The Bandersnatch Experience

Over the festive period, our TV editor got the boys together and played through the new Black Mirror. What, if anything, did they learn?

bandersnatch black mirror fionn whitehead will poulter Asim Chaudhry

“Relax, don’t do it…”
– Relax, Frankie Goes To Hollywood

At the risk of being trite, the joke, of course, is that one tends not to relax when watching Black Mirror – and, in this case, nor can one not do it. Each of the choices that make up the quirk of Bandersnatch is on a (fairly strict) timer, and waiting that out will force you down one or other of the paths whether you like it or not.

In this way Bandersnatch differs significantly from the choose-your-own-adventure books from which it, and its protagonist, openly take their cues. With those, you had all the time in the world to make your decision. It’s akin to how Alan Moore has always conceptualised the difference between comics and films – in one, you can dwell on each frame as long as you wish, and in t’other the frames are going by 24 per second, if not more, these days. (Moore, of course, famously hates the film adaptations of his work.)

Working my way through Bandersnatch with my pal Jake (not his real name – he’s a qualified doctor and I wouldn’t have him tarred by association), we had before the fact decided we would play through it in the manner of a sociopath, taking at all turns the most anti-social and psychotic choices available. I mean, it’s Black Mirror, why not, right? Hell, they were probably expecting us to do this.

This groundwork laid, we were a little nonplussed to come upon the first couple of choices, each purely aesthetic. The decision between Frosties and Sugar Puffs was obvious (Sugar Puffs are honest about being unhealthy grains of hyperactivity, whereas Frosties play the dirty trick of claiming to be part of a healthy breakfast, so it had to be Frosties), but choosing between Now 2 and The Thompson Twins was tougher – neither of us were alive in the ’80s and had no idea which option was more popular with sociopaths.

To digress slightly – Black Mirror has made excellent use of the ’80s, which were of course Charlie Brooker’s salad days of reviewing ZX Spectrum games much like those featured in this episode. This time around is a slightly slimier version of the decade than the neon-splashed San Junipero, but unmistakably 80s nonetheless.

Where were we? Oh yes, the eternal dilemma between Now 2 and The Thompson Twins, both of which sell ’80s authenticity about as well as a bash on Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, and speaking of playing like a sociopath — anyway, in the end I picked the Thompsons, because I prefer them.

(Doctor doctor, can’t you see I’m burning burning…)

Thus, our best-laid plans went off the rails. And this is perhaps the advantage of the time pressure inherent in Bandersnatch’s choices, that it produces more instinctual, gut decisions. At the very least it must produce a decision, rather than allowing the viewer to strand themselves in the doldrums of indecision.

But then again, there’s only so far off the rails you can get with a presentation like this. Having played like sociopaths, we blundered our way into what is canonically the best ending, and were treated to Stefan (Fionn Whitehead), our protagonist, making some fairly pointed comments about the key being to only produce the illusion of choice. Do you get it yet? Do you get how, with all the talk of control, you were railroaded into one of a limited number of predetermined paths? (Fans of Black Mirror, naturally, took only a couple of days to map out the entire storyline.) In any case, young Stefan spent a happy couple of weeks high on the hog having developed that year’s best-selling game, until he was arrested for crimes he absolutely did commit. Beep beep beep, princess is not in another castle, a winner is you.

This, of course, was not the end, as the viewer is then offered the chance to go back and check out the other story paths they’ve just missed out on. The Stefan Molyneuxes of the world have probably already damned this as millennial fragility, with the viewer desperately wanting to have their cake and eat it, but if they did they’d be betraying their own ignorance of the medium – if anything this dynamic is less present in Bandersnatch in in your classic choose-your-own-adventures. Show me someone who didn’t keep their thumb on the previous page, ready to flip back to their island of safety if things all went to cock and they got jumped by a drunken troll, and I’ll show you a liar.

It was at about this point, when we got into our second go-round, that Colin really came into play – having retired from our first playthrough early when we had him chuck himself out of a tenth-story window. (When we play as a sociopath, we don’t just litter.) Within the story, he serves as the wise old veteran to Stefan’s fledging games developer, and as one goes through Bandersnatch again he kind of takes on that role for the viewer as well – wryly noting he’s seen you before, and eventually outright saying that you know what happens here and skipping you on to the next choice. I found myself trusting him implicitly, and had we had a chance to try and explain to him that we’re a Netflix viewer from the future (as, at one point, we did to Stefan) I feel like he would have got it.

Despite how our first run went, the most sociopathic-seeming ending actually came via that route, when we fumblingly attempted to explain Netflix to Stefan – and remember, the guy’s living in the ’80s, when an Xbox One with a 256-gig hard drive was the stuff of a madman’s dreams. He took his concerns about being a character in some kind of interactive film to his therapist, who, reasonably, said that the creators would have made such a film a good deal more exciting – and then offered him a more exciting choice, the only responses available being ‘yes’ and ‘fuck yeah’. Now, his therapist happens to be a lady, so at this point I personally was expecting sauce, but the brawl which ensued was a more-than-accceptable alternative.

We were joined midway through by my other pal Clive (not his real name – he works on the fruities and I wouldn’t have him tarred by association), who noted that with all these branching paths, there had to be a secret ending – and eventually, it turned out there was. Not that we stayed in front of Netflix for hours banging our heads against it until it revealed its secrets, no, we just waited for other people to figure it out. Involving as it does the weird technological stew of QR codes and ZX Spectrum emulators, you can forgive us for not muddling through. The easter egg is a playable version of one of Colin’s previous hits, Nohzdyve – which I’m sure is no relation to the previous Black Mirror episode called Nosedive, but wouldn’t it be clever if it was?

Not long after Bandersnatch’s release, there was a great deal of noise in the news about Will Poulter, the guy who plays Colin, quitting social media. The story went that this was due to him getting the online harassment which awaits anyone who looks at the internet wrong – and, this being a story we’ve all seen unfold plenty of times, everyone believed it, even though there was no evidence of his receiving any abusive messages. But it sounds about right, doesn’t it? Some generally sympathetic figure being driven from public life by a horde of faceless goons – why, it’s like a bad episode of Black Mirror.

Surprise surprise, it turned out the fourth estate got it wrong. Poulter had simply decided to take a break from Twitter, and this story of merciless online shit-slinging had been spun up out of whole cloth. Such a flight of fancy is now approaching the level of a decent episode of Black Mirror, particularly given that so many people believed it. (I can boast no special immunity, having seen Poulter’s rebuttal some quarter of an hour before I wrote this paragraph.) Bandersnatch, interestingly, is the first episode of Black Mirror since the first, The National Anthem – in many ways the high-water mark the show will always be chasing after – to feature only real-world technology, with no robots or speculative AI nonsense whatsoever. Note, too, that this bizarre digression into Poulter’s personal life has also taken place using only real-world technology, in particular social media, which was so intrinsic to The National Anthem, and the irrevocably flawed human brain.

A good number of reviews of Bandersnatch have praised it as, more than anything else, a brave experiment. The interactivity is seen as basically just a novelty – a bell and/or whistle which is exciting initially, but quickly gets dull. And this isn’t strictly wrong, but this misses the point. Black Mirror has always been about the fear of advancing technology – but the story of Bandersnatch presents us nothing more sophisticated than the ZX Spectrum and the Sony Walkman. Where’s the advancing technology? It’s literally staring you in the face. And while the choose-your-own-adventure setup is far from original, even on the TV, Netflix is an ideal mass-delivery system for it. Some of the more cynical reviews noted that the first, seemingly meaningless, choice between Frosties and Sugar Puffs is basically a marketing survey – only unlike those evangelists who wield clipboards in shopping centres, this is a marketing survey people have volunteered to do.

So, does Bandersnatch herald an age of the consumer providing corporations all the marketing information they could ever want, all while thinking they’re having a good time with an innocent interactive film? Yeah, quite possibly. Skeptics are seldom disappointed. Although, it’d be a shame if everyone decided to answer these ersatz surveys like a sociopath, or some equally wacky character, wouldn’t it?

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