Bandersnatch: film’s attempt to capture the madness of gaming narrative

Charlie Brooker’s latest addition to the Black Mirror anthology series went down a storm with viewers across the UK last December, remaining well-recommended well into the New Year for its disturbing themes of freedom of choice and the interactive choice-driven narrative.

Though the film faced its fair share of negative criticism, with some claiming that, while impressively constructed and nuanced in its method of storytelling, the narrative concept feels gimmicky. Its critics suggest Bandersnatch is an ill fit with the four critically-acclaimed seasons of Black Mirror that preceded it. This has been attributed to the film’s interactive structure; viewers must make choices for protagonist Stefan Butler in his attempts to adapt a choose-your-own-adventure dark fantasy novel into a video game.

For some a failure, for others a success, this element of Bandersnatch is essential to its plot. It drives Stefan’s descent into the madness as he becomes caught in the complexities of writing the narrative for his game while providing a meta-commentary on the illusion of choice.

It is here Brooker captures the insanity of choice-driven narratives, or moreover, narratives that allow participants to consider their choices. Through Bandersnatch’s fatalist philosophy, anxieties surrounding personal choice and human experiences emphasise the dangers of interacting with them, showing the horror of telling a multi-universe story.

Such has been implied by many writers behind today’s best choice-driven adventure video games, as well as those throughout history: Stefan’s Bandersnatch emulates the maddening nature of building choice-driven video games with dark accuracy. Adam Williams, the lead writer behind Quantic Dream’s most recent title, Detroit: Become Human, noted on publishing of the game that its  multi-faceted narratives could lead the player into over ‘1000 different combinations’ of story endings, adding in a suspiciously Black-Mirror-esque style that ‘you can lose any or indeed all of your playable characters before the end of the story.’ [TB Trusted Reviews] There is certainly something of a violence in contemporary interactive adventure video games, ranging from the heart-pounding conclusion of Square Enix’s paranormal drama, Life is Strange, to the brutality of choosing whether to rescue or harvest the Little Sisters in 2K’s classic first-person horror shooter, Bioshock. In a sense, the grisly fate of Jerome F. Davis and his wife isn’t all too distant from those commonly seen in Telltale’s critically-acclaimed survival adventure game, The Walking Dead.

As the theme of the Black Mirror anthology, it’s fitting that Stefan is haunted by the technological twist of the episode: in this case, as in many, when over-interactivity with technology gets ugly. But on seeing the film’s similarities to current video games – it’s clear Bandersnatch swims well within their current. Why does the plot revolve around the development of a choice-driven video game, based off a choose-your-own-adventure fantasy novel, and why does it do so menacingly?

It isn’t the first time Black Mirror has portrayed video games in the anthology’s darkly cynical approach to technology. Back in 2016, the release of Season 3 brought the episode Playtest to our screens, depicting an American stranded in London taking a one-off job at a high-brow video gaming company so he can pay for a ticket home. It doesn’t go well. Highlighting the potential terrors of virtual reality games in our near future, Playtest drew upon the horror and violence of gaming titles.

There is admittedly something worrying about the content of video games, with areas of the UK public choosing to defend themselves against technology. It was late last year when schools in Gloucestershire issued a warning to parents that Fortnite, Epic Games’ popular battle royale shooter, encouraged aggressive behaviour in students as young as six. [TB Telegraph]

The reasoning behind Bandersnatch’s curse, however, is not so much a part of the game itself as it is its origin: the novel of the crazed Jerome F. Davis. The choose-your-own-adventure novel also has a sordid history. Often set in dark fantasy worlds, like that of the original Bandersnatch novel, these books were laden with dead ends and teems of evil monsters. Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone’s 1982 Fighting Fantasy book series, which set itself apart from other choose-your-own-adventure novels of the time with a dice-based role-playing element to the reading, also features tides of twisted illustrations, depicting emaciated zombies, demonic skeleton lords and creatures much like Brooker’s PAX.

It’s little wonder how the Bandersnatch name manages to haunt Stefan (and later, in some pathways, Pearl) considering the creeping violence that has risen from the choose-your-own-adventure novel to the choice-driven adventure game and now, in the release of Bandersnatch, to the interactive choice-driven film. Whatever medium the choice-driven narratives take, it ends in a horrifying realisation of codependence.

But is the medium of film – rather than that of a video game or novel – slightly behind when it comes to interactive elements? Has something been lost in the incorporation of viewer choice in Bandersnatch? The fault likely lies in the interaction involved in reading a novel or playing a game compared to passively watching films. While Bandersnatch grants us choice over Stefan’s actions, it’s restricted. Open-world role-playing video games, like Bethesda’s Skyrim, allow players to emulate their in-game character to almost endless aspects.

Though to control Stefan completely would lose his character entirely. His resilience against our control is what creates the horror of Bandersnatch. It’s not the aggression of choice-driven narration haunting Stefan – it is the terror of choice-driven narration in games and novels beginning to impose onto film. It’s the form extending over all mediums and the fear viewers have that it could soon become a very real part of their lives.

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Jordan Hunnisett

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May 2022
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