I sort of agree that Bandersnatch
is impressive in some ways – it must have been difficult to figure out on a technical level. But I also agree that it has no third (or even second) act. Major spoilers in this link, obviously, but if you look at this flowchart
from Reddit you can see that there really aren’t that many variations or endings. I’ve seen pretty much all of the major ones just from doing one-and-a-half play-throughs, and they’re not worth the effort.
, this is an idea that Community
already did much more succinctly and incisively – in the ‘six different timelines’ episode. Everything that worked there is absent in Bandersnatch
. Every detail in the set-up led to some kind of pay-off later on, every narrative strand was entertaining in its own right, the variations between the strands were significant and interesting, and not only did each timeline reach a natural conclusion (that is, a point where you understood the consequences of that character collecting the pizza), but there was also an overall conclusion that tied things together. With a limited budget and time-frame, the action was restricted to a small set of characters, in one small location, engaged in a communal activity and a subset of individual activities that were easy to understand and relate to.
More obvious comparisons could be made with films like Source Code
, Edge of Tomorrow
, and Triangle
, none of which are perfect, but all of which understand some basic storytelling rules that are largely ignored in Bandersnatch
: namely that we need to care about the protagonist, we need to understand what they’re trying to do (and it needs to be something relatively straightforward, however many complex choices they may have to make), and the stakes need to be high enough for us to want to know what happens next, and for us to feel okay about watching the same thing happen over and over again.
Ideally, the story also needs to be ‘about’ something. So what is Bandersnatch
Is it about how we’re inescapably defined by our past traumas, and is that why all the endings are so fucking bleak – and why the closest thing to a happy ending is the one where Stefan destroys the computer and is hugged by his dad, implying that by committing to the healing process he will escape the PACS/Netflix-trap? And is all the self-referential stuff (which was irritating in Season 3 and is getting unbearable now, even if it does have a point) therefore suggesting that we watch shows like Black Mirror out of a fundamentally unhealthy desire to wallow in our own dysfunctionality and pretend it’s someone else’s problem? Or that we watch them because we're cruel and sadistic, which was (maybe?) the point of the easter eggs in Black Museum as well? It seems to be groping around the edges of these ideas, but the whole thing is so vague and messy that trying to make sense of it is like sculpting with whipped cream. And if that’s the point – if we’re supposed to feel like we’re losing our grip on reality, like JFD and Stefan – then we need to go through the looking glass early on in the story, and the descent needs to be more drastic and violent, as it was in Playtest for example. There is something inherently chilling in the core premise of Bandersnatch, and in the process of making decisions for Stefan; the first time through, I felt a mounting sense of dread that lasted for quite a while. But it fizzles out because there is no story, there are no characters, and the ideas, such as they are, are not even half-baked.
I spent my teenage years (in the 90s) obsessively playing computer games, and tended to like the ones that gave me the greatest sense of creativity and agency – mostly ‘god sims’, but also the occasional RPG. When I played Fallout 2
, I was fascinated by the amount of choice I had in the direction of the story and the development of my character. At one point, I found myself in a cemetery, armed with a shovel, and found that I could dig up all the graves and that they were full of useful things. Only after I’d saved the game did I find out that I now had the reputation of a grave-robber. People regarded me with suspicion everywhere I went – except the bad guys, who now started befriending me. It was frustrating, but in a good way. Even though I hadn’t realised I was making a moral decision, the consequences of that decision made sense to me in retrospect, and the experience made me feel more invested in the actions I was telling my character to perform. The same cannot be said of Bandersnatch
. You never really understand the moral or emotional weight of the decisions you're making, even after you've made them, and you never feel like 'your character' (whether that's Stefan or you, the viewer) develops in any meaningful ways.
I also have very fond memories of the Blade Runner
game, in which you could decide to be sympathetic to the replicants (and in love with one of them) or hell-bent on their destruction. It was a genuine pleasure to re-play the game and explore all the different branches, and all the different permutations within those branches, because the gameplay itself was fun and the world of the game was fun to inhabit. And then there was the first Grand Theft Auto
, which you could play properly by completing the missions, but which I generally used as an outlet for my misanthropic rage, which (at the age of 15) I was only just starting to come to terms with. As well as enjoying these games, you also couldn’t help thinking about how
you were playing them, and asking difficult questions about yourself in the process (at least if you were as self-absorbed as I was). That was why it felt like a really exciting time to be following the development of video games.
One of the weirdest things about Bandersnatch
is that, despite ostensibly being about video games, and despite having been written by an obsessive video game fan, it quickly loses interest in the game that’s meant to be at the centre of the whole story, and shows no real awareness of what makes multi-stranded games so compelling and addictive. I only ever read a couple of ‘choose your own adventure’ books, but I do remember how easy it was to get lost in them, and how good they were at bringing the settings and situations to life (using only words) so that I felt genuine excitement and fear, even though I could just hold an earlier page open with my finger and go back to it if a troll bludgeoned me to death. As I said above, Bandersnatch
did induce a certain amount of horror, given the things I had to tell Stefan to do, but at no point did I feel truly invested in his journey or the action of the story, nor did I learn anything about myself or my dodgy proclivities.
Think about how well this format might have worked in the context of episodes like USS Callister
(spoilers for these and Bandersnatch
You are a digital replica (a 'cookie') of yourself, trapped in a video game being played by a psychopath. You have to make decisions about when you play along with the game, when you resist, whether you sacrifice your fellow players in an attempt to escape, and so on. There would be variant endings, ranging from the bleak (you float in darkness forever with no face, unable to see or breathe, accompanied only by the sounds of your own muffled screams) to the hopeful (you outwit your captor and escape to freedom) to the compromised (you and your fellow players successfully commit suicide and crash the game). This scenario would also have allowed for the paranoid free-will discussions of Bandersnatch, because the ultimate twist could be that the major decisions made by this digital replica are actually 'induced' by an external player (us), meaning that the protagonist has to suffer whatever fate we make her choose, so to speak, and that all the variant endings are experienced simultaneously by multiple sentient cookies. Perhaps they didn't go for something like this because they feel they've already done the 'digital replica' idea to death...
Or: you are being pursued by a homicidal robot dog. Do you try to escape in the car or take your chances on foot? Do you try to save your friends or make a run for it? Do you hide from the dog or throw the can of paint at it? Do you kill yourself or wait for the dogs to break in and finish you off? You’d inevitably die in the end, of course, but as in Tetris the challenge would be to see how long you could survive. If you survive long enough, there could be a poignant moment at the end where the protagonist becomes too exhausted to perform any of the actions you choose, and just collapses and waits for death.
Stories like that would fit the ‘choose your own adventure’ format because they are adventures. Instead, Brooker has come up with a story that resembles White Bear and Shut Up and Dance, because the protagonist is fundamentally powerless throughout, but that (unlike those episodes) has no sense of narrative momentum, and no harrowing, revelatory payoff. It’s really kind of brave and ambitious to do a CYOA about a teenage coder having a breakdown and questioning the nature of free will in a stagnant, depressing 1980s setting, and the effective moments in this episode come from our being made to feel that we are trying to help and/or victimising the troubled protagonist, and that whether we want to or not we can't help making things worse for him. But when the episode itself acknowledges that it doesn’t contain much action, is not entertaining in a conventional sense, and feels creepy and pointless and depressing, we need to feel that these are unfair self-criticisms, and that the episode has provided something deeper and more satisfying than cheap thrills. But I just thought, ‘yes, this has been mindlessly bleak and boring, I wish they'd tried harder’.