The holiday season ended with Netflix releasing two pieces of content that took the internet by storm: Bird Box and Black Mirror: Bandersnatch. Both have received critical praise with the latter receiving additional acclaim for its ingenuity of creating a choose your own adventure film with over five hours’ worth of footage and one trillion story combinations. As someone who was looking forward to the idea of a choose your own adventure film, I was surprised to find that I really didn’t like Black Mirror: Bandersnatch and found that critics who accused the film of being too “gimmicky” have every right to this opinion.
Bandersnatch follows Stefan Butler, a young programmer in the 1980s who is attempting to adapt a choose your own adventure novel into a complex video game. As he dives deeper into trying to meet the deadline for his game, he begins to develop a sense that he is not fully in control of his own actions.
There are two fundamental concepts to choose your own adventure stories that Bandersnatch fails to deliver on when crafting this narrative. The first glaring issue that this film contains is the idea that there were “wrong” choices. When making certain decisions throughout the film, viewers were cut to an immediate ending where Stefan’s game was given a terrible review for one reason or another. Normally, this would be fine if that was one of the endings you could achieve but because every ending minus one has Stefan receiving a bad review, players are forced into the mindset that all the choices that lead to a bad review are wrong and the only true ending is the one where he gets a five-star review.
This type of storytelling can be detrimental to choose your own adventures. The point of a choose your own adventure game is for the viewer to choose his or her fate in an objective manner. Successful games such as Telltale’s The Walking Dead franchise and Life is Strange present the gamer with morally difficult decisions that have no clear “right” or “wrong” answer, especially when it comes to the ending. When you are forced to decide who to sacrifice, Chloe or Arcadia Bay, the dialogue is objective, offering the gamer no hint as to which answer is the “right” one. The answer comes directly from the gamer’s own experiences with the game thus far and their personal moral compass.
Bandersnatch does the exact opposite: constantly throwing players into dead end upon dead end until they reach the conclusion where Stefan releases his game with a five-star review. With a mindset that the viewer is making “wrong” choices, it’s no wonder viewers became frustrated with this film. Personally, it felt like a chore to play just to find the right ending rather than a fun experience where I had to make difficult decisions that would actually lead somewhere.
The other issue this film faces is the lack of character empathy. Because the choices viewers make could easily lead them into a dead end, it was hard to care about Stefan. Empathizing with the characters is another technique that is extremely important to choose your own adventure games. If you don’t empathize with the lead, you aren’t going to care about what decisions you are making. Empathizing leads the player to not only care about the choices they make but also what other characters think about the protagonist. Again, the choices in Bandersnatch never altered how other characters perceived Stefan. There was no consequence to the choice’s viewers were making other than getting a bad review on the video game. In the end, the game led to roughly the same ending. And while yes, that was the point of the film, at the end of the day, it’s just not fun. Good choose your own adventure stories are able to make it feel as though you have a choice with the ending even if that might not be the case. And part of that success comes from empathizing with the characters.
Successful choose your own adventure stories rely on the viewer’s sense of morality and character empathy to tell a good story. Black Mirror: Bandersnatch takes a property that really doesn’t rely on either of those things to tell a good story which is ultimately why it feels like a chore to complete rather than an emotional rollercoaster.
While I applaud Netflix for its attempt to bring us a new form of entertainment, they have a lot more work to do if they want viewers to see this as anything other than a gimmick.