Black Mirror’s Riskiest Episode Remains a Compelling Adventure
The medium is the message.
Black Mirror has always tried to be on the cutting edge of streaming, be that in-universe or out. In the Season 6 episode Joan is Awful, an average woman discovers she’s the target of an AI-produced show about her life. Later, she discovers the show is part of a massive effort by “Streamberry” to completely customize content for each viewer.
Five years ago, that’s more or less what Netflix and Black Mirror tried to do for real... and the effort was sort of a success.
Black Mirror: Bandersnatch was Netflix’s first high-profile push into interactive media, an ambitious attempt to create a choose-your-own-adventure story that branched off into multiple storylines and endings depending on the viewer’s choices. The story follows young video game programmer Stefan Butler (Fionn Whitehead) as he attempts to create a hit videogame called Bandersnatch, only to get caught up in his process and past.
One of the viewer's first choices is a clever one that immediately sets the tone. Stefan is given what looks to be a dream offer from a gaming company, and the obvious answer is to accept it. But this leads to a bad ending where the resulting game seems “designed by committee.” This tells the viewer that what looks like the easy choice could backfire, and hardcore Black Mirror fans watched the special over and over again to try different strategies.
Bandersnatch’s subject matter is no coincidence. It’s really more of a full motion video game than a film, FMV games having spawned from arcade titles that would stitch together video files stored on a Laserdisc based on what players did. It’s meant to be a maddening game about a maddening game, but it also became a fascinating meditation of the pros and cons of each medium. There are secret endings that draw on intriguing past memories, but how good are they if they’re only accessible through trial and error? At what point do we get so caught up in the possibilities of ever-branching storylines that the plot becomes abstract instead of emotional?
Netflix now has a new section dedicated to video games, but this interactive format is only used for the odd gimmick, like this year’s “choose-your-own-love-interest” rom-com Choose Love. In that sense, the experiment was a failure, producing a format with only limited applications rather than a dominant new genre. But Bandersnatch knew exactly what it was, and used it to portray a story that skewered both streaming and gaming. Did Netflix even need to innovate on it? Five years later, Bandersnatch said all there was to say.