stefan wants to talk about what happened. If you choose “No” the second time, the movie finds other ways to keep pushing its preferred answer of “Yes.”

The option to go back and have Stefan “Talk About Mum” pops up again later, and if you still avoid pursuing that option, you eventually hit a moment where it’s the only choice you have. There will now be no other choice than to go back and “Talk About Mum,” like the movie wanted you to do in the first place.

Obviously, this is an important decision for Stefan—or for the movie. It serves an expository function within the story, allowing Bandersnatch to unfold a flashback with necessary information about his history.

The choice option, that ten-second countdown to a binary decision, is all part of the grand illusion that the viewer is somehow in control, when in fact, the viewer is something of a rat in a maze.

The maze pattern is fascinating, of that there is no doubt. With its endless permutations, Bandersnatch is a movie that seems tailor-made for tinfoil-hat-wearing Internet obsessives to pour over. Then again, maybe it’s all jabberwocky, like the nonsense poem that gives the movie’s titular video game its name.

It’s probably a fool’s errand to go too far down the rabbit hole listing specific choices and sub-choices in Bandersnatch. To properly map the movie out and leave no corner of it undocumented, you’d need an elaborate diagram the likes of which only a crazy person would have the wherewithal to assemble. I’m not even really sure our brains have the computing capacity to do it.

Keep in mind, that’s how Stefan goes insane, by wallpapering his room with a tree of living story choices. You could probably quit your job and spend all of 2019 doing what he did, but even then, you might be missing some Easter egg.

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About the Author

Joshua Meyer is a Tokyo-based freelance writer who contributes to /Film and WDW News Today and has also contributed to GaijinPot and Japan Today. Give him incentive to tweet by following him on Twitter @TheGaijinGhost.