We all know the feeling of being stuck on Netflix. Exhausted by the day we had today. Exhausted by the day we’ll have tomorrow. Stalled, browsing, waiting for something to crest above the threshold of boredom so that we’ll click; vainly hoping that we’ll find something good enough to entertain, but maybe not too good that we come out further fatigued.
I say this as someone who shares this sentiment, sometimes grandly called the ‘tyranny of choice’ – but which really feels like a form of entertainment itself where we fantasise about the thousands of possible shows that might exist behind each title’s pithy snippet and slick montage. Like, fuck, couldn’t this show have even attempted to meet my wildest dreams?
We – and by ‘we’ I mean ‘me’, but also the content-saturated among us that probably played ‘Bandersnatch’ over the New Year period – all know the feeling. If it’s not Netflix, it’s Stan. If it’s not Stan, maybe it is Steam. Or your pool of podcasts that you’ve subscribed to but not actually started. Or maybe it’s the 500 tabs on your browser that you’ll one day clear up, but that you’re just hoping you’ll lose rather than have to sort through.
But if you clicked on the Black Mirror interactive episode, ‘Bandersnatch’, you’ll have shifted into a different realm of Netflix engagement. ‘Bandersnatch’ is genuinely interesting, because like all Black Mirror works, I would argue that it tells us something about the present, and something about the future.
‘Bandersnatch’ raises questions about what Netflix is going to do in the future, including showing that Netflix can be operated as a games platform (irrespective of questions of whether that’s a good idea or not).
A short history of Black Mirror
There is something of a joke in the world of academic communication and media studies that the Black Mirror television series is a repackaging of a university degree in the field. It’s true that the series provides eminently teachable and proleptic moments throughout: in ‘The National Anthem’, the British Prime minister has intercourse with a pig, live on air, mirroring David Cameron’s Pig-gate moment in 2015. In ‘Be Right Back’, a woman purchases an android that looks like her deceased partner and gives it a consciousness built from his social media postings, mirroring post-mortem deathbots such as the Eterni.me service. ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ heralds something of the popular significance of both ‘likes’ and of reality TV, that, again, mirrors the social credit scoring systems proposed recently in China (also known as ‘Sesame Credit’, although this is only one of the possible implementations). While the educational value of such moments is varied to say the least, the show does seem to have a knack, whether intentional or not to make a commentary on the near-future and, at the very least, creates something of a shared social earworm that we feel compelled to discuss.
Charlie Brooker, Black Mirror’s creator, studied media at university – but was dismissed from the degree for submitting a 15,000-word final thesis on videogames ‘without bothering to check whether that was a valid topic, which it wasn’t’. Brooker’s passion for the subject is visible in his TV specials: NewsWipe, GamesWipe, ScreenWipe, etc., where he gives a pretty decent rundown on the process of production and genre across a range of popular media. After cutting his chops on these, he managed to get Black Mirror off the ground – something of a combination of the original Twilight Zone, Philip K Dick, and, I guess, the news.
‘Bandersnatch’ is quite different from all the other Black Mirror material that’s come since. Firstly, it’s the only episode (if we can call it that – and I think we can) that is set before the present, in the halcyon days of the 1980s games boom. Secondly, it’s the only episode where diegetic technology is not the culprit of the problems that the show wants to discuss. You – the viewer/player – are the culprit. It’s you who guides Stefan freewheeling through a maze of crappy life decisions that ultimately leave him, and you, in an endless loop of experiences of game development. There are a few gestures to more profound and cryptic origins to Stefan’s problems, but this seems to be a product of game dev psychosis as much as anything extrinsic.
So, what then, to make of the most recent Black Mirror release, ‘Bandersnatch’? Critiques have ranged from suggesting that it ‘falls so short of the standard’ for Black Mirror, to devaluing the decision-making aspects, through to Daily Beast’s fairly clear title suggesting that ‘Netflix’s Choose Your Own Adventure Movie Is a Gimmicky Disappointment’ with a distinct sentiment running throughout that there’s a need to evaluate whether or not it’s ‘really’ a game or ‘really’ television (putting aside whether we can ‘really’ call Netflix television anymore). The New York Times even goes so far to compare it to The Sopranos, effectively suggesting that the ending to the Sopranos wouldn’t have been any better if audiences were in control of what happens to Tony.
I don’t disagree, but the comparison is improper. Within the comfortable forms that we’re used to, ‘Bandersnatch’ isn’t really a game and it isn’t really TV. Comparing it to The Sopranos just seems so exceptionally restricted as a thought process, where the editor lives in a world where content is compared due to shared release dates rather than similarities in goals or form or style. Despite a number of prominent outlets providing fairly lacklustre reviews, it does enough things differently on its own terms that it’s a worthwhile avenue for interrogation.
Choosing your own adventure
If you’ve somehow made it this far into this article without having playing ‘Bandersnatch’ then a simple synopsis is in order. In the game, you watch short sequences of filmed video about a young computer programmer, Stefan, and make a choice between two options about what happens in his life. Sometimes you have control of Stefan, sometimes you have control of the circumstances around him.
As you play through, you unlock different options and get caught in causal loops that you have to escape, à la La Jetée, Groundhog Day, Majora’s Mask and Back to the Future. Alongside this, Stefan gains increasing awareness of his lack of control, until he recognises the viewer as his antagonist.
‘Bandersnatch’ doesn’t really operate like TV because it demands a different type of interactivity than Netflix usually needs. I think there is something quite different about the type of collective interactivity that ‘Bandersnatch’ allows; at least in my household, the few precious seconds that we were given to make our decisions within were a flurry of activity and thinking-out-loud, as we tried to come to a conclusion about what would be the best course of action. Part of the experience was about working out what or whose side we’re on.
Did we want Stefan to survive, to be directed into murder, or to succeed in his game? Or were we happy with him living a pretty normal life with a non-successful game release? ‘Bandersnatch’ doesn’t really offer us much choice, as games go, and if we leave it alone it’ll just make choices for us. But it does offer the ability to decide between things, and this is what makes it unique from the other fare that Netflix offers.
The whole experience of ‘Bandersnatch’ has raised two points in the public consciousness: one, ‘are they going to do it again?’; two, ‘are they tracking us?’
I for one hope that Netflix (or whomever) are going to try this again. It’s something genuinely new in the world of online content delivery, and shows that these platforms can be used to experiment with new media forms. In this sense, the proleptic future that ‘Bandersnatch’ refers to is one that it may indeed be responsible for, in effect fulfilling its own prophecy about an increasing production of choose-your-own-adventure games that vacillate wildly between zero and five stars, likely causing the mental and physical health of the production crew to deteriorate proportionately.
Alongside this is a promise of a different type of viewership habit, one that brings audiences together in new ways – in a manner more akin to collective watching of sports, where everyone voices their opinions about what the person in control should do next. At least with regards to the way that both audience and content can be engaged differently, Netflix is hinting at a future where games are played collectively, and in a way that perhaps challenges the traditional console market’s domination of living-room videogaming. The idea of activating non-player viewers has been a challenge for years, with developments such as online esports, VR and mobile phones being introduced into consoles to try and find a way to make videogaming more communal. ‘Bandersnatch’ suggests that maybe adding more tech is the wrong way to go about this, and that perhaps we could play collectively in a different, simpler way.
In response to the tracking point, I’d answer: of course they’re tracking us! That is the stock-standard practice of any corporation in any context that can afford to do so. Netflix have access to user practices in a content-heavy environment; they already track us and can afford to buy server space as necessary; the number of datapoints collected is relatively small (less than 20 datapoints, all of which are binary choices); and, crucially, they actually have to track us because that is a central function of how Netflix operates. They track our content practices because their model of engagement is about allowing us to pick up where we left off. We’re even told how they’re tracking us by the ‘match percentage’, which is used to give us a sense of how likely – statistically speaking – we are to enjoy titles on the basis of what we’ve seen before.
What I’d disagree with is the assumption that this information could be meaningfully used to generate new content in a way that’s somehow more efficient or more informed than the millennia of well-informed techniques in storytelling that have managed to give us stories that we liked in the past, and also produce stories we’ll like in the future.
Games and TV are engaged with in pretty different ways and you can’t neatly build TV from games or vice versa. History is replete with these failures, and very few successes. It is easy to think of terrible game-to-film transmediations – Mortal Kombat (1995) and its sequel (1997), Super Mario Bros. (1993), Prince of Persia (2010), Rampage (2018), DOOM (2005), Street Fighter: the Movie (1994), notable for leading to a spin-off game, Street Fighter: the Movie: the Game (1995). The few successes are, perhaps, the Tomb Raider (2018) and Warcraft (2016) films, which actually made quite a bit of money.
This idea is also a mismatch of types of experience: television and games are not the same and the formats tell different stories with different goals. The relationship that we have with characters in games are different to the relationships we have with characters in other media. Even though Black Mirror blurs the lines between media in an innovative way, it’s a story that would be way worse if it were presented as television.
When we play a game, our engagement is motivated by different factors, and we have both different expectations and different moral values that we inflect on our engagement. If we’re playing Grand Theft Auto IV, we’re looking to survive, explore, and experiment with the limits of the gameworld; conversely, criminals in film and television tend to die in a non-recoverable way. We relate to characters that we play quite differently from characters that we watch. If we play a criminal character, we tend to want to see them succeed, while if we watch a criminal we usually want them to be brought to justice.
In ‘Bandersnatch’, Stefan (spoiler alert) kills his father, disposes of the body, engages in a lethal fight with his therapist, induces a man to commit suicide, and yet the ‘final’ ending is a relatively positive one. The binary choice system probably isn’t statistically useful for tracking in this context either. It’s more useful as a simple interface for play on a TV remote than anything, and requires a lower level of interactivity than the main menu for Netflix itself. It’s also something where, if people play for long enough, they click on every option. This would mean that given long enough a significant number of people will have a 100% response to each question. Again, that’s not statistically useful. There’ll be a way that the data we produce will be used in the future, but I don’t think that Netflix is quite sure what that is yet.
There is no shortage of storywriters, and there’s no shortage of genres and styles waiting to be rewritten and reformulated. One of the best things about genre television is the way that the general forms and conventions that we have subtly picked up over a lifetime of content viewing are mutated in compelling ways. There’s no shortage of TV out there, and the writers aren’t short on material – there’s just a serious aversion to material that’s wildly outside genre pieces, and building content from datasets built from a binary choice of two pre-generated options isn’t going to really push that envelope too far. What is genuinely new and interesting is Netflix’s experimentation with new forms of content delivery, and new ways for us to explore narratives and experiences. Whether Bandersnatch’s well-crafted referential experience is repeatable, however, remains to be seen.
Way back in 1974, Raymond Williams wrote Television: Technology and Cultural Form. In it he says that one of the key aspects about television is that almost all content is guided by corporate decisions. These decisions often fall into two camps – how to get people to stick around from one bite-sized bit of content to another, and how to make money in the intervening period. With ‘Bandersnatch’, we can see that there’s potential for the advertising to be built into the experience. Whether called ‘product placement’ or ‘native advertising’, it’s something that games have been doing for a long time, although recently have become a fair bit more obtuse in their methods (for instance, this example from Final Fantasy XV, where one of your companions interjects in your travels a few times to regale you with their love of specific brands of instant noodle).
If we want to read the meta-ness of Black Mirror: Bandersnatch back onto real life, there’s less to find in the Mobius-strip circular interweaving of plot points and the eternal returning of decisions that ultimately disappoint us, and more, I’d say, in the way that ‘Bandersnatch’ seems eminently about Netflix. It’s simply a narrative experience of browsing the homepage directory. A set of alternatives, each a short content experience, each hinting a larger story, none of which are particularly exciting but each alternative might crest a bit above the threshold of boredom and meet some sort of potentiality or virtuality in a way that is better than simply speculating about stories on the Netflix dashboard.
Image: Still from ‘Bandersnatch’