Ahead of the release of Black Mirror season five comes Bandersnatch, a one-off “choose your own adventure” which offers decision points where viewers can choose which direction the story takes. The format echoes the plot of the episode itself, in which aspiring game designer Stefan is determined to make a video game adaptation of Bandersnatch, an epic sci-fi choose your own adventure book. But the further Stefan gets with the game, the shakier his grip on reality becomes. Is free will an illusion? Does he have control over anything, or is he just a puppet to the whims of an unseen viewer?
Having to interact with Netflix, as opposed to sitting listlessly in front of it until the “are you still watching?” prompt appears, is unusual enough that most of Bandersnatch’s publicity hails this development as new and even “groundbreaking”. Of course, this isn’t quite true – it may be unusual for Netflix, sure, but those of us who enjoy visual novels have been experiencing this exact kind of storytelling for years.
That being said, the experience is still pretty interesting, even if it does mean you need to keep your remote to hand throughout. The feature starts with some pretty simple decisions – which cereal to eat for breakfast, which music to listen to on the bus – but soon things get more serious. Should Stefan accept the Tuckersoft CEO’s offer to develop his game idea in-house? Should he take his prescribed medication, or drop acid with fellow game developer Colin? Should you, the viewer, reveal to him that the mysterious force controlling his actions is actually ‘Netflix’? As you might imagine, the outcomes range from the gruesome to the meta, and even if you get as far as the end credits, there’s still more to see.
I didn’t keep track of how much time we spent watching Bandersnatch, but we did go round the loop a few times, making some different choices in order to uncover fresh outcomes. The episode is judiciously edited so as to avoid too much repetition, but by the time we were dumped out to the end credits with no way back, we still hadn’t uncovered the entire decision tree. Had this been a visual novel, I would have happily restarted and skipped to decision points to get all the endings, but here starting over was less appealing – instead I settled for just reading spoilers for all the outcomes we hadn’t uncovered.
Even for a visual novel aficionado such as myself, Bandersnatch was an interesting experience that nicely meshed its plot with its central gimmick. Although I don’t feel compelled to keep playing around with it and trying to exhaust all the possibilities of the episode, it certainly provided a solid evening’s entertainment.
- The Tuckersoft games Nohzdyve and Metl Hedd are of course named for the Black Mirror episodes Nosedive and Metalhead respectively.
- The name “Tuckersoft” is presumably a reference to TCKR, the company that ran San Junipero in the episode of the same name.