Choose your own adventure stories are not new. They are actually a frighteningly out-dated concept. Unfortunately the entertainment industry loves to rehash old crap with new tech. See the resurgence of 3D for details. My experience with choose-your-own-adventure style stories was limited to the Goosebumps series “Give Yourself Goosebumps”; each novel emblazoned with such pointed titles as “Beware of the Purple Peanut Butter”, and “Escape from Camp Run-For-Your-Life”. I wasn’t great at choosing the ‘correct’ path to the most optimal outcome and maybe that’s the problem with Black Mirror: Bandersnatch. According to how many times I re-watched a re-wind of the same thing it’s possible I didn’t play the game ‘right’. That’s really the trouble with this sort of idea: sometimes the adventure you “choose” is boring and goes nowhere.
Stefan Butler is a troubled young man marked by the trauma of his mother’s death, and struggling with mental-illness. He becomes obsessed with adapting “Bandersnatch” a complex choose-your-own-adventure novel written by a Jerome F. Davies who, as we are told multiple times, went mad and decapitated his wife. His reasoning being that: if we have no free-will, we are absolved of our actions, and so why not commit murder?
That’s pretty much where the story ends.
The narrative is stymied rather than enhanced by the choices the viewer makes. The program is structured in such a way that there are “right” decisions that lead to the optimal outcome, much like those kids books, but it’s an issue that could be resolved with more story choices, more optimal outcomes, and more complexity within the choices you make. It doesn’t feel like much of a choice when you pick something, are shown a bunch of scenes, and then find out it’s a dream and you must make the same choice once again. Who is meant to be lacking free-will, us or Stefan? That isn’t made clear exactly but it feels more like a plot-hole rather than a profound comment on the nature of free-will.
There are times where the narrative goes out of its way to break the fourth-wall. At one point you have the option of instructing Stefan’s computer to tell him that he’s being watched on Netflix. It was cute but, what was the point? In another scene (down the wrong path mind you) Stefan’s therapist Dr. Haynes suggests that if he really existed for entertainment on Netflix that the situation would be more exciting. At which point you can instruct Stefan to engage in mortal combat with his therapist. Again it was cute but dumb. Bandersnatch would have been better served by having the less optimal outcomes contribute to the story in some way.
One of the worst things about this iteration of Black Mirror is that I had a hard time getting it to work. It was not compatible with my smart tv, and it would not chrome cast from any of my devices. We ended up having to connect the laptop to the TV, practically Neanderthal in 2019. I understand this was a complex program for Netflix to create but, if that was the case, maybe they should have given it a little more time instead of “rushing it out for Christmas” like the characters in the show.
I judge films and TV shows based on how well all of the individual components work together, and how they become part of one another. Sometimes everything works in perfect harmony, sometimes parts of it are off but but the mosaic shows promise, and sometimes it doesn’t work at all. Bandersnatch would have been more interesting minus the gimmick. Interactive art and films can be fascinating, but the interaction needs to mean something. It would be easy to write its flaws off as a quirk of the commentary on free-will, but that is lazy and boring. Please select “try again”, Netflix. You have ten seconds.