Black Mirror: Bandersnatch and the Illusion of Choice
Black Mirror: Bandersnatch wants the viewer to feel in control...until suddenly they are not.
The following contains spoilers for Black Mirror: Bandersnatch.
I really just wanted the best for Stefan Butler in Black Mirror: Bandersnatch.
As portrayed by Fionn Whitehead, Stefan is quite like a lot of the best video game protagonists. He’s a being created to elicit empathy in his “controller.” Like The Legend of Zelda’s Link (so named because he was to be a “link” between the video game player and the sprawling world of Hyrule), Stefan is the strong silent type. He reacts with his big, doe eyes to the madness and wonder around him. Since Bandersnatch is a “choose your own adventure” story developed under Netflix’s new Netflix Interactive imprint, the viewer (that is to say me) takes control of Stefan’s decisions. And I wanted those decisions to lead to the most pleasant, painless adventure that Stefan could possibly experience. Alas, that wasn’t to be.
When Stefan is presented with two choices of cereal, I attempted to choose the healthier-seeming option. Unfortunately my Netflix account glitched out and I could only proceed by giving Stefan some sugar puffs. When Stefan was offered gainful employment at a video game company, I accepted for him without a second thought. Even in the booming economy of 1984 Great Britain, a kid’s gotta eat. Of course Stefan and Bandersnatch did not like this decision as neither found it creatively fulfilling and I was forced to go back to the beginning. Every time there was a choice between making a destructive decision regarding the video game, Bandersnatch, that Stefan was developing or making a destructive decision regarding his own mental health and family life, I chose the former. And every time the plot would wrap back around until I was forced to re-do said decision into something more dramatic.
I only wanted the best for Stefan Butler. But Black Mirror writer Charlie Brooker and his demonic creation, Bandersnatch, only wanted the worst. Charlie “Bandersnatch” Brooker always won out…and that’s kind of the whole point of this weird, fairly intriguing creation. There is no choice in this choose your adventure.
We are not hurting for choice in the entertainment landscape of 2018. Unlike the poor chuds back in Charlie Brooker’s 1984, we don’t have to wait to hear what the reviews are like for the three or four new games that come out each year. There are dozens, if not hundreds of quality video games for countless platforms released every month. The film industry is going strong with dozens of releases every month that can be watched in theaters or viewed on one of the many “black mirrors” we all have lying around our homes at any given moment. And television? Don’t even get me started on television. TV network FX releases a study each year to the press analyzing how many original scripted shows appeared on television and streaming for that year. 2018 saw yet another record with 495 scripted TV shows airing. 495 shows! You want a choose your own adventure? You have 495 options on television alone.
That’s why originally it seemed like Black Mirror, Brooker, and Netflix were embarking on somewhat of an anachronistic fool’s errand in developing a choose-your-own-adventure Black Mirror event. Sure, the technology exists now to allow viewers to make their own decisions when watching some hot, fresh content. But why would they need to when every pop culture decision one makes now is effectively a choose-your-own-adventure? As it turns out with Bandersnatch, Brooker opts to do something he’s done many times before: subverts the medium. This is a choose your own adventure in name only. Yes, there are several possible endings but none of them are happy. None of them are the ending I wanted for my sweet Stefan. Stefan is rightfully panicked about the prospect of an unseen hand controlling him. We, as the viewers, should be equally concerned about the unseen hand of Charlie Brooker controlling us.
“Do you know what the ‘Pac’ in Pacman stands for? Program and control,” drugged up video game developer Colin Ritman tells Stefan partway through Bandersnatch. “He thinks he’s got free will. But in reality he’s trapped in a maze.” Colin’s not wrong. Video games have evolved immeasurably since the good old Pacman days. But even the least prescriptive and most freeform video games have a rough path or even ending in mind for the gamer.
Let’s go back to Zelda for a moment. In the legendary Ocarina of Time for Nintendo 64, the player has an uncommon amount of control over Link. The world of Hyrule is incredibly vast for the standards of that gaming era. In theory, you and your buddy Link never have to save Princess Zelda or the Kingdom of Hyrule at all. You can simply gleefully smash pots in Kakariko Village looking for rupees for eternity. But the game doesn’t want you to do that. There is a plot here. There are dungeons to be mastered and demons to be slain. So in the interest of completing the game and justifying the $60 or so you spent, you follow the path. For as much as the sensitive viewer may want Link to live a happy little life amongst the Kokiri, living a happy little life amongst the Kokiri is boring. Our thumbs want action and action they receive.
Even in the most modern Zelda iteration, Breath of the Wild, much of the action is pre-prescribed. This is the most ambitiously open-world Zelda game ever and perhaps even one of the most ambitious and vast video game maps ever. The opportunities to smash pots looking for rupees have been replaced by an endlessly complex and rewarding weapon finding and modding system. There are dungeons once again but these ones don’t even need to be completed in any specific order. In fact, one Twitch streamer recently logged 95 hours in Breath of the Wild before accidentally stumbling upon the opening tutorial.
Still, despite all the options there is a story contained within Breath of the Wild and it’s a story the player is going to want to pursue. Because that’s what our brains do. They find story. And when we’re taking in content and culture made by other people, it’s other people’s stories that we find, regardless of how much control we may think we have.
Black Mirror: Bandersnatch works because it understands that relationship between storyteller and supposed chooser that we see so often in video games. Sure, we think we have choices to make but in the end those choices are simply going to be wrapped into the story that the creator wants to tell. Despite Netflix boasting somewhere near a multiple billion potential choice combinations for Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, there are really only a handful of places that the story can end up. Based on what viewers have uncovered and crowd sourced so far: Stefan can discover that he’s in a TV show, Stefan can kill his father and go to jail, Stefan can decide to die in a train crash in the past, or he can take a couple more bleak paths.
The lack of truly dynamic or different endings isn’t laziness on the part of Brooker but rather commentary. In Bandersnatch, all the different routes his life could take paralyze Stefan. The infamous upside down “Y” Black Mirror symbol turns out to actually represent all the divergent timelines that every single choice we make creates. In Bandersnatch, the terminally mentally ill Stefan becomes paralyzed and deranged by all of those potential outcomes like his literary hero before him, Jerome F. Davies.
The irony is that he needn’t be so stressed. Despite the infinite possibilities that Stefan’s choices create, there are really only a few ultimate outcomes. The invisible hand of the writer guides where Stefan’s story will go just like the invisible hand of programmers guides Pacman and the invisible hand of fate guides ours. Black Mirror: Bandersnatch’s multitude of options simply exists to remind us that in the end there is no choice at all. The best that we can do is to decide what cereal to eat and what music to listen to as it all falls apart.