Disclaimer: This review contains minor spoilers of “Black Mirror’s” interactive episode “Bandersnatch.”
The most recent installment of Netflix’s “Black Mirror” is drawing attention not only for the content of the episode, but also for its unique execution and nonlinear storyline. While the series is known for exploring sci-fi technology through macabre plotlines, the themes and moral issues explored in “Bandersnatch” are not as far off into the future as we think. Interactive media is more than just a gimmick, and the choice to opt out of it might not be ours to make.
Interactivity in media
“Bandersnatch” is an interactive film. Similar to “Choose Your Own Adventure” books (the publisher of which is actually suing Netflix over trademark infringement) or early computer adventure games, the viewer is presented with simple choices throughout the show. Media in this format gives the viewer a personalized experience, as different choices lead to different subplots or entire endings of a story.
Interactive films are not a new phenomenon. Netflix alone has released a handful of interactive episodes since 2017, and the idea of interactive movies was popularized by the video game/film hybrid “Dragon’s Lair” in 1983. Until now, the most common audiences of this format have been children and niche audiences.
Unlike its predecessors, “Bandersnatch” is the first truly modern iteration of an interactive film for a widespread adult audience. The options feel natural to the storyline and the scene transitions are seamless. A timer counts down and automatically selects a default if the viewer fails to make a decision in time. Characters continue talking while the timer counts down, emulating real life pressures and immersing you further into the episode. No awkward pauses, repeated dialogue, or dead air surround the choices.
“Bandersnatch” also saves prior decisions, regardless of whether they are the “wrong” option. If you make a choice that forces you back to an earlier part of the episode or makes you “re-do” a scene, characters hint at a feeling of déjà vu. This self-awareness gives you a sense of full control over the film because no possibility is truly wrong or right.
This concept of interactivity amplifies the effects of the viewer’s choices rather than making them a gimmick. Outcomes of choices are often unpredictable and there are times where the plot feels like it is leading you to a decision but doesn’t actually give you one. “Bandersnatch” pushes the limits and expectations of the interactive film genre.
Free will in predetermined choice
“Bandersnatch” has a myriad of possible endings. In some circumstances, when the viewer reaches an ending, they are given the option to either view the credits or continue on with the story by trying a different possibility from one they previously picked.
Still, all of the endings share similar themes. In true “Black Mirror” fashion, the protagonist grapples with moral and existential questions throughout the story. The endings either sum up the story or leave you with an unsettled feeling- depending on which ending you get and how you interpret it.
The theme of choice is what makes “Bandersnatch” entertaining. Choices range from seemingly trivial things such as picking which brand of cereal the protagonist eats to much darker situations such as choosing which characters live or die, and each one entirely up to the viewer.
If you pick a certain path, the protagonist begins to wonder whether he has free will or if someone is making decisions for him. You have free reign over the protagonist, can choose to solidify this thought and drive him to insanity.
This is where the moral dilemmas in “Bandersnatch” become real. Surely anyone would go insane if they knew their actions were not their own. Regardless of your religion or spiritual belief, if you knew that some otherworldly being was forcing you to read this newspaper rather than doing it of your own free will, you would feel violated, confused and helpless.
We enjoy making extreme decisions when they do not affect us. For example, I had no problem driving the protagonist to a murderous rage simply because I wanted to see how my choice would play out in the story. I’m sure many other viewers would pick the same option.
Yet, regardless of the decisions that led us to whichever ending, all of the scenes are predetermined. The writers and producers carefully created each choice and each scene for the viewer. No matter which pathway you take or which ending you get, the entire episode is predetermined. As the viewer, you have no true free will throughout the episode.
“Bandersnatch” explores the theme of free will through its plotline, yet also challenges this concept through predetermined choices and scenes given to the viewer.
Interactivity in the future
The sheer novelty of interactive media makes it fun to use, but in the future, films like “Bandersnatch” could be used in ways that benefit both the viewers, producers, and streaming services.
The first choices “Bandersnatch” presents the viewer are to pick which breakfast cereal the protagonist eats and which soundtrack he listens to on the bus (which is then played in that scene). These details are trivial in the grand scheme of the plot and mainly serve as aesthetics.
In the future, the implementation of allowing the viewer to choose their prefered details in a film could be used to widen the films’ intended audience and make viewers happier. If Netflix knows that I love fruity cereal and jazz, incorporating those aspects into the show I am watching might subconsciously make me enjoy the show more.
Netflix could also use data about viewers to alter the genres of the shows. For example, if I continuously choose to kill characters in interactive films, Netflix might use this data to recommend me horror films. This could be taken even further to alter scenes in the shows I choose to watch. If I were watching an action film, scenes involving romance might be shortened and scenes involving violence or action might be lengthened in an attempt to appeal to my taste.
It’s not far-fetched to think of possibilities like this in the near future. Netflix has already implemented complex algorithms into their recommendations and curates show title cards to appeal to individual users. Interactive films are just another way for streaming services to gather data about their customers.
When interactivity is no longer a choice
The applications of the technology of interactive film have the potential to change media in ways that run much deeper than simply choosing what cereal a protagonist eats for breakfast.
It’s no secret media companies track consumers in possibly unethical ways to get our money. Facebook is notorious for tapping into smartphone microphones without our knowledge to show us advertisements curated to our recent conversations. Google constantly tracks the location of Android phones and shows advertisements or recommendations based on where we go. While these are occasionally helpful, many people find this sort of tracking unsettling, especially when they didn’t explicitly consent to it.
User data of interactive film choices could be sold to advertisers or used against us. In the future, it’s possible advertisements might make their way into TV shows similar to how they end up in our Facebook feed. Streaming companies could use this data to sell us things subliminally in our favorite TV shows. Instead of being able to choose to watch a Froot Loops advertisement on Hulu, Froot Loops might find their way onto the breakfast table of the TV show you’re watching.