‘Black Mirror: Bandersnatch’ marks the dawn of a new era in television

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This is a choose-your-own-adventure review of the brand new choose-your-own-adventure Netflix special, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch

You can choose to remain entirely spoiler-free until you experience it for yourself. In which case: this is quite simply a brilliant, groundbreaking piece of interactive television. One that has cracked the code as to how you let the viewer make interesting storytelling choices without spoiling the immersive mood of good drama. 

(Important spoiler-free caveat: Netflix hasn’t yet cracked the code of how to show this interactive episode to its best advantage on actual TV boxes, not even the top-of-the-line Apple TV 4K. You’ll probably end up watching on a laptop, tablet or phone. Which is odd, because all you need to play is go left, go right and…OK — things any TV remote can do.) 

Then there’s option B. You could choose to be very mildly spoiled (there’s little here beyond what you’ll see in the first five minutes). To paraphrase a movie that is highly appropriate to this subject matter: take the red pill and I’ll show you how deep my Choose Your Own Adventure rabbit hole goes.  

Bandersnatch manages to be many things at once: a trippy meta-mindfuck of a Black Mirror episode, simultaneously the longest and the shortest one that creator Charlie Brooker has written (it will last anywhere from 20 minutes to two hours); an homage to 1984; a horror; a time travel story; a Philip K Dick pastiche; and the most essential philosophy lesson we’ve seen since the Good Place.  

But most of all it’s something new in the world: successful interactive TV, something I’ve been waiting to see for years. 

Choose your own failure

I remember trying Netflix’s kids-only interactive stories from 2017, such as Puss in Books, and willing them to feel worthwhile, even for kids. Same goes for an interactive Dungeons and Dragons story released on DVD more than a decade ago. But both relied on cheap CGI, had clunky plots, and choppy pacing that stopped the action cold with each choice. They were hardly templates for a new age of entertainment. 

For a lifelong fan of print-based Choose Your Own Adventures, such as the classic Steve Jackson Sorcery! books (now available as iOS apps), these were baffling failures. Anyone who’s held their breath thumbing through those pages, one finger on the last entry you read in case you die on the next one, knows the power of interactive stories. We know the thrill of the do-over. 

We know the thrill of the do-over. 

Why couldn’t visual media get it right? Why had TV ceded that ground to videogames, when there is a hybrid of the two waiting to be born? 

Choose your own cereal

Brooker, a storytelling nerd who used to work at a videogames magazine, gets it. On the one hand, he keeps the story flowing with quick, light, amusingly mundane, highly realistic decisions such as a choice between breakfast cereals, or between music tapes. (As in the game of real life, such seemingly small choices will have enormous consequences for the story later on.)

On the other, heavier hand, he’s constructed something so compellingly meta it deserves some kind of meta-Oscar. It’s a sprawling choose your own adventure narrative about a kid, Stefan, who’s trying to turn a sprawling choose your own adventure book into a sprawling choose your own adventure videogame. He soon meets someone who opens his mind to what storytelling is all about.

The choices you have to make reflect the limits of free will that games designers impose on their characters — and Stefan comes to realize those limits in fascinating ways, on his way to one of five groups of endings. You will become a bigger part of those endings than you suspect. 

The in-universe book Stefan is trying to adapt is called Bandersnatch (the reference to Lewis Carroll’s glorious nonsense verse, “Jabberwocky”, seems more appropriate as the story goes on). It’s a doorstop of a space fantasy book that broke its author’s brain — imagine Philip K Dick taking a decade to write a Choose Your Own Adventure — which only increased its allure. 

I would have read the crap out of Bandersnatch as a kid, and that wasn’t the only thing that made me feel a strong instant bond with everynerd Stefan. The music tapes, the computer game tapes (Manic Miner!), the cereal (Frosties!), the 2000AD comic books — Stefan’s 1984 childhood was almost entirely mine too. For a Brit, this is even more authentically nostalgic than Stranger Things. Get out of my head, Brooker!

Choose your own entertainment future

You might think, after watching/playing it, that Black Mirror‘s creator just dropped the mic on this whole genre before it can even get off the ground. He effectively deconstructed the interactive story. What is there left to say? 

Well, just exactly as much as there is to say in stories, period. There is no life, no situation, that could not be rendered more fascinating by following all the branch points of what might have been. 

For proof, I recommend a couple of fascinating and criminally obscure choose your own adventure books: Pretty Little Mistakes: A Do-Over Novel by Heather McElhatton, a NPR commentator, and Life’s Lottery by thriller author Kim Newman. Both are mature looks at a single life, and how small choices can send them spinning off into wildly different directions. 

Just imagine what future showrunners can do with this technology.

Just imagine what future showrunners can do with this technology. Imagine a crime drama where the team may or may not solve the case every week, depending on your guidance. Imagine a season of Game of Thrones that is wildly different from the season your best friend is watching, because you made different choices three seasons earlier, leading different characters to their deaths. 

Imagine how many times you, a total stan for your show, would want to watch and play all over again, exhausting all options to find the perfect ending for your favorite characters. Imagine how much the networks would love that, not to mention potential advertisers. 

As soon as Netflix allows this thing to go mainstream by letting it play on actual TVs, the choices for adventure are endless. 

from Mashable! http://bit.ly/2QXY2Uj
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