Black Mirror: Bandersnatch is Netflix’s newest addition to their Black Mirror series. It follows young programmer Stefan Butler as he works on his video game adaptation of a choose–your–own–adventure book titled Bandersnatch. Throughout this process, Stefan is plagued by childhood traumas and paranoia that his actions are being controlled by some outside force. You, the viewer, are the outside force.
Bandersnatch sells itself as a unique piece of the Black Mirror franchise using the label “interactive movie.” All it means is that throughout the duration of the movie, the viewer is given choices to make for Stefan to carry out, which supposedly change how the movie progresses and ends.
This half–movie, half–game concept perfectly mirrors the plot line within the movie itself. The theme of free will (or lack thereof) is physically emulated by the viewer, who assumes a position of Ultimate Free Will at the start of the movie by controlling the unaware Stefan. Eventually though, even the viewer is constrained by realizing that there are only so many endings Stefan can achieve, despite a presumed existence of infinite parallel worlds, and that all of the endings prove disastrous for Stefan.
Time and time again, Black Mirror points a finger at the viewer and forces them to rethink what they consider reality, what they think is moral, and the implications of advancing technology. Bandersnatch captures these themes by immersing the viewer into the storyline itself. Yet in practice, Bandersnatch is a dull attempt at combining the viewing experience of a movie and the immersion of a game that doesn’t shine in either category.
Viewer–choice–based entertainment is no Netflix innovation. Telltale Games, the company responsible for the video game adaptation of The Walking Dead, has spent most of the last decade pumping out choice–based game after choice–based game. These games (The Wolf Among Us, Batman: The Telltale Series, etc.) all progress in the same format as Bandersnatch. Get your character from point A to point B, press a button to make a nerve–wracking choice, then get your character from point B to point C. Rinse and repeat until you get to one of several different endings. I like a lot of Telltale games. I don’t like Bandersnatch.
The difference between a game like The Wolf Among Us and Bandersnatch boils down to Bandersnatch’s inability to make the viewer care about its story beyond the intrigue of answering the existential questions Stefan explores. The Wolf Among Us averages 8.5 to 11 hours to complete and has players control Bigby Wolf, the game’s protagonist. This allows players to explore Wolf’s character and develop bonds with him, whether they are made of love or hate. Either way, these bonds put weight on the choices that are presented throughout the game, even if they don’t matter.
In the two hours it took me to finish my run–through of Bandersnatch (Netflix averages a 90–minute completion time), I saw seven different endings. So in two hours, I met Stefan, learned about his deep–rooted traumas and visionary video game, and then watched him ruin his life seven times. After six out of the seven endings, I was given the chance to go back in time to make a different choice, which would lead to a new ending, but would also often force me to rewatch scenes. The various plot lines and repetition of key scenes left little time for Bandersnatch to develop Stefan’s character and make me care about the situations I was placing him in. The constant back–and–forth of watching an ending, rewinding, watching a new, similar ending, and rewinding again also became more tiresome and frustrating than entertaining and immersive. Sure, the point of Bandersnatch is made—even though you feel in control, Stefan’s going to get a “bad end” no matter what. Free will is a farce! But if the enjoyment of watching the movie (and any emotional investment I had in Stefan) is sacrificed to make a point, then why even watch the movie? Just read a review of it instead.
For Netflix viewers who don’t also have an interest in video games, Bandersnatch is a novel way of experiencing a story. But as someone who enjoys both, Bandersnatch is too disjointed of a movie, too fundamentally flawed of a game, and a poorly executed combination of the two.