Netflix Now: Bandersnatch and the Illusion of Choice

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (2018) is an interesting mixture of film and video game incorporating elements of visual novels, text adventures, Choose Your Own Adventure books, and a healthy dose of postmodernism and meta storytelling. 

The basic premise is that a programmer named Stefan (Fionn Whitehead) wants to adapt a choose your own adventure book called Bandersnatch into an adventure game. This story takes place back in the early '80s so gaming technology is quite limited. The gimmick, as it were, is that every once in awhile Stefan is presented with a choice between two actions or items. The show "pauses" for ten seconds and the viewer must pick one path for Stefan to take. Each choice the viewer chooses results in a branching narrative and different outcomes for him. I played this on my PS4 (which even has rumble support for the controller) and the transition between the story and the player choices is smooth. The technology for implementing this style of interactive fiction is very impressive, and uses the medium of streaming entertainment in a creative way.

Bandersnatch isn't what it seems on the surface and players will quickly find that the choices they make don't always pan out the way they anticipate. Some choices will result in a "bad ending" fairly quickly, and most will encounter this ending within the first ten minutes of playing the game (yes, I consider Bandersnatch to be a video game). Many viewers might feel frustration at this seemingly random way of navigating the story, as it's not always apparent how a specific choice will affect the events that are unfolding. You can't really use logic to try and get a "good ending', and there is a lot of trial-and-error involved. This is also a throwback to retro games, especially text adventures which were notoriously hard and rather obtuse with players encountering death and fail states often.

So how does this tie into the subtext of the story? The term "bandersnatch" originated from Lewis Carroll's 1871 novel Through the Looking Glass, and it is a creature mentioned in a poem called Jabberwocky. There are quite a few references to Alice in Wonderland in Bandersnatch to include White Rabbit references and Stefan going through a mirror to access a different timeline. More interestingly, "bandersnatch" is also computer programming nomenclature that references an unsolvable algorithm that the more one tries to solve it the more complex it gets. It occurs with "decision problems" which is basically player input that goes through an algorithm and ends with the problem having a YES or NO end state. 

Stefan ends up having an issue while programming the video game adaptation of Bandersnatch because he is putting too many decisions into the game which ends up with it branching off into too many paths and using up too much memory. The viewer/player of the Netflix show encounters this exact same issue while "controlling" Stefan's actions so essentially we are encountering our own real life version of the bandersnatch problem. No matter how hard we try we cannot give Stefan a happy or satisfying outcome because we are limited to the choices given to us and all paths and endings are predetermined. We are not in control and our choices are an illusion. This is inherent in all video games as ultimately the player can only make the choices that are programmed into the game and are limited to the finite boundaries of the game engine and the coding. This lack of control makes the story in Bandersnatch feel nihilistic and tragic and perhaps for some, unsatisfying.

As an experiment, Bandersnatch is a resounding success as it manages to construct a compelling story using age old gaming technology (with a fresh coat of paint) and the more effort the player puts into it the more it opens itself up.

--Michelle Kisner