As a writer of several choose-your-own-adventure-style games, I was intrigued by Netflix’s foray into interactive storytelling. Knowing what it takes to code and write and edit and test nonlinear stories, I appreciated the production work that Netflix invested to make a CYOA film. Soon after its release, I spent several hours down the rabbit hole of twists and turns in the story. At times I loved it. At times I hated it. While Bandersnatch is sometimes flawed as interactive fiction, it stands as a metaphor of the illusion of choice. In the end, I thought it was an amazing feat of storytelling and filmmaking.
Set in the 1980s, Bandersnatch is a game inside a story inside a dark fantasy. It centers on Stefan, a young programmer passionate to recreate his favorite book, Bandersnatch, as a video game. The book happens to be a choose-your-own-adventure story, fitting for a CYOA-based film. As you watch, you realize that the theme of the story is choice. How much free will do we truly have? What external forces influence our decisions? Other writers have reviewed this episode of Netflix’s popular Black Mirror series. As a game writer, my review looks at Bandersnatch as an interactive story. Below includes minor spoilers, but I restrict my discussion to the mechanics of storytelling.
All of the decision points in Bandersnatch consist of two options, presented at the bottom of the screen. You are given ten seconds to tap or click on one of the two options to direct the story. As a game writer, I generally develop choices with three or more options to provide players a breadth of paths to play. With a text-based game, adding additional paths can be time-consuming but far less than in a film. Consider the need to write, shoot, and edit an extra scene. Writing multiple scenes to shoot numerous paths can explode a production budget. Apparently, this episode took 35 days to shoot for five hours of film.
Still, I wished some decision points offered more than two options, since most boiled down to fake choices anyway. Which leads me to…
Many of the paths in Bandersnatch are fake, which has led to some criticism of the episode. The first decision point asks the viewer to select Stefan’s choice of breakfast cereal. I abhor such choices in a game. Most add nothing to the narrative nor develop the character. Sometimes, writers offer such a fake choice for flavor—giving a viewer a bit of added characterization or reaction from characters. It’s possible the team behind Bandersnatch used this cereal choice to train the viewer. Choosing Sugar Puffs or Frosties does not change the story, but viewers see a cut scene based on their decision and witness callbacks to this decision later in the film (for example, Stefan sees a TV ad for Frosties if chosen earlier).
The first major choice occurs when the main character must choose to accept or refuse the deal to write Bandersnatch for Tuckersoft, a computer game company. As with most decision points in this episode, the story provides no information on what to expect by selecting path A or B. Either choice could lead anywhere, and viewers have not even a clue what to expect. They cannot make even an educated guess.
In a game, players frown on this approach. It’s like presenting options to go left or right in a maze. You have no way to predict how your choice will affect the story or characters. Your choice amounts to a guess. A better written choice would be—should Stefan develop the game A. With a team or B. Alone. After watching this early scene, I became disappointed in the storytelling (a feeling later erased). I felt the writers of this Black Mirror episode were committing a classic bait-and-switch error. If I learn my choices don’t matter, should I continue at all?
No Turning Back
I continued watching and encountered another mechanic, no rewinding. Once you select a path, you cannot rewind to try the other path. This is good! This is how Choice of Games (my main publisher) sets up their games. If a player can erase their last choice at will, it takes away the impact of their decision. There is no consequence for a less-than-desired choice.
But later on in the story, certain options lead to dead ends—failure points that end the game. In these instances, a Go Back button appears, allowing you to backtrack to the last choice. In typical CYOA games, this would be frowned upon. Such options lessen the progression of the story and break immersion. For this interactive film, such mechanisms allow the storytellers to take viewers on a ride through the many scenes of the episode. In fact, the loops and turns never end. Just when I got to the end and credits rolled, another choice popped up. I re-watched scenes and followed Stefan down new branches of the story. I started to realize the true meaning of the story:
The illusion of free will.
Stefan’s story truly focused on choice and free will. Is he in control of his story? Is he being directed by external forces and by extension, are the viewers in control or puppets of the storytellers? Are we all being railroaded through one large story? In the end, Bandersnatch succeeds in exploring the themes of interactivity and free will. It’s a story of choices about the choices we make. Though at times, I was frustrated with the illusion of choice, I came to see this episode as a major step forward in interactive storytelling.