“Life is like a game of cards. The hand you’re dealt is determinism; the way you play it is free will.”– Jawaharlal Nehru
Black Mirror is an anthology series that examines modern society’s take on the unknown consequences of technology. The series is basically Charlie Brooker’s love letter to shows he was inspired by such as The Twilight Zone, Tales of the Unexpected, and Hammer House of Horror. The biggest contrast that Black Mirror and The Twilight Zone have is that Rod Serling, the creator of The Twilight Zone, wrote episodes with themes like racism, war, government, the society at large, and general human nature under the guise of science fiction with psychological horror, but had to work around the TV censorship of his era, seeing how it was taboo to explore edgy themes on a national broadcast. Charlie Brooker, the creator of Black Mirror, realized he could do something similar, specifically focusing on society’s dependency on technology:
“If technology is a drug – and it does feel like a drug – then what, precisely, are the side effects? This area – between delight and discomfort – is where Black Mirror, my new drama series, is set. The ‘black mirror’ of the title is the one you’ll find on every wall, on every desk, in the palm of every hand: the cold, shiny screen of a TV, a monitor, a smartphone.” -The Guardian 2011
Bandersnatch is Netflix’s inaugural interactive film that plays with the ideas of determinism and free will and how it affects storytelling. This movie has all the key ingredients of a “choose your own adventure game” in the most meta movie ever made. The story takes place in the ’80s following Stefan Butler, a young video game developer who is offered the deal of a lifetime by Mohan Thakur, owner of Tuckersoft, a video game company that employs Stefan’s idol, game creator Colin Ritman. Stefan refuses the offer and continues to work on his video game “Bandersnatch” at home, with the company marketing and selling it. With his deadline in September coming up, the challenges that come with adapting Bandersnatch the book into a video game format puts Stefan into a stressful and precarious situation. His father sets him up with a therapist to help him deal childhood trauma related to the death of his mother.
Another path sees Stefan’s idol Collin guide him through an acid trip while telling him reality is like a video game. He uses the analogy “How many times have you watched Pac-Man die. Doesn’t bother him.” As the film progresses, Stefan is convinced that he’s not in control of his life. We the viewer can decide what strings we want to pull, and what we want to tell him as a Netflix viewer, a government experiment gone wrong, a PAC’s demon from the book, or a cosmic deterministic force that drove the author of Bandersnatch to kill his wife. Stefan can kill his father, his boss, Colin, or call his therapist. These choices lead to multiple endings, where TV hosts that review video games grade Stefan’s video game, which is dependent on the choices you’ve made so far.
The concept that animates this movie is ludonarrative. Ludonarrative is how a game’s mechanics interact and affect the narrative. Bandersnatch has identical mechanics to old school video games like Stefan’s Bandersnatch, where this meta element points out that regardless of it being a TV show with actors, we’re playing a game. There’s a big distinction between identifying with a character’s decisions and actually making them. This episode in particular showcases how these decisions can both bring us closer with characters and distance ourselves from them. On one perspective, when you guide a character’s choices you empathize with them and avoid choices that would put them in jeopardy and it almost seems like you refer to the character as “I” when making these choices. But since this is a choose your own adventure story about choosing your own adventure stories, it reveals how game mechanics like this can distance us from the protagonist.
In video games, you generally have the option of doing harm unto others to see what happens or following the traditional standard of the good guy. Games can also accentuate this distance, such is the case with Black Mirror. When Stefan calls for the force controlling him to reveal what it is, the episode reminds us that we’re not the protagonist but the force controlling it. Basically, we’re Stefan’s master dictating his choices, this is a game.
It’s the nature of death or an end that makes this different than traditional storytelling, showcased by Collin Rittman when he makes the Pac-Man analogy, suggesting that Stefan should jump off the balcony because to him death means just starting over. If you choose to jump, the show prompts you to go back to a checkpoint and try again. Normally in TV or film, we’re coerced into caring about emotional conflict through close-ups, performance, music, etc. But games destroy those stakes because when you die in a game you restart where you’re left off through re-spawn or reload making death meaningless. When you’re a filmmaker with a choose your own narrative, two possibilities pop up. The ludic element can either supplement or subvert the goals of the narrative of the game play.
For example, whenever the game play gives you limited choices, you get the illusion of free will which is reflected in the story as well. Another example of the game play and narrative clashing is ludonarrative dissonance, like when the game play makes death meaningless and the story cares about death. Stefan can go back in time as a little boy and join his mother on a train ride that results in both of them dying, but this is fruitless because you re-spawn back to try the other options for a different ending. Why should anyone care about Stefan’s progression when we can just go back again and again for a different outcome?
We have to ask, does the choose your own adventure narrative hinder the stakes and illusion of the story because of the option of starting over? A big example in video games is in Bioshock where basically even though the player can go and shoot wherever they want on the map and do as they please, the developer guides the player to the end through their protagonist. The same method is applied within Bandersnatch. If you get the good ending, Stefan says he perfected the game by stripping out large chunks of it and only giving players the illusion of choice. Much like the choice we’re given as Netflix viewers of a predetermined story guided by the creator of Black Mirror, Charlie Brooker.