BY ZOE FRONGILLO
Warning: Mild spoilers ahead.
As technology and social media become more prevalent in our lives, from the smartphones that are never further than an arm’s length away to the smart devices we willingly install in our homes, it is important to be aware of what rights we forfeit and how this technology changes the way we interact with other people. Netflix’s new interactive short film, “Bandersnatch” explores these pressing questions.
You’ve probably seen this title appear in your news feed or queue on Netflix, but what is it all about? Named after a creature created by Lewis Carroll, “Bandersnatch” is a separate film from Netflix anthology “Black Mirror,” which contains non-contingent episodes in a futuristic setting that reflect on facets of our contemporary culture. The series serves to caution against certain advancements in modern technology, and how these developments can bring out the worst faults in humanity. Charlie Brooker, the creator of “Black Mirror,” has explained, “The ‘black mirror’ of the title is the one you’ll find on every wall, on every desk, in the palm of every hand: the cold, shiny screen of a TV, a monitor, a smartphone.”
Set in the Orwellian year of 1984, “Bandersnatch” is about programmer Stefan Butler’s journey creating his video game, Bandersnatch. Just like the show you are watching, Stefan is creating a choose-your-own-adventure style video game based on a book owned by his deceased mother, Bandersnatch. Jerome Davies, its author, obsessively saw a “branching pathway” symbol that drove him mad, which climaxed with the murder of his own wife. While you watch this show, you make decisions as small as what cereal Stefan will eat, to contemplating the death of another character.
Out of all the “Black Mirror” episodes, “Bandersnatch” had me the most invested, and it certainly is designed to be that way. Because the viewer influences the story’s direction, you become more emotionally devoted to the characters and their end. However, it is not true that the viewer has full control of the plot; if you are to make a decision that hinders the main path, Stefan’s story loops back to that choice and encourages you to choose differently. For example, you must decide to initially decline video game company Tuckersoft’s offer, and instead work on the game yourself. As Stefan’s story progresses, the predominating questions explored are: what constitutes free will, and what is worth the cost of success?
The interactive nature of this film fits perfectly within the meta story that “Bandersnatch” conveys. Unlike other shows you can watch passively while scrolling through your news feed, “Bandersnatch” requires your attention to thoughtfully make decisions on a timer. While many possibilities exist for this new interactive form of media, but the interactiveness is actually calling attention to itself to demonstrate its darker implications. Stefan senses his actions are not under his control and questions the nature of his reality because they are in fact controlled by you. In this way, the show creates a spiraling effect because Stefan attempts to create a user-controlled game, but he is also being controlled by you, and then the writers of “Black Mirror” ultimately control your decisions. Thus, the limits of the storylines serve as a metaphor to understand that not all the choices we make are wholly are own.
Two of the more tragic endings of the film demonstrate why choices matter. In one of the alternate endings, when Stefan becomes aware that an external force controls him, he descends into madness. If you decide to reveal yourself to him, you explain that his actions are being dictated for your entertainment in the twenty-first century. From there, if you choose the more fantastical option of a fight scene, Stefan breaks the fourth wall and condemns the viewer as sadistic for playing with his life.
The only way for Stefan to get the “successful” ending, a five-star rating for his game, is to bury the person he murdered. After that, Stefan has enough time to finish the game, but his crime is eventually discovered, and he is imprisoned. Stefan’s path exactly parallels the novel’s author, Davies, as he descended into madness and murdered his spouse. Most unsettling is that you as the viewer had to choose to kill a character and hide the evidence to achieve the “success” path. The only real “successful” outcome for Stefan’s game comes with the greatest costs, an ugly truth which spills into our world. Many people prioritize success based on outcomes over enriching aspects of life such as love, friendship, and health.
The show’s creators place the burden of responsibility of these endings on the user, as his or her preceding decisions resulted in tragedy. It speaks to our need for action-packed, sensational endings, reflected by the popular movies and video games, and even in the media coverage we consume on the news. Even the algorithms on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are designed to keep your attention on the platform for as long as possible. To do so, they show you the most extreme articles and posts to keep you engaged. Thus, a new normalcy has been established to crave dramatic endings, or we become bored. If we progressively consume more media with overdramatized endings for recreation, we will become desensitized and less empathetic to people in the real world.
While “Bandersnatch” is not perfect, the experience it provides is very relevant to the time in which we live. As Stefan experiences in the film, not even all our decisions are under our control, but it is nevertheless important to make the ones that we do with care. We should also be vigilant, not accept social conventions at face value, and recognize what we forfeit while on the internet. Success is not always the end game when considering the consequences it takes to get there. Rather we should change our mindset to show empathy to others, which is always a worthy goal. If anything, the endings of “Bandersnatch” should serve as a reminded to be weary of our choices and conscious of the media we consume.