Stories are never one-way streets. It’s not just what the story’s creator pours into them; we, the consumer, bring elements to the party as well—our experiences, our ideals, our moods. These elements inherently shape a given story we’re reading or viewing or playing. So even while watching the same movie, two people can have two very different experiences.
That has never been so literally true as with “Bandersnatch,” an innovative, interactive new episode of the drama Black Mirror on Netflix.
A little background: Black Mirror is, in some respects, a 21st-century version of The Twilight Zone. Each episode is, essentially, a stand-alone science fiction story. But Black Mirror’s focus is more tightly honed, concentrating on the influence of technology on our present-day society and extrapolating what that influence might look like in the not-so-distant future.
The show’s cautionary stance, in fact, creatively echoes a lot of the concerns we have about technology here at Plugged In. We might praise this show if it wasn’t for all the blood and sex and swearing. Its episodes are almost parables, really—cautionary fables. Even the series name is multilayered in meaning: Centuries ago, black mirrors were used to divine the future, but they also remind us of the modern video screen—the “black mirrors” we carry in our pockets or the bigger versions that dominate our family rooms.
But “Bandersnatch” takes even Black Mirror’s creative, disturbing storytelling a step beyond: It puts us in charge of the story. Or, at least, so it would seem.
It works a little like an old Choose Your Own Adventure book, or a choice-rich videogame. Indeed, the premise of the episode is based on both: Our protagonist, Stefan, is designing a videogame called “Bandersnatch” in 1984 (gaming’s Paleolithic age) based on a Choose Your Own Adventurenovel of the same name. The catch: The original novelist, Jerome Davies, went crazy while writing the book and chopped off his wife’s head.
And let’s be honest, Stefan is not so stable, either. He sees a counselor regularly. He takes some mind-balancing meds that aren’t always completely effective. And as he plows deeper and deeper into the game’s programming, he comes to believe that he’s being controlled by … something.
And, as it turns out, he’s absolutely right: He’s being controlled by us.
Every few minutes, Black Mirror and Netflix give viewers the option to push Stefan down one path or another. Sometimes the choices seem relatively trivial, like what cereal to have for breakfast. Other times, the choices can be quite serious indeed—ones where lives hang in the balance, including Stefan’s own.
And sometimes, Stefan—in a show of apparent free will—rebels against what we’re making him do. For instance, when I was given a choice to make Stefan “pull on his earlobe” or “bite his nails,” I chose the earlobe. Stefan begins to move his hand upward … but then he seems to realize that he’s being controlled from the outside (me), he physically holds his hand down with his other hand, refusing to take my direction.
Would he do the same thing if I told him to bite his nails? I don’t know. That choice would’ve taken him down a different path and, with five hours of “Bandersnatch” options to choose for an episode designed to take up 60-90 minutes, it’s a path I’ve not chosen. (Yet.)
The show, from a Plugged In perspective, is just as problematic as Black Mirror can be. Some choices lead you down incredibly violent, grotesque paths. Each path, no matter which one you choose, seems littered with profanity.
But it’s also a fascinating study in storytelling. And that itself comes with its own share of issues.
“Bandersnatch” asks, I think, some interesting (and inherently theological) questions about the nature of free will and determinism. But at its simplest level, the episode allows us to play God—or, at least, a god prone to treat people as his own personal puppets. We can be kind or cruel, constructive or sadistic.
I think these choices reveal that all stories, not just this one, are in some ways “interactive,” but “Bandersnatch” makes it all the more obvious. We make our choices—Stefan’s choices—via our own free will, but they’re also made out of our own makeup and experiences and maybe even our states of mind. If we’ve had a particularly tough day at the office, we might be more likely to destroy Stefan’s computer than to pound a fist on his desk.
But there’s an interesting meta twist to this: Even as we’re manipulating the story, the story’s manipulating us, too. Sometimes, if we choose one thing, “Bandersnatch” gives us a chance to reconsider—to make the choice it thinks we really should make. Let’s reconsider, a character might suggest. Make a decision that cuts off the story too soon, and Stefan—whose grasp on reality is a bit tenuous anyway—wakes up with a start in bed on the very same day “Bandersnatch” began, giving us an opportunity to right our bad choices.
It’s telling that one character compares reality to Pac Man. “He thinks he’s got free will, but really he’s trapped in a maze,” he says.
“Bandersnatch” itself is like that: We’re given choices, but we never leave the maze. And even in the confines of that maze, we’re prodded down certain paths. We may be curious about writing our own story, but Black Mirror knows which story—or perhaps, which small set of stories—it’d really like to tell you.
In Daredevil, another Netflix show, Daredevil talks with a character named Sister Maggie. He tells her that he wishes he could change a mistake he made, right a tragic wrong. “If God allowed that, there’d be no future,” Maggie tells him. “Just people endlessly rewriting the past.”
“Bandersnatch,” essentially, invites viewers to endlessly rewrite this story’s past. The world it gives us is one without grace or forgiveness or a divine presence (unless you count us), pushing us farther and farther down a rabbit hole of murky pasts and dire futures until reality itself feels like a fabrication.
For many viewers, this pleasantly blended state of mind might make for an enjoyable 90-minute diversion. But as “Bandersnatch” itself insists, the stories we consume matter. They can matter a great deal. And given the level of content we see here, and the strange places that “Bandersnatch” leads us by the hand into, I wonder if this rabbit hole is one worth stepping into … or stepping over.