Black Mirror: Bandersnatch
Written by Charlie Brooker
Directed by David Slade
Stefan Butler is a young man obsessed. It’s 1984, and he is plugging away at adapting the cult novel Bandersnatch, a choose your own adventure style book, into a PC game. He pitches the unfinished version of the game to the new kid on the block game company Tuckersoft. Butler lives at home under the worried gaze of his father while attending therapy sessions with Dr. Haynes. With Dr. Haynes, he talks about and relives the moment in his life that has caused the most trauma, the tragic death of his mother. Bandersnatch was something she left behind and, because of that emotional tie, he has become obsessed with the tome. From there, things get weird as the film is an interactive presentation, much like the book the viewer will choose the paths Stefan goes down, and that’s where the problems begin.
When Bandersnatch was announced, I was immediately skeptical. I grew up as a voracious reader of the Choose Your Own Adventure series, so I understand the appeal of this multi-path narrative. However, as I’ve gotten older, I find open world video games (the new CYOA) to be exhausting, and it’s those games with a clear linear narrative that end up being better in my opinion. Bioshock: Infinite is one of my favorite video game stories, and the player only controls the tactics in how they choose to fight. When it comes to the plot that is predetermined and the game would suffer if it didn’t focus on that single story. Bandersnatch, while a fun gimmick at first, falls apart the longer you play inside it.
It is entertaining and addictive when you first watch Bandersnatch and begin to see the diverging paths emerge. However, once you go back to glean any actual meaning from it all, you find there’s very little meat on the bones. What is the theme of this film? It all depends on which paths you end up going down and which end it leads to. This would be a little better if they didn’t insert some completely camp finales into the mix. At one point you have the option to tell Stefan he is being watched through Netflix and the resulting conclusion, while humorous, detracts from the overall experience. There’s another moment where you are attempting to open a safe, and either password choice leads down drastically different paths, one of which is much less emotionally weighty than the other.
The filmmakers even seem to realize the significant flaw in the structure they are using because paths that lead to certain ends immediately loop you back to one or two choices so that you can go down the different story thread. There is an unspoken acknowledgment from the creators that while, yes you picked a fun option now it’s time for you to get serious and choose the right one. So why even give a choice at all? There are seeds of a great idea buried in there, especially when Bandersnatch becomes lightly meta and the concepts of free will and multiple realities are being discussed. Do these conversations add up to anything? Well, not really because of the nature of this sort of storytelling structure multiple paths might use the same video segment so you can’t put too much detail in or it will clash with other users’ choices.
Character development is near impossible when you’ve hemmed yourself in with the CYOA gimmick. Stefan has no arc and is incredibly one-dimensional. He clenches his teeth, sweats, and looks mad. Save for a few moments this is pretty much all he does and, because of the structural problem explained above, that’s all the creators could do. We can’t develop him because some of the paths lead to the same outcomes if he learns something on one track that alters his personality too much it will clash with an alternate route that loops around to a mutually shared video segment. As a result, no ending feels completely satisfying because we can only be offered the broad brushstrokes of an actual story.
Bandersnatch is fun, but it falls prey to its gimmick. I will admit that the combination of the CYOA structure and the character’s schizophrenia over free will are a clever combination. However, there is a significant difference between clever gimmicks and thoughtful, well-written narratives. Could Bandersnatch have worked as a traditional linear film? I’m not so sure, but I believe this would be better served in the form of literature than as a film. I found myself more interested in reading Bandersnatch than spending more time rewatching an hour of video segments to make the other choice.