On December 28 2018, Netflix released a stand alone episode of their hit series Black Mirror called “Bandersnatch”, which was a first of its kind experiment that allowed you to change the story by picking options along the way.
Before I delve into spoilers, here is my brief non-spoiler review of the episode: As an episode of Black Mirror, it is actually one of the weaker ones. Most episodes go with the “Speculative sci-fi” premise of introducing a new potentially great technology that may theoretically exist in the future someday, and tell a story about that technology creating some kind of drama. I’m a huge fan of speculative sci-fi, so I am also a huge fan of Black Mirror — most of the time.
This episode actually introduces a technology of an interactive TV episode (which has only existed in a limited way with interactive DVDs, this is the first of its kind for streaming) and proceeds to create artificial drama with the technology itself. This is ultimately a rather cheesy thing to do: You are introducing a potentially groundbreaking and profitable technology, in a way that satirizes the same technology making it less desirable in the future.
The rest of this review contains spoilers.
The story is about Stefan, a promising young programmer in 1984 who is working on a computerized version of a complex and very thick choose your own adventure book called “Bandersnatch” by Robert B. Davies.
I have a personal connection to this story as in 1984, I was also writing adventure games in BASIC on a TI 99/4a that did not have enough memory and constantly crashed. I was writing text based adventures in the style of Colossal Cave or Zork, though at the time mine were pretty lame. In the last couple of decades I have been independently writing and publishing my own choose your own adventure games, formally known as visual novels, some of them are rather successful.
Bottom line, not only do I know what writing interactive fiction is like, but I also know what programming was like in 1984. I’ve experienced “the hole” as one character calls it, though I have never ever in my life heard it called that. I could actually be a technical advisor on this episode, and nit pick all the stuff they got wrong, and maybe that is why I am giving it 2.5 out of 5, but I’d rather just stick with reviewing the episode itself.
There are basically 8 endings, only two of which are satisfying, I’ll call them the “TOY” ending and the “Perfect Game” ending. Most of the endings have the main character dying or in prison. The three exceptions are easily the worst.
The first ending you are likely going to his is one of those bad ones. The main character sells out to the gaming company, and produces a bad game. I’ll label this the “tutorial” ending, and if it was the first ending you got, so did almost everybody. The other two awful endings are the “Netflix” endings (“Netflix/Window” and “Netflix/Fight”) which are 4th wall breaking cheesy plots that some viewers will probably find entertaining, but it ultimately just shits all over the whole concept and ruins it. Basically I stopped looking for new endings after I saw this one.
The next two bad endings are also fourth wall breaking, and involve visiting Colin and dropping acid. Colin breaks the fourth wall by saying we are in a game, stuck in a loop, but the speech worked much better when delivered by the Luteces in Bioshock Infinite.
Colin tries to prove his point by saying either he or Stefan should jump to their deaths off the high rise balcony. Choosing Stefan leads to the “nozedive” ending, choosing Colin leads to Colin jumping rather casually and opening up an ending I’ll call “PACS” which is a less meta version of the Netflix endings, where Stefan is the subject of an elaborate conspiracy. This is actually the second ending after “Tutorial” that I got.
The third ending I got, is the last of the eight, which I’ll call “Kill dad, bury dad” named after the choices you do to get there, which actually has a number of versions depending on whether you dropped acid with Colin or not. They all end basically the same: Stefan never finishes the game, goes to prison for murder, and the game company goes bankrupt. While not as bad as the meta endings, it lacks a coherent story.
The two good endings
“Toy”, or to be exact “any cereal, any music, refuse, yes talk about your mother, no don’t go with mom, either album, yell at dad, follow Colin, Yes, Colin, pull earlobes, flush them, hit desk, pick up book, enter TOY, yes go with mom” is the story of a troubled young man that blames himself for the death of his mom who died in a train derailment when he was five. Thanks to an LSD trip he has a realistic vision of himself going back and changing things in the past and being with his mom at the time of the accident. This results in him dying along with his mom. Since he really isn’t time traveling, he can’t actually save her, but he can be there and make her last moments happy. His real body just suddenly dies in his psychologists office.
“Perfect Score”, or to be exact “any cereal, any music, refuse, no don’t talk about your mother, no don’t talk about your mother, any album, yell at dad, visit Dr Haynes, pull earlobes, flush them, hit desk, pick up either, JFD, Throw Tea, Glyph symbol, kill dad, chop up body.” is the story of a novel “Bandersnatch” that drives people mad. The original author of the novel went crazy while writing it and chopped off his wife’s head, the author of the video game adaption went crazy and chopped off his dad’s head, and the episode ends in the present day with a woman named Pearl (Colin’s daughter?) adapting the novel/game for Netflix, and showing the same early signs of madness.
These two work on their own, the first sad, the second creepy, and could probably be released as stand alone episodes. If you want a whole map of the show you can find one here.
Lessons for future interactive TV producers
Interactive stories have been around for decades, and there are a lot of really good ones. A recent famous good one is Detroit: Become Human by David Cage who also made Heavy Rain and Beyond Two Souls. These stories generally have one good happy ending, and a large number of tragic bad endings. This is also the general pattern of most of the Tell Tale Games before they closed.
Another really good interactive story writer is Ragnar Tørnquist who did the trilogy The Longest Journey, Dreamfall, and Dreamfall Chapters. His stories branch off in many directions, but then tie themselves together in a big finale. Any path in which you survive leads to the same ending, but the differing paths lead to more details about the story, characters, and settings. This is how my game Rachel Meets Ariane works.
My favorite kind of interactive story is rare, and the most difficult kind to pull off. It is where every path leads to a different and interesting ending on its own, but there is a greater story if you follow all of the paths. This is what I was going for with Something’s In The Air, it was successfully done in Tlaero and Mortze’s Saving Chloe. I have heard that Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors is designed to work this way, but I have never played it to find out.
I’m hoping that “Bandersnatch” is not the end of interactive TV programming. Charlie Booker is a very clever guy, but his lack of experience writing branching stories shows. It takes years of practice. My message for future interactive TV producers is learn from Black Mirror’s mistakes: Don’t add branches just for the sake of adding branches, if you can’t make every branch interesting, then trim those dead branches. Stay the hell away from “meta” stories. Learn story structure from interactive games, the best ones don’t always fit the usual three act structure of linear story telling.