Review: 'Bandersnatch' opens up new possibilities for stories

by Joyce Lee | 1/6/19 3:51pm

I’ll be the first to admit it — I am not a gamer. I don’t know much about any specific kind of game, about the world of gaming or of gamers in general. In my rather narrowly-construed mind, video games have been limited to the chaotic fantasy reality of multiplayer games such as “World of Warcraft,” or the brutally one-note first person shooting games à la “Call of Duty.”

I know, I apologize. But if there is one thing “Bandersnatch” — the “Black Mirror” film (episode? game?) that premiered on Netflix last week — has done definitively right, it was to demonstrate to non-gamers like me that the arena of storytelling has expanded. Where there were dramas, operas, novels, film and now the golden age of television, the digital possibilities of the 21st century now include games — more specifically, games with narratives that include the viewers themselves as characters. The fourth wall is gone.

“Bandersnatch” introduces viewers to the rather ordinary world (as opposed to the previous futuristic episodes of “Black Mirror”) of the U.K. in 1984, where a young gamemaker named Stefan (Fionn Whitehead) is attempting to create a choose-your-own path video game based on a choose-your-own-adventure novel. As a character, Stefan is not particularly fresh or riveting; he’s a bit twitchy, traumatized by the death of his mother and a genius who becomes a little too invested in his own creation. The most interesting thing about him is that he’s controlled by the viewer — and he, in turn, questions his own free will and who exactly is controlling him.

As either a film or television episode, it’s hard to say that there is anything about the plot or characters of “Bandersnatch” that makes it especially good, in whatever way the word “good” can be interpreted. The narratives are not particularly new or engaging — whether it’s a genius going slowly insane in his room in pursuit of the impossible, or someone’s life turning out to be an experiment dictated by some omniscient, evil government agency or even a toxic story of a mentally-ill person harming someone they love due to their illness.

If “Bandersnatch” had been simply just one of the episodes in the “Black Mirror” seasons, nothing about it might have actually stood out. It’s the ability to dictate all of these endings, to see them evolve due to the viewer’s own participation in the show, that makes all of them sit rather uneasily with the viewer by the end.

Initially, the decisions Stefan makes are miniscule — should he eat Frosted Flakes or Sugar Puffs? But the viewer is soon confronted with whether or not he should work on his game at the site of a large video game development company, alongside his hero and revered gamemaker Colin Ritman (Will Poulter), or work on it alone.

This begins a series of life-altering choices that eventually spiral into bad decision or worse decision — and it’s here where the film stops feeling like a film, and instead begins to feel like an actual game. As a viewer of “Black Mirror,” I usually begin each episode in anticipation of the terrible situations that await the protagonist. But with “Bandersnatch,” I felt compelled to lead Stefan to a perfectly clear objective: a five-star rating of his game on a TV show that is first introduced once Stefan is directed to create his game at the company. With this decision, the episode abruptly ends with a zero star rating of his game, rerouting back to the scene where Stefan is asked if he would prefer to work at the company. This time, I make him say no.

There’s a lot of questions to ask with this sequence alone: Was the choice to say no really a choice? Are the subsequent decisions actually decisions or a force propelling him toward various terrible endings? Perhaps most interesting, is the objective of a five-star rating self-induced by the viewer or demanded by the film’s creators?

What the viewer wants — what I want — as the ending is simultaneously crucial and irrelevant to the creation of the actual endings. The viewer makes the decisions toward a specific plotline, but it doesn’t really matter if these decisions are made in the best interest of Stefan; the film seems determined to end with him crazy, in jail, or dead. Even the most meta, fourth-wall breaking ending has Stefan — or his actor — standing in the middle of the “Black Mirror” set, unsure of his reality.

Ultimately, this is the “twist” infamously associated with “Black Mirror.” Netflix is real in at least one of the plotlines of this film, and the characters become victims of the viewers themselves. Yet the viewers are sometimes left with no choice; the technology in front of us only presents two bad options, and there doesn’t seem to be a way out.

In the tech-obsessed universe of “Black Mirror,” there’s a grimy, sickening feeling that comes from seeing how the futuristic technology of the television series — a technology that’s only a few years away in the real world — becomes perverse and destructive. Even the name of the show adds to this feeling; black mirror refers to the darkened reflective screens of our phones and computers, signaling how the show intends to serve as the darkened mirror for our reality. With “Bandersnatch,” the show goes a step further. The future is no longer coming; it’s here, and it’s changing the way people interact with fictional characters, with the age-old tradition of storytelling itself.