Wednesday 16 January 2019

8 things I learned from grappling with Netflix's interactive film Bandersnatch

Bandersnatch
Bandersnatch
Black Mirror: Bandersnatch

Ed Power

It's the game-changing Netflix experiment that has driven viewers silly with delight and bafflement. We of course refer to Bandersnatch, the new feature-length episode of dystopian drama Black Mirror that ventures where TV has never previously dared tread by putting the audience in charge.

*WARNING: MILD SPOILERS*

Bandersnatch's unique twist is that the punter at home on the couch gets to pick where the story goes via a series of "choose your own adventure" style menus.

This isn't quite a first – Netflix has already experimented with the tech with kids' shows Puss In Boots and Minecraft. However, Black Mirror's technophobic world view makes it the perfect framing device for an interactive film that doubles as a cautionary meditation on the meaning of free will.

 

1: What's it about?

Bandersnatch is set in the early 80s UK video game industry. This is the era when rubber-keyed ZX Spectrums ruled the land and games came on cassette tapes and took forever to load.

Our hero is Stefan Butler (Fionn Whitehead), a would-be programmer whose half-finished game, Bandersnatch, is adapted from a choose your own adventure book by mad author Jerome F Davies (who went completely bonkers not long afterwards and decapitated his wife).  

Stefan convinces scrappy software house Tuckersoft to publish his game – assuming he finishes it on time. What could possibly go wrong?

 

2: How does it work?

Early on, Stefan's decisions are seemingly inconsequential. Which sugar-coated cereal should he have for breakfast? What ought he listen to on the bus to his Tuckersoft pitch? Further on, though, the choices become more important – so that ultimately Stefan is placed in a series of life or death situations.

The way the decision-making works will be familiar to anyone raised on choose your own adventure books. Two options appear at the bottom of the screen and you have 10 seconds to tap one. Delay and Bandersnatch will – apparently at random - reach a decision for you.

 

3: It's not a game?

Not really. You can't "win" Bandersnatch. This being Charlie Brooker and Black Mirror the story turns bleak regardless of what you decide. However, there are a reported five separate endings so the course you chart does have very real consequences for Stefan. It is, for instance, up to you to determine whether Bandersnatch hits the shelves and if it's any good.

 

4: A film about early 80s video games sounds a bit dull

Under the plastic casing, Bandersnatch grapples with universal themes; families, the secrets our nearest and dearest withhold from us, and the lengths to which we are prepared to push ourselves to make our dreams come true. It's all in there and even if you couldn't tell a Commodore 64 from a 21-gun salute, Bandersnatch is sure to get under your skin.

 

5: Who are the stars?

Stefan is played by Fionn Whitehead, the English actor known for Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk. Will Poulter, who portrays ace coder Colin Ritman, was previously seen in Son of Rambow and The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian. Crazed Jerome Davies is played by real life video games designer Jeff Minter.

bander 1.jpg
Bandersnatch

 

6: You don't need to have watched Black Mirror

You should really have binged on all four seasons already. But no… Bandersnatch is completely stand-alone. There are winks towards past episodes (see below) but nothing that will detract from the fun for newcomers.

Black Mirror Season 4 - all the new episodes reviewed and ranked

 

7: How long is it?

On average, viewers have reported that it takes circa 90 minutes to make their way through the film. A reported five hours of footage were shot, however, and you can cycle back and change your mind every so often. There's a lot to get stuck into.

 

8: It's loaded with Easter eggs obviously?

Of course. One important symbol references the earlier Black Mirror episode White Bear. And the clinic Stefan attends winks towards the Emmy-nominated 2017 instalment San Junipero.

Depending on the path you take, the Bandersnatch may even lead you to a playable version of a Tuckersoft game. (You can check out the Tuckersoft site HERE)

The name Bandersnatch itself is a massive nod – there really was a ZX Spectrum game of that title, though the collapse of the software house producing it doomed it to never see the light of day.

Read more: Settle in for dry January - here’s what’s new to Netflix day by day

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