This year I played a lot of Choose Your Own Adventures. Fighting Fantasy. Lone Wolf. Graphic Novel Adventures. How very fitting to end the year with an interactive movie that tries to adopt these choose-your-path mechanics. Thank you, Netflix.
The movie starts with a quick tutorial for all those poor souls who have never played a »Choose Your Own Adventure« (CYOA) before. All you have to do is to click on option A or option B at certain points in the movie to tell the main character what to do next. If you haven’t decided within 10 seconds the movie continues with the default option.
The story follows 19-year-old programmer Stefan Butler. It’s July 1984 and Stefan is adapting a »Choose Your Own Adventure« book called Bandersnatch into his first adventure video game. Because, of course a »Choose Your Own Adventure« movie will be about a »Choose Your Own Adventure« book. Well, this is a first for Netflix, so why the hell not.
Anyway, Stefan meets with the boss of a video game company called Tuckersoft to convince them to back/distribute the game. There he also meets famous game creator Colin Ritman. Finishing the game gets complicated as Stefan has some issues since the death of his mother when he was 5, for which he blames his father. So, will he finish the game?
That 80s vibe
There is a lot of stuff the movie gets right. Fionn Whitehead as Stefan Butler and Will Poulter as Colin Ritman do really well in their roles. The music has an easy job of setting the mood. Just a few notes send you back to the 80s (there’s already a playlist on Spotify). The whole setting also has a vibe of Ready Player One, with an enigmatic author in the background. There is an interesting interpretation of Pac-Man I hadn’t heard before. And I chuckled at some hairstyles. They threw in a website for Tuckersoft (also this). Hell, you can even play Nohzdyve, one of the games from Tuckersoft.
You must choose, but choose wisely
According to the word on the web viewers can make around 30 decisions. These include rather dull ones like choosing your breakfast in the morning (to give newcomers another easy intro) – others are life-or-death-decisions. The shortest route to an ending will take around 40 minutes, the longest might occupy you two and a half hours. The average viewer will watch around 90 minutes. Apparently there are five main endings, with a few variations – depending on how you count. And since this is Black Mirror, you may guess how many of these endings will be bleak.
Pieces of stories instead of a story
The CYOAs of the 80s usually had one main ending and several endings that simply resulted in death. But you knew when you reached the »real« ending. It was the right way to finish the story.
Modern story-driven video games often have different endings. Some feel better than others. Some games invite philosophical debates which ending is better. But games have a lot of time to establish the world, to follow different paths and to confront the player with the consequences of his choices.
Bandersnatch has considerably less time for everything. As a result, none of the endings I found – and I got most of them – felt satisfying. Each ending was rather rushed and shallow. Little pieces instead of one whole story. There is no ending the author (Charlie Brooker) seemed to prefer. So there is no reason for the viewer to think of one ending as more real than another. The only message you might squeeze out of this, after you look at all the endings, is: »Hey, just do whatever you want, you are fucked anyway!«
And this is just not good enough. In books as well as in movies I expect a story, not just pieces of stories, floating around without purpose.
Still, I crave … more
On the other hand, Netflix deserves some credit for this experiment. This isn’t the first interactive movie (Wikipedia has a long list of interactive movies and video games). But it is a first for Netflix. It surely was a lot of work for everyone involved. And I wish for more movies like this one, cause I still think this is a great format.
This is not for everybody. But if you like other Black Mirror episodes or Choose Your Own Adventures or TV experiments this will be for you.
As a fan of CYOAs I choose: 7 out of 10 endings