It’s easy to understand why “Bandersnatch”, the new Black Mirror interactive Netflix film, is fun. It’s because games are fun.
Games pull you in, lay down some ground rules, present a puzzle or a task and give you just enough tools to solve it. And then you play. Be it the playground or Playstation, most games follow this basic framework. The new Black Mirror episode does this too.
But “Bandersnatch” is not a game, even though many on the internet are trying really hard to sort it into that basket. It does share its narrative DNA with video games, but it is ostensibly a film; one that doesn’t work.
The branching storyline narrative simulating freewill in "Bandersnatch", though relatively new to the film medium, has existed for quite a while in gamebooks and video games. Choose Your Own Adventure series of children’s books that picked up the concept from American writer Edward Packer were quite popular in the 80s and 90s.
R.L. Stine’s children’s horror series Goosebumps, familiar in India because of Scholastic school book fairs, had a choose-your-own-story version too. Give Yourself Goosebumps prompted you to turn to a certain page to stick to one decision and make your way to one of its several endings. The idea of the reader inhabiting the protagonist’s mind and making choices that affect the ending went on to fit video games like a glove, but books were the early adapters.
There have been interactive films in the past: "Kinoautomat" in 1967 was the first. "I'm Your Man" was billed as the first interactive film on DVD, with its poster claiming 'It's never the same movie twice!'.
But doing it in 2019, on Netflix and under the banner of 'Black Mirror', puts interactive films under a spotlight. Naturally, "Bandersnatch" is a huge hit. It is being memed, which is obviously the ultimate present day metric for success. It has also received praise for its narrative style and there are dozens of think-pieces on the internet posing the big question of whether "Bandersnatch" has kicked open a door. Are interactive films the way forward?
The TL;DR answer to that question is no. Interactive films do have the potential to go forward as an entity unto itself; the more than warm reception to "Bandersnatch" shows that. But it doesn't necessarily propel the film medium itself.
"Bandersnatch" is too confused to do that. Throughout its anywhere-between-50-minutes-to-three-hours runtime, it doesn't really know where it's going, even though it has so many paths to chose from. For the viewer (or should I say player?), who is — for all intents and purposes — Stefan, the film's disturbed and antsy protagonist, it's fun to choose between Frosties and Sugar Puffs or between chopping up your dad's dead body and burying it, but it's nothing beyond that.
Every time you have to make a choice for Stefan, "Bandersnatch" implies there are going to be consequences. And yet later down the line, all your decisions seem to be inconsequential because they rarely have any weight.
The problem is not in the branching storyline structure. "Bandersnatch" doesn't work, either as a film or a game, because the narrative style doesn't feel more than a gimmick. Its take-your-pick style of storytelling only seems to be in service of itself rather than its characters or story; people who play video games would nod in agreement.
Telltale Games, an American video game developer that sadly went bankrupt and shut down toward the end of 2018, was a pioneer in telling stories episodically, where your choices guide the plot. Its most notable games "The Walking Dead" and "The Wolf Among Us" told compelling stories, where the players' decisions left a profound impact on the games' characters.
Where Telltale had a unique art style, that owed a lot to comic books, French developer Quantic Dream has made games like "Heavy Rain", "Beyond: Two Souls" and more recently "Detroit: Become Human" that have a more closer-to-life visual style and the same interactive narrative structure, pushing video games further toward the cinematic spectrum.
Supermassive Games' horror adventure title "Until Dawn" probably took it further. The game basically gave players the freedom to re-enact their horror movie fantasies, with a plethora of genre tropes to chose from that lead to 'good' or 'bad' endings. Play judiciously and try and save as many characters you can or be a psychopath and see all your characters die a gruesome death (which, let's be honest, is way more fun).
Even if we take video games in general, where most of them don't follow a pick-your-own-adventure style, they are the perfect playgrounds to be who you want to be and do what you want to do and still be cinematic and tell a focused story.
Just take Rockstar Games' recent release, the phenomenon called "Red Dead Redemption 2". It gives you reasonable freedoms to play and explore the game in the way you want to and still manages to tell a heartbreaking story about sons and fathers and families and how they end up hurting each other.
Video games are increasingly pushing the barriers of the art form and doing it much better than any other medium. And films should take note. While video games are proving they can be stunningly cinematic and still essentially be games, "Bandersnatch" has only shown that films will find it difficult to hold on to the visual appeal of cinema while flirting with games.
It is, frankly, a bit surprising that it is reduced to being a flowchart film, because Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker has delivered excellent commentary on the intersection of technology and the human condition in the past. Even though "Bandersnatch", with its intended story and themes, didn't really fit in the Black Mirror universe, it did have potential to be more than just a race to all of its endings.
At the very least, "Bandersnatch" is an experiment, a step. And some things it does well: the different story branches often cleverly reference one another and the entire plot, at some points, feels like a jigsaw puzzle that you have to attempt over and over again to find and fit the missing pieces. At one point, "Bandersnatch" explains the meaning of Netflix and even directly starts a dialogue with the viewer/player, a cool moment that is truly as meta as it can get. There also some scenes of plain bizarre fun, which one will have to dig in and find. But at the end of three or so hours, when you're done exploring every nook and cranny of "Bandersnatch", you find you haven't really reached anywhere.