Black Mirror: Bandersnatch Discussion SPOILERS ABOUND
I’ll echo here what my husband said- while Bandersnatch is not a great movie in terms of movies, it is an amazing work of art. I could easily see it being nominated for best original screen play.
One of the things I love about it, is that it take you through all of the “main” emotions for movies. The prison ending has gore, and regret, the bunny ending is sad, but to me, is the “true” ending, the psychologist endings are absolutely hilarious. We ended up getting four out of five endings (just missed the actor one, which i looked up to see if it was worth going back for) and still have only watched about 1/3 of the film time.
The part that gave me a bit of a magiq feel, was the “bonus content”, that we didn’t realize was bonus until I’d done some reading. https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.thewrap.com/black-mirror-bandersnatch-post-credits-scene-secret-ending-easter-egg-tuckersoft-spectrum-bus/amp/
The only downside of the ending, as I’m certain @CJB will agree with me, was that I had to explain to my 20 yo brother in law what getting on the internet used to sound like.
Oh my god, I have so many thoughts on this show.
It’s interesting to me that this sort of choice-driven movie concept is coming back? There have been a few other games to do it (Late Shift and The Bunker come to mind) and it used to be super popular in like the 90s to do this sort of thing. I never expected something this big would use that format!
I’m usually someone who only watches a movie once or twice, so it’s cool to be able to play something back. And this thing is just chock full of easter eggs. Apparently there’s 12 endings, including “golden eggs” that the team anticipates may never be unlocked. And this thing is just chock full of easter eggs in general, references to White Bear, USS Callister. They even made a website with ads from Nosedive.
I think the exciting thing to me was having the novelty of choice (or, at least, the illusion of it). It turns the viewer into an active participant, rather than just passively watching. And I really want to see more media like that? Maybe not exactly in this format, but experimenting with different ways to engage audiences.
For anyone who’s interested here’s the flow chart so far for Bandersnatch. Be warned there are spoilers
So I played Bandersnatch with two friends on Friday evening which produced a set of fascinating perspectives - one of these friends is a TV producer, the other has a background in behavioral psychology and is fascinated by Black Mirror in general for that reason. And I’m a hobby writer with the most experience of the group in choose-your-own-adventure style games, and also who reads a lot of modern game journalism, so we got a lot of good discussion out of it. (For what it’s worth, I think we got to two out of three “Roll Credits” endings, and a lot of the other “Game Over” paths.)
From my perspective, Bandersnatch doesn’t really explore a lot of things that haven’t been explored before in Science Fiction or in choice-based narratives - it actually reminded me a bit of the episodic game Stories Untold, particularly “The House Abandon” (if anyone here is familiar with that). But I think Bandersnatch has two interesting divergences from the typical approach to choice-based narrative that it uses very effectively, or at least uniquely.
First, I think the television medium opens a really neat door to discussing the “validity” of the various “endings” because it can circumstantially roll the credits and signify a conclusion in a way that the classic paper CYOA’s can’t (or don’t) do. The majority of CYOA novels are written in the second person to feature the reader as the protagonist, with a variety of obviously “good” and “bad” endings, sometimes even including an effective state of “Game Over” and an invitation to try again. But what constitutes an ending in “Bandersnatch”? When the game-within-a-game is released? When Stefan dies? Only when the credits roll? What about when the credits roll and there are still choices to be made afterwards? Some points that could be called endings just feel more like endings than others; should we assume those are more “correct” than the other endings? And what constitutes “winning”? Getting the 5-star game review? Reuniting Stefan with his mom by way of the bunny? Helping Stefan discover “the truth” of who is controlling him? Because the user isn’t the protagonist, the protagonist’s goals don’t necessarily align with the user’s, which makes the idea of a win-state completely ambiguous.
The second is the treatment of the “illusion of choice” throughout the narrative, and particularly the way it incorporates the binary choice mechanism into its storytelling. A common critique of modern major-market role-playing games is the way they handle illusion of choice, because they often disguise a single narrative funnel as “multiple pathways” with the use of different gear or skills that don’t provide a significant change in the outcome of the game. Skyrim is a great example of this - you can become Thane of every city and join every Guild with one character, win the war for either side, or ignore the Dragonborn quests altogether, and the world of the game does not significantly react to or acknowledge any of those choices. Bandersnatch, as many possible endings and circumstances as it creates, leans hard into places where your choices are going to be meaningless: Colin spiking Stefan’s drink if he refuses the offered drugs, “Yes” vs. “F*** Yeah” when you’re asked if the entertainment should be more entertaining (I really resented this choice when it first came up, actually), choosing effectively in one narrative pathway whether or not to kill dad while in another pathway Stefan does it without the player’s input. All of these moments, instead of destroying the game’s narrative construct, just serve to set up another layer of the philosophical complication they’re exploring: the user is controlling the actions of a character who is contemplating the illusion of free choice, and who eventually realizes that the user is controlling his actions - except in cases where even the user isn’t given a choice, and both character and user are at the whims of the media’s creators. You may be presented with two options that produce the same result and be forced to choose between them anyway. You are forced to play into a predetermined course of events, even as you help determine Stefan’s actions.
Anyway, the whole thing is fascinating and my friends and I are still arguing about it, so I think the creators definitely did something right.
It was messy, exciting, and wickedly clever, but limited a bit by its medium, and felt less exciting as it went along. As a story architect, I kept pausing it, (much to the chagrin of Matty) to note what the narrative was teaching us. The cereal was an early win and taught the mechanic without cost, the music choice showed how we could affect the superficial (while also giving us early control over Stefan) and then accepting the job offer (which they assumed most people would choose) showed us how, if we “failed” we would loop back to that central decision.
The entire mechanic explained in five minutes.
But, because film (and print lit) are finite materials, meaning you can only film or print so many outcomes and endings, the film felt smaller and smaller as it went on, which is unavoidable. But I was looking for deeper, darker tangents. More monsters and cracks in the world. I wanted to witness the full madness of Bandersnatch the book/game. I felt like we spent the first half of the movie slowly unlocking a Lament Configuration, only to find out it was a 50-piece jigsaw puzzle.
Which I think is a limit of the medium and time more than anything else. I loved it, and it left me thinking a lot about what we did in TMP, and what we could do down the line.
TMP mostly eschewed tangible “decision points” for a true, “open-world” CYOA-experience. Crowd-sourced narrative, with a secret architect building the track as you fueled the locomotive with your ideas. Sure, there were established sights and touchpoints along the way, but you were deciding where to lay track and in which direction.
If done right, you didn’t realize you were choosing anything, but you also didn’t know you were losing anything. Whereas, being faced with a binary decision in Bandersnatch, you knew your choices affected something and you were not getting to witness other choices, but the track had already been built for you.
Oooh, yeah, the jigsaw puzzle metaphor hits hard for me. But that 15-20 minutes of hypotheticals was beautiful while it lasted!
I think this is actually also fascinating to compare with D&D and other tabletop-style role-playing games, in terms of limited media and obvious choice, because I think lot of video games right now try to take the deep customization formula of tabletop role-playing and implement it within a system they don’t have the resources for - it sometimes feels like the more choices a video-game has, the less meaningful they are in terms of actual narrative, because the developers are devoting resources to the art assets for 10 different playable races and 16 different classes and that means the provided narrative has to be meaningful to all of those options generically, whereas a DM, even one who is following a story module, is there in the moment to react to the players’ customized inputs and add flavor that makes their choices feel more meaningful in the narrative scheme. (Think about DMs who are criticized for “railroading” players, versus those who let characters explore unrelated areas and pathways and find ways to tie those choices back into the ultimate goal of the campaign.) TMP had something similar in that ability to “turn on a dime” and reward us with a new narrative pathway if we said or did something that wasn’t originally intended to be important - like the way Marty became an integral character.