I remember my first encounter with Choose Your Own Adventure books. In the 1990’s, R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps put out a series where choices (eat the alien cake, turn to page 12; feed the alien cake to your brother, turn to page 40) inevitably led the hero down different paths of mayhem, madness, occasionally triumph, most often death. A “Game Over”, so to speak. I was entranced by the idea of multiple outcomes to a single story, and raided my Elementary School library for every CYOA title available. Most were published by Bantam Books, science fiction or fantasy themed. Could you get the best ending on your first try? Could you outsmart the author? You had to be clever, despite the fact that more often than not, dumb luck was the only thing that determined your fate.
The late 70s, 80s and 90s also saw the advent of the home computer game, most particularly text adventure games where inputting words on your keyboard would help you navigate a scary or fantastical word. (If you’ve seen Big, the game our hero plays is a perfect example.) As technology advanced, manual text input aged out, and choices you could select on the screen became the norm for branching video game paths.
As you can see, the mid 80’s is pretty much where this stopped evolving.
Except, you might argue, in Netflix’s latest Black Mirror offering, “Bandersnatch.”
What is “Bandersnatch”?
If you haven’t “watched” “Bandersnatch” yet, stop reading this, carve out about two hours that you can devote to it, then come back. Unless you don’t give a hoot about spoilers and find this whole “choose your own inevitable Black Mirror nightmare” stuff trite and dull. In which case, read on!
“Bandersnatch” is an interactive episode of Black Mirror, Charlie Booker’s anthology series about technology and human frailty. When you play it on a SmartTV, a laptop, a mobile phone, or any other device that accepts input, you can choose different paths for our main character, Stefan Butler, a nineteen year old English game designer with some Black Mirror-esque problems.
Black Mirror has its fair share of haters. I am not amongst them. From episode 2, “Fifteen Million Merits” I was hooked on Booker’s imaginative and subversive worlds. Not to mention his intelligent approach to production design and impeccable taste in casting both here in America and across the pond. (You may recognize Whitehead above as the lead of Chris Nolan’s Dunkirk. “Fifteen Million Merits” stars Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya. Another episode “Be Right Back” stars the perfect Hayley Atwell. I could go on.) Booker’s science fiction has become iconic because it confronts the audience with its present relationship to technology instead of a hypothetical relationship hundreds, if not thousands of years off. Those who can’t stand the show often call it technophobic, “grimdark”, or intentionally depraved and upsetting for upsetting’s sake. While I agree that Booker enjoys playing in a pretty dark sandbox, every now and then he surprises us with charm, wit, and even romance. And I wouldn’t call Black Mirror “technophobic” in the slightest. The enemy in every Black Mirror episode is a human failing, not a piece of a technology.
Except for “Bandersnatch.”
Which seems to be about…nothing.
“Bandersnatch” opens on a classic Groundhog Day style shot - alarm clock rings, Stefan wakes up in bed, and a title card tells us we’re in 1984, the golden age of Adventure Games. We already anticipate all the other times we’ll see Stefan rise from this startled sleep after our choices inevitably go wrong. Stefan is clearly a little off, as he settles into breakfast with a Bible-thick book entitled Bandersnatch. “It’s a choose your own adventure book,” he tells his surely doomed father. Booker gets meta right off the bat, centering his Choose Your Own Adventure story around a character who is programming a Choose Your Own Adventure story based on a Choose Your Own Adventure Story. Along the way you are presented with mundane choices (what will Stefan eat for breakfast, what music does he listen to on his commute.) This is fun and introduces you to the mechanic. I couldn’t help but giggle at how charming it must have been for the crew and cast to reshoot the same scene just a little different.
Stefan arrives at Tuckersoft to pitch his game and meets his idol, Collin (Will Poulter,) a developer whose grim detachment signals he knows more than he lets on about this “so called planet” we all live on, yeeaaahh man. When Stefan is presented with a choice to develop his game in house with Tuckersoft, choosing the obvious answer “yes!” leads to an immediate Game Over, and Collin sadly announcing “you made the wrong choice, man”. Stefan, upset with his result announces to his father, “I can try again. I’m going to try again”.
And you do! Alarm clock, wham! Stefan wakes up again. You get a charmingly done recap of what you’ve already seen, leading back to a slightly different scene at Tuckersoft, where Collin notes that Stefan and he have met before. Collin, with his bleach blonde hair and laughably morose video game about falling to your death, has emerged as the fourth wall bend-y trope, the guide, the dimension walker who will shatter your perception and rewrite the world as you know it. This time, Stefan must turn down the deal to progress the story (I tried to say “yes” multiple times to see if there was a different outcome - there isn’t.)
Then, of course, things get a wee bit out of control.
Funnily enough, the man who wrote the Bandersnatch book went completely nuts, decapitated his wife, and became convinced “people were controlling him”. He drew this symbol on the wall in his wife’s blood: a branching path.
This surely will turn out well for our hero.
Who, we learn just a scene later, is being seen by a psychiatrist and taking drugs to combat a vague mental illness perhaps triggered by the death of his mother. In another achingly on-the-nose bit, five-year-old Stefan blames his mother’s death on his refusal to stop looking for a toy. If she hadn’t missed her train, she never would have boarded the next one set to derail only fifteen minutes later. Choices! They’re so final, aren’t they? Or maaaayyybeee…
Cue the many branching paths of “Bandersnatch” which becomes less and less of a story and more of a hunt to see every ending, most of which run the gamut of CYOcliche:
The meta ending: “we’re on Netflix lol”.
You died a bunch.
The “it was a government experiment all along” ending
The “You should have taken your meds” ending.
The “YOU REALLY SHOULD HAVE TAKEN YOUR MEDS” ending.
As I traversed through each and every path, appreciating the top-notch performances and design, all I could think was:
“Any second now, I’m going to actually feel something.”
As the credits after the credits rolled (I got every ending we’re aware of at this moment) I was left utterly unsatisfied. Sure, there are rumors of a sixth “secret” ending that might require some genius amongst us to break open the fake Tuckersoft website to get a line of code they can upload to the Netflix mainframe by creating a profile under the name “SanJunipero4TW”, but troglodytes seem to have access to five.
“Bandersnatch”’s content never surpasses its form. I don’t think it even tries.
Everything in the writing of “Bandersnatch” is in service of its CYOA mechanic. The actual story is paper thin. It’s the dictionary definition of a gimmick.
“gimmick (n.): something invented esp. for the purpose of attracting attention and that has no other purpose or value”
Sure, Booker throws some fourth-dimension mutterings at you during a scene where Stefan and Collin take hallucinogens. He tries to tie in Pac-Man, asking us to transpose our own lives onto the digital existence of the coin-muncher. “Pac-Man doesn’t care if he dies, he just tries again.” He dances over the idea of free will as we make choices for Stefan he either obeys or disobeys. He even vaguely comments on what we consider “entertainment” through a meta ending where Stefan’s therapist pulls out some nun-chucks and a (pretty poorly executed) kill-or-be-killed action sequence begins. But all of these feel woefully tacked on. Even the most moving ending - the only one that appeals to any investment we might have in Stefan as a human being - has confusing messaging about our tragic inability to rewrite the past. Stefan is able to go back to the moment where his mother is about to leave for the doomed train, and he has the option to accompany her and die. Why can’t he tell her not to go? Why does Stefan in the 80’s die from a timeline rupture when Collin seems to survive falling off a building just fine in many variations? What about Stefan’s father, who seems to survive in some timelines despite being artfully beamed in others?
Then there’s my personally least favorite batch of endings, wherein Stefan’s decision to stop taking his meds (something we have no choice but to tell him to do at a certain point), leads to him murdering his father and imitating the author of his game’s inspiration. Does Stefan have psychosis or depression? Is he bipolar or does he have OCD? Booker never bothers to tell us. Instead, he lets us question if our choices for Stefan are a demonic presence or symptoms of generalized psychosis, both unoriginal and woefully outdated re the discussion art should be having about mental health in 2018.
“Bandersnatch” feels a lot like the CYOA books of my youth in that they were made to be quick reads for children. Few, if any, had anything lofty or moving to say. They were time wasters, brain-benders, puzzles with a bit of context for flavor. They were shallow.
But Booker, presented with an incredible opportunity to develop this kind of medium with Netflix, could easily go deep. He’s more than capable of creating relevant, moving and haunting tales, and that’s probably why I found “Bandersnatch”, waterlogged by cliche and tacked on “wtf” moments, to be such a let-down. It’s good fun, but really nothing more. Two hours after I watched it, I literally couldn’t recall the main character’s name.
“Come on. What do you expect? It’s basically a video game,” some might say. Hilarious, considering video games (hell, text adventures) have been doing and succeeding at what Booker tries with “Bandersnatch” for thirty years. Disappointing, considering video games are still considered a lesser artistic medium in the eyes of the general public, for the very reasons I rail against this Netflix special: they’re shallow, immature, have little artistic or literary ambition.
About six years ago, I played a video game called Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, created by Kotaro Uchikoshi. It’s a visual novel where you solve puzzles and make branching choices to determine your ending. The game was the first in the “Zero Escape” trilogy, followed by Virtue’s Last Reward and Zero Time Dilemma.
If you want some transcendent meta-fiction, look no further.
Where “Zero Escape” shines is exactly where “Bandersnatch” fails. Uchikoshi prioritizes characters and relationships while never awkwardly highlighting mechanics. Without spoiling a second of these masterpieces, he stretches his medium (a video game) to tell a mind-bending and emotional (sometimes winking at melodramatic) story where form and content are inseparable, rather than bumping elbows or pointing at one another with neon signs blinking “GET IT????” Uchikoshi is about as big of a meta fiction/fourth-dimension nerd as you can get, but he knows that having a few characters go, “hey, what if we were in a video game, LOL?” isn’t enough to break ground or even get an audience to care. “Zero Escape” is about family, destiny, romantic love, heroism and human connection through the lens of theoretical physics and CYOA game mechanics.
“Bandersnatch” is about nothing but itself. Even its Ouroborous of a premise seems a tip-off to that very fact. Booker had a chance to make a film with ample resources and actors who might genuinely be wise to start picking out Oscar shelf-space. And in a film with choices, he decided on “choice” as a theme.
“Yawn” does not begin to describe.
If “Bandersnatch” had no menus, it would be nothing. A weird, atonal comment on mental health or maybe grief. The film is so allergic to sentiment it renders itself unfeeling and utterly forgettable.
A film like this doesn’t have to be chronologically linear. It doesn’t have to have a “reset” mechanic (as tempting and fun as that is). It doesn’t have to follow one character. Your choice from scene one can beautifully pay off in scene thirteen. Choices can be hidden in the scenery rather than in the menu. Not making a choice can be a choice (as it often is in life).
“Bandersnatch” deserves praise for possibly opening the door for future titles. There is a better version - hell, there is a fucking transcendent version of this format waiting to be written. I hope Netflix or another provider gives that a chance.