This past weekend my friends and I got together and watched Bandersnatch – the standalone Black Mirror episode/movie on Netflix. It was highly talked about when it released at the end of December last year, but I had put off watching it in favor of making it a group activity. My friends and I had fun playing both Until Dawn and Hidden Agenda (although we all agreed the former was way better than the latter) and this was likely going to be a similar experience.
Bandersnatch was touted as a kind of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure movie where you get to make choices for the protagonist and affect the ending of the episode. It ended up being very similar to a Telltale game or Until Dawn – where two choices were presented to you and you had a time limit as to decide which way to direct the character. The group seemed to have a lot of fun with it and the episode itself was pretty entertaining – over the course of about three hours we managed to see most of what the episode had to offer.
The idea of an interactive story has been around for a while – after all Choose Your Own Adventure as books for kids have been around since the 1980s. However Bandersnatch was definitely targeted towards adults and adds an interesting data point towards the future of interactive media (especially with virtual reality possibly just around the corner). But Bandersnatch’s viewer engagement also intersects with the world of gaming and how they give you choices, and I’d like to take a moment and talk for a little bit about Bandersnatch, games like Until Dawn and Telltale choice-based games, and games like Mass Effect which also offer the illusion of choice.
Since it came out several weeks ago, I’m going to be talking very openly about Bandersnatch, so just as a warning spoilers will follow for the Black Mirror episode as well as some of the games I just previously listed. You’ve been warned.
It’s no coincidence that the plot of Bandersnatch centers around a young man trying to create a video game. Stefan (the protagonist) is working on programming a game that mirrors the choose-your-own-adventure style book Bandersnatch, which was written in the 1960s. In one of the endings (the five-star ending, actually) Stefan actually talks about how it was too difficult to actually give the player the amount of choice that he wanted to do, and that giving the player the illusion of choice was much more effective.
Most games employ just that – the illusion of choice. Some games are effective at making the player feel like they had control over the outcome of the game while others try and fail, allowing the players behind the curtain in a very Wizard of Oz-like manner. Mass Effect 3, for example, was one of the most spectacular failures of the industry because it was the conclusion of a trilogy that pushed the idea that your choices matter and decisions you made in the first game would eventually affect how the third game concluded. Instead, at the end of the game players were given a choice of three options and none of the choices you made up until that point affected the ending in any way. It caused a lot of controversy and fan backlash at the time and will likely go down in history as one of gaming history’s biggest misfires.
Bandersnatch also uses the medium to explore some fourth-wall breaking and meta talk through the character of Colin, another game programmer. He seems to be the only character that realizes there are other timelines and a lot of his dialogue with Stefan lampshades the ideas of multiple timelines and “trying again.” If you choose “wrong” in an early decision, the story loops back around and fast forwards through parts you’ve already seen – but when Colin and Stefan introduce themselves to each other for the “first” time again, both seem to recognize the other or keep some knowledge from the previous instance. This seemed like it was going to pay off later and would be something fun to explore with the format, but unfortunately the idea of keeping knowledge from other timelines doesn’t really play a factor into the actual story – it only applies to decisions you can make as the viewer.
Bandersnatch’s playing with the fourth wall through the video game motif ends up making an interesting point, though. To me the most interesting thing about Bandersnatch is how it blends together multiple mediums of entertainment. Even though it’s on Netflix and billed as a movie, it isn’t quite that. It ends up existing in a weird plane of not-quite-movie, not-quite-game. It’s the opposite of video games that some call “walking simulators” – games like Gone Home or What Remains of Edith Finch where you are interacting with the environment and moving a character around, but choices mean very little and actual “gameplay” is limited. The game is more of a vehicle to tell a story that the creator wants you to experience, as opposed to a game that allows you to craft your own.
These “walking simulators” – and games like what Telltale produced where moment-to-moment gameplay is limited and the majority of decisions you make are timed dialogue options – are often looked down upon by the hardcore crowd. It’s why 2012 is often viewed as a “weak year” for gaming. The games that got the most critical acclaim that year were Journey and Telltale’s The Walking Dead – games that shucked typical gameplay style in favor of a different kind of experience.
This really starts to make you think – what exactly is a game? Is Bandersnatch enough of an interactive experience to be considered a movie-like game? You’re interacting about as much as you do during a visual novel and those are often considered games. But are games with limited interaction really games? What criteria establishes a game, anyway? Bandersnatch’s story revolves around video games for a reason. The lines of mediums are blurring more and more with the interconnectedness of all our different devices.
I envision a future where specialty theaters exist that show specific kind of movies – movies that operate like Jackbox-style games where everyone participating logs into a room online through their phone. It’s set up like an Alamo Drafthouse where you can get food, drinks, and the lights dim but still encourage a bit of camaraderie. And the movie you’re seeing is a horror movie, except the audience gets to vote on what the stupid teenagers do to hide from the killer. The movie is an interactive “experience” that brings more to the table than sitting in the dark and yelling at the people who are on their phones but shouldn’t be.
Bandersnatch brought the same level of engagement with me and my friends at home that a Jackbox game did, or a game like Until Dawn where we all sat around and made decisions. While not every version of this will have the charm that Bandersnatch did because of how much it played around with the fourth wall, it seems like with the right premise this could be yet another viable social entertainment option.
And I’ve had fun with solo experiences that are little more than interactive stories. Firewatch was a great game that was pretty much a 4-5 hour story with a little bit of walking around involved. Virtue’s Last Reward, the second game in the Zero Escape trilogy, was a visual novel with puzzles that played with multiple timelines much like Bandersnatch did and I was very fond of it until the final game of the trilogy concluded the series in a very underwhelming and disappointing way, ruining Virtue’s Last Reward’s solid ending.
What we consider a game is becoming more and more malleable as our ways of interacting with our entertainment increase. From puzzle games and mysteries that make you think, to first-person-shooters, to board and card games, to games that are a finely-crafted linear story, to virtual reality experiences that surround us in 360 degrees – the limit to gaming is only our imagination.
That’s why I’m highly appreciate of Bandersnatch as a movie bridging the gap between entertainment we watch and entertainment we interact with. I hope we see much more like it in the future – even if it was a Black Mirror episode and they usually have a moral to be wary of the future. But I think this could be a stepping stone towards even more ways for gaming to be considered more of a mainstream hobby. Let’s hope Bandersnatch’s effect on media is an upwards trend.