To say that Netflix’s latest offering in the Black Mirror universe is a unique experience would be an understatement. With their first choose-your-own-adventure show aimed at adults, Netflix has pushed the medium of streaming into overdrive, but where innovation shines, there is still much to be desired when it comes to this new storytelling method.
Bandersnatch takes place in 1984 and follows Stefan Butler (Fionn Whitehead), a 19-year-old programmer who is trying to adapt a choose-your-own-adventure novel into a similarly formatted game. After meeting with games company Tuckersoft and being introduced to famous games creator Colin Ritman (Will Poulter), Stefan pushes forward with his game, but starts to question his own free will as the line between reality and fantasy begins to blur.
Giving a brief overview of Black Mirror: Bandersnatch’s story is actually quite tricky due to the format. In fact, reviewing the Netflix Original film as a whole is difficult seeing as different people will experience different journeys and endings. It’s been fun discussing the ‘Black Mirror Event’ with friends, with the concept of spoilers becoming all the more convoluted with everyone making different choices and thus seeing different sides of the story. Having spent over two hours with Bandersnatch, encountering multiple ‘endings’ and revisiting various decision points to experience as many branches as I could, I feel confident that I’ve seen enough to make up my mind.
Innovation is the name of the game here, with the choose-your-own-adventure format being utilised in unprecedented ways for television. Netflix have discussed how they were forced to create not only new software for Charlie Brooker to piece together the script, but they built a new system to make playback as seamless as possible. During a viewing of the episode, each decision is stored to memory by Netflix, enabling the show to not only take you down the major branches of the story but also then reflect back on earlier decisions later in the runtime. An example of this comes from the very first choice that the viewer is given; which cereal should Stefan eat. The decision has no consequence over the story but later down the line, there’s a chance to see an advert for the cereal that you chose, depending on what other choices you made along the way.
The level of detail and array of branches that you can follow is extraordinary. I’ve tried making a flowchart but gave up after only a few choices, leading me to completely believe that Netflix made specialist software for Brooker to organise the story. With the innovation and genius execution shown here, there is definitely great potential for this format of storytelling.
However, the main criticism that I have with Bandersnatch is exactly that; the storytelling. Amidst all of the decisions, the branching maze of clips that you can access and the engaging experience, a compelling and satisfying story seems to have fallen to the wayside. There are hundreds of differing clips available but very few actually add to the overall story and a lot of branches actually convolute the plot and sub-plots without leading to any form of satisfying conclusion. There are some brilliant ideas thrown out there during the first part of the story, but as soon as the branches start to move further apart from each other, the core story gets lost in the mix and then it seems to be a mad rush to the end without tying up any loose ends.
Another issue, which sometimes occurs if you loop back to previous decisions, is the loss of tension by jumping into the middle of the action. I spent a good couple of hours with Bandersnatch, meaning that I came to numerous ‘endings’, before being given the option to go back and change one of my decisions. Sometimes the fact that I was replaying a section would impact the way that the characters acted, paying off the redo and reinvigorating the tension. However, the further along I got with the story, the more confusing the jumps back would be, with some characters just reappearing out of nowhere, leading me to question which decisions were being remembered and which weren’t.
All in all, though, it was a very exciting and engaging experience and I think that Bandersnatch is just the start of the interactive show on Netflix. There is so much potential with the format, and for a first full-on attempt, I think they did a fantastic job. The editing is seamless during decisions, the acting is spot on and the scenario is bonkers enough to both fit in with the Black Mirror brand whilst working in the context of the choose-your-own-adventure style. No doubt the streaming giant will learn a lot from this release which will only lead to bigger and better attempts in the future. For now though, I would definitely recommend giving Bandersnatch a go; I can safely say that it’s like nothing you’ve experienced on television before.
Jordan Duguid | ★★★
Sci-Fi, Thriller, Interactive | 15 | Worldwide 2018 | 28 December 2018 | Netflix | Dir. David Slade | Fionn Whitehead, Will Poulter, Craig Parkinson