December 28th 2018
Today I watched Bandersnatch, the new Black Mirror (Christmas?) special. Unlike anything in the anthology before, Bandersnatch is an “interactive episode”, where the plot of the story is defined by decisions that the viewer makes for the main character, Stefan.
(Obligatory spoiler warning)
Some decisions are trivial, like deciding which cereal the character has for breakfast (Frosties gang for life). That decision doesn’t change anything to do with the story, but does change some of the advertising that appears throughout the episode.
Some decisions seem trivial at first, but have a deep impact on the overall outcome of the story. Like, for example, whether to pick up a photo or a book. In Bandersnatch, deciding to pick up the photo is the trigger point that leads to a much darker secondary storyline.
And then there are the big decisions, like whether to kill the character’s Dad, or to run away.
On my first play/watchthrough, I went in with harmonic, peaceful intentions. The Lawful Good, if you will. At each decision point I opted to take the route that I personally would have taken, and not necessarily the one that would have increased the drama of the show.
The problem is… well, that it’s Black Mirror. Throughout the episode the character that you are “controlling” starts to become self-aware of the fact that his actions are being controlled. And then he starts to refuse to follow your orders. If you tell him to bite his nails instead of pinch his earlobe, he’ll stop himself. And when he begins to spout “I’m being controlled” to his Dad (Who I’d previously refused to kill, for the record) he takes Stefan to his therapist.
Again, because it’s Black Mirror, it gets really meta and you’re presented with the option of informing Stefan that the person controlling him is watching him on a Netflix show. The thing is, Bandersnatch was set in 1984 so he doesn’t know what that means. When he explains to his therapist that somebody is watching him through a TV screen, she retorts “Well, does this seem like entertainment to you? You’re just an ordinary boy, making ordinary decisions, talking to an ordinary woman. That doesn’t sound like a very entertaining show.”
I laughed at that point, because Netflix, Black Mirror, and Charlie Brooker, were basically acknowledging the fact that I’d chosen the safe options all the way through, and tried not to get in too much trouble. Apparently my choices weren’t making good TV. Then, the therapist asks “Shall we make this more entertaining then?” and pulls out some nunchucks. At which point you’re presented with the option to fight her, or to jump out of the window. In keeping with my previous choices, I went with flight. And Netflix punished me again, and my journey was over, but maybe I won’t spoil that particular ending.
Afterwards, I went back through and changed my decisions here or there to see how it would affect things. Some things had a big effect on the outcome of the story, some things barely changed anything. There’s actually a mindmap of the decision tree, if you’re interested:
As I was watching, what got to me was that in the moment, whichever decision you made, there was no way to find out what would have happened if you’d gone the other way. Even something as trivial as picking up a book, or a photo, changed the course of the plot entirely. Now, the joy of this being a Netflix show is that you can actually just go back and change the decision and find out where the alternative option led to.
But that’s something I’ve struggled with in real life. When I have a big decision to make, I can’t help but ponder where my life would have gone if I’d made the opposite choice. And I’ll never know. Because there’s no rewind button on life. There’s no way you can go back and change your decisions in life. You’re stuck with them, no matter what. And you’ll never know who you would have been, or where you would have gone.
Until tomorrow, Charlie Brooker, you’re brilliant.