Bandersnatch: Choose-your-own Adventure on Streaming

            “Bandersnatch” is a special choose-your-own adventure episode of the critically acclaimed show Black MirrorBlack Mirror is an anthology series that focuses on the effects of futuristic technology on society often with a dark and pessimistic view. Bandersnatch is no different. Despite featuring five different “true endings,” the special episode continues the trend of dark and unhappy Black Mirror endings. Although some endings may seem better than others, there is no doubt that this story has no happy ending despite the best efforts of the viewer in making the correct choices. 

            The episode centers around a young video game developer named Stefan Butler (Fionn Whitehead), who is attempted to adapt a choose-your-own adventure book with the name Bandersnatch. Stefan struggles to deliver his game as he must make choices (or more accurately the viewer to choose for Stefan) on how to preserve the integrity of the game while also staying sane. As he continues developing the game Stefan becomes more unhinged until eventually, he learns the truth. 

Narrative Structure

            The first half of the episode has a similar composition regardless of the choices that the viewer makes. The first two choices, for example, are seemingly inconsequential. You choose what Stefan eats for breakfast, then you choose the soundtrack that Stefan (and yourself) listens to on the way to the meeting at Tuckersoft. These choices do not create and forking paths but instead are simply there to introduce viewers to the mechanics of the show. The early forking choices the game is not truly forking as after a certain sequence has occurred the two paths converge together which again unifies the experience for all viewers during these sections of the story. These choices, unlike the breakfast and soundtrack, have a significant impact on the game. They unlock certain choices and thus certain paths at future choice nodes. The variability of the over-arching story is dependent on two major choice nodes, the password Stefan inputs in his father’s safe, and the answer to who is controlling Stefan. 

The password choice node has multiple choices dependent on the experiences and choices made earlier. The TOY choice is the only one that creates a new path which allows the viewer to access the Childhood Trauma ending. This ending is only accessible through looping through a false ending at the “whose there” choice node twice. The other options all converge to the “whose there” choice node. However, each of the other options set the viewer on a specific storyline which decides what choices they have at the crucial “whose there” choice node. Although there is no divergence in the database itself, the password node is the point in the show whether the story begins to diverge into different paths as each choice follows a specific narrative. 

            The next important choice node is the “whose there” node where Stefan uncovers what is controlling him. This node has hard forks where both the narrative and the database diverge into different paths. However, these separate paths do not determine the endings as there are still choices along these paths that create new branches which will converge to one of the other four true endings. 

             The 5 true endings are branches at which the narrative ends and there is no way to progress further even by changing earlier choice. The true endings are the furthest that the story can progress and most of these endings are conclusive. However, there are 3 distinct ways that a branch (and thus the narrative) can “end” in Bandersnatch: Looped Endings, False Endings, and True Endings.

Looped Endings

            Looped endings are the rarest narrative endings in Bandersnatch as they are also some of the most complicated ones. A looped ending occurs when a narrative branch ends, and the viewer must change an earlier choice in order to progress the story. The loop, or return to an earlier choice, is accounted for in the database and thus it changes the narrative. The first example of this occurs at the first important choice in the story. Stefan has finished his presentation at Tuckersoft when the owner, Mohan Tucker (Asim Chaudry), presents and offer the Stefan where he will develop the game at Tuckersoft with a team. 

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If Stefan accepts the deal, then the show flashes forward to the release of the game where Stefan and his father are watching it get reviewed on television. Stefan’s game receives a rating of zero out of five stars and this is the end of this branch. The show starts the day over again but this time things are a bit different. Mohan introduces Stefan to Colin Ritman (Will Poulter), a genius videogame developer, Colin asks if they had met before. Further Stefan is able to identify a bug in Colin’s game when in the first iteration of this sequence only Colin was able to. In the first iteration of Stefan’s pitch, Colin does not know about the book Bandersnatch. After the loop, Colin has read Bandersnatch and loves the novel. This is the first instance of a looped ending, where the loop creates a new set of events that seem like a new branch. In the underlying database, the path converges to the normal storyline but the database records that the viewer has looped. This is important as it may unlock certain choices at future nodes. 

False Endings

            False Endings, similar to looped endings, are when a narrative branch ends, and the viewer must change one of their earlier choices in order to progress further into the story. The difference between false endings and looped endings are that the database does not record the false ending. It bears no significance in the paths within the database, nor does it unlock future paths at future nodes. Once the viewer goes back and changes their choice it has no effect on the path as if the choice had never been made. 

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            An instance of this occurs when Stefan chooses to take the pills prescribed to him by his therapist. If he takes the pills, then the show flashes forward to the review of Bandersnatch where it gets 2.5 out of 5 stars. The show that prompts you to go back to the pills choice or to and earlier choice. This choice has no impact on the episode as far as the database is concerned.

True Endings

            As stated earlier there are 5 true endings for Bandersnatch. These endings are for the most part conclusive and there really isn’t much further the story can go. The most common ending is the Jail Ending as there are multiple paths that converge to this ending. In the Jail Ending, Stefan kills his father but finishes his game. Stefan goes to jail for murdering his father, but his game receives a perfect five out of five. Every other ending in the show has exactly one path that leads it there, making these endings much rarer than the Jail ending. And then there is the Childhood Trauma ending which has also been referred to as a secret ending since you need to reach a specific looped ending two times to unlock it. 

Database Narrative

            As a choose-your-own adventure special, Bandersnatch employs a database with forking paths in order to tell its story. A major element in the narrative is the availability of choice, whether we are free to choose or if choices even matter. This is what attracted Black Mirror show-runner Charlie Booker to agree to Netflix’s request for a choose-your-own adventure episode. He wanted to create a show with choices about choices. Throughout the narrative the binary choices presented to the viewer don’t exactly align with how the story will go. Choices that would seem to help Stefan and makes his life easier tend to backfire such as taking pills to help him focus on his game or accept help from Tuckersoft. Each choice that the viewer makes is important for the narrative and the story that the filmmakers are telling, even if it does not affect the path in the underlying database. The act of choosing is just as important as the path it sets you on. 

            While the choose-your-own adventure medium may seem videogame-like, Bandersnatch certainly seems like an episode of a TV show. The primary reason that creates the rift is that the viewers have no objective when watching/playing this episode. All the depressing endings may be interesting and connect well with the over-arching theme and story that filmmakers want to tell, but they do not represent an intended resolution that is an important aspect of video game. While Stefan may have no control over his decisions, the viewers that are making the decisions don’t really have any control either. The connection between the choices the viewer makes and the path it sets them on seems entirely arbitrary.

Conclusions

            Bandersnatch is an interesting a unique piece of media that pushes the boundary of what cinema can be with in the modern age. Although the interaction does not feel immersive due to the disconnect between the choices and the paths it sets you on, the interactivity does feel authentic and utilized effectively.

Future of choose-your-own-adventure

Since the release of Bandersnatch, Netflix has continued developing choose-your-own adventure episodes. They have primarily focused on children’s shows and have occasionally reached out to different genres such as the sitcom with Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and a documentary/pop quiz style show with You vs Wild. They also have an extensive choose-your-own adventure experience in Minecraft: Story Mode which is more similar to a video game and is developed by Telltale Games. It is unclear if Netflix will continue to promote this blend between cinema and videogames or if they will focus more heavily on videogames. They have announced plans to release videogames which will be free to subscribers, similar to Microsoft’s Game Pass. 

Sources:

https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/tv/tv-news/black-mirror-bandersnatch-netflixs-interactive-film-explained-1171486/

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