Netflix has been experimenting with the ‘choose-your-own adventure’ format for a while now. The release of Black Mirror: Bandersnatch has led some to suggest this is #TheNextBigThing which will transform the way we consume movies.
On the surface, being able to interact with the storyline is very appealing for ‘generation click,’ but despite its novelty, I don’t believe this format will become mainstream. The simple reason is that it doesn’t have the ability to satisfy viewers in the same way as the traditional storyline, which is humanity’s most enduring art form for a reason.
Bandersnatch works, but only because at its heart, it’s a traditional narrative. It’s also very clever and self-aware. The viewer gets to influence events by making decisions about what breakfast cereal the protagonist eats through to whether he murders and chops up his father. Each decision may lead down a different pathway, but a surprising number end with patricide. The ‘happiest’ ending leads to his death.
The obvious message is that choice is an illusion. This can be interpreted in an existential way, or even as a comment on the current political situation, but I believe the main theme of the film is that those who don’t deal with their emotional demons are destined to be destroyed by them.
The Limits of Choice
Despite the focus on choice, the most important event in the story, the death of Stefan’s mother in a train accident when he was five, can’t be altered. He blames both himself and his father for her demise because his father hid his favorite stuffed toy the night before, causing his mother to end up on the ill-fated later train.
His mother’s death is the literal source of the story, as it’s a novel belonging to her that fuels his passion to create a computer game based on the book. Her death also provides what story analyst Lisa Cron calls the ‘juice’, because everything that happens to Stefan stems from this early trauma and his response to it.
This film about choice provides no pathway where the tragedy can be avoided because without true self-knowledge, choice isn’t possible. Once a trajectory is set in motion by a significant event, it will play out to the end, despite the appearance of free will. We, the viewer, are in the same position as Stefan, as all our choices are superficial. Stefan recognizes that he is being controlled by something else (in this interpretation it’s his grief and anger), but he doesn’t have the ability to fundamentally change direction, as much as he wants to. Just as Shakespeare’s tragic characters have fatal flaws which inevitably lead to their downfalls, so does Stefan, because he lacks the insight and maturity to forgive himself and his father for his mother’s death.
Why We Need Story
We become invested in Stefan’s journey because his backstory has an internal logic that we recognize as true. This is what keeps the narrative grounded and prevents it flying off in unexpected directions which would have resulted in a completely different kind of film. A nod is given to more outlandish possibilities when Stefan discovers he is being controlled by a Netflix viewer from the future.
Bandersnatch is successful because its themes and format complement each other, and this is why many reviewers who appreciate the movie have no desire to see the format replicated.
Lisa Cron says that story is hardwired into our brains, and it’s the characters’ internal struggles that compel us to keep coming back for more. The ‘choose-your-own adventure’ format won’t become mainstream in my opinion because people turn to narrative to escape from themselves and their choices. We want to be immersed in other worlds and carried along by their internal momentum, not just to get away from ourselves, but to learn things about life and other people.
Interrupting the flow of the story to force the viewer to make choices destroys this magic and it’s not conducive to good storytelling either. The pressure to come up with multiple story lines for mainstream films would result in movie versions of the shoddy, half-baked books I disliked as a child. That’s not to say there won’t be some inventive and unique films in this style, but they’ll be exceptions rather than the rule.
Bandersnatch is not going to change the way stories are told in film, but its impact on computer games might be different. There are already many games that incorporate narrative quests and character development, but whether gamers will embrace this on a wider scale remains to be seen. I hope they do because the possibilities for gaming truly are endless.