(Warning: the following article contains spoilers!)
Who doesn’t like a good Choose-your-own-adventure book? Or a multiple-choice video game?
That’s where Netflix original Black Mirror: Bandersnatch’s popularity has its roots. The interactive film gave the viewers a chance to make decisions for its protagonist, Stefan, through his struggles to make a video game out of his favourite choose-your-own-adventure book, Bandersnatch. The decisions range from small choices like what Stefan has for breakfast, to moderately important ones such as whether he talks about his mother’s death with his psychologist, all the way to complete game changers such as whether or not he is willing to jump off a balcony in a drug-induced haze.
The interactivity is established as soon as we start watching, however, if one fails to make a decision in the 10 seconds that the film provides, there is a default choice for every scene that will lead the film through one path.
If we make the wrong decision and pick the ‘wrong path’, the film allows us to see the consequence of our decision and then go back to change it if we want to, letting the viewer explore as many outcomes as they want.
The further we get into the storyline, the clearer it becomes that Stefan’s struggles aren’t solely related to his stress while writing a video game. He seems to be aware that the decisions he is making aren’t his own. His visible realization and panic at this is what made me stop watching the film. His attempts to fight against the decision I made for him – even if it was only the smallest choice between biting his nails or rubbing his ear – made me feel extremely guilty. The film was expertly playing with the viewer’s humanity and took advantage of a general moral code we all get taught at a young age, which is not to cause harm to another person.
Even though the logical side of my brain was aware that I am watching a television programme that was designed for this exact purpose, that the actor I am watching on my screen isn’t really Stefan and he had to shoot every single choice that a viewer could make, seeing his suffering still affected me. Seeing him refuse to throw tea at his computer, like I chose to, and being afraid of whoever was trying to make him do things was making me anxious. Because at that decision, my other option was to: destroy the computer. So the film made me choose between two things that I knew he wouldn’t want to do. In a way, the film was controlling how I controlled him. I couldn’t have a third option, I couldn’t not make a decision because if I hesitated too long, it just went with the default decision…
While I started watching Bandersnatch with fascinated excitement, intrigued to see what different story paths I would be able to explore, I quickly realized that the film was making a point of showing the reality of what it would be like if someone was controlling our decisions, and how quickly that would lead to insanity. Of course, that requires the character to be aware that someone is controlling them, which is a very Matrix-esque feature, a feature that allowed Keanu Reeves’s character to become independent against the Matrix, but a feature that drove Stefan insane and made the viewer paranoid. Stefan wasn’t fighting against a nameless, identity-less system such as the Matrix, he was fighting against us. Against me, you, and anyone else that is watching Bandersnatch. Making it personal and making the average viewer feel uncomfortable in their own skin.