Dead End Drive
In a twist worthy of one of Charlie Brooker's creations, my 2019 begins with a big-budget FMV adventure game with tons of hype behind it. Sort of. The latest episode of Netflix's Black Mirror is not a static video you watch; it's a game you play. Titled Bandersnatch, the episode occurs in the early 80s among the UK gaming scene. While we had our Ataris and Nintendos, our friends across the pond played everything on home computers like the Commodore and the Amiga. The tale of Bandersnatch follows one unstable programmer trying to break into the industry before he suffers a mental breakdown. The choices you make along the way set him on many different paths, a fact that some characters seem acutely aware of for the entire experience.
This is Black Mirror, after all. Bandersnatch isn't content with just being an interactive movie. Bandersnatch wants to toy with the concept and its conventions while taking viewers out of their comfort zone. It's what the series excels at, a dread that feels especially potent through the lens of Netflix's cutting edge delivery method. However, that instinct to comment on its format may be what holds Bandersnatch back from pleasing everyone. For those who've never experienced this style of adventure, the experience will be mind-blowing. For those who know that Plumbers Don't Wear Ties, it may be less than enthralling. Either way, there's still a few interesting story beats even if you're an adventuring veteran.
Computer programming protagonist Stefan is a bit cold, mostly by design. As we meet him, his obsessive need to produce a game based on a CYOA book feels set in stone. As you play, you can choose to explore his relationship with his mother, his dreams of becoming a game designer, or a little of both. Along the way, you'll interact with your worrying father, a rock star designer, and an appropriately sleazy executive. These side characters are really where the writing shines, especially fellow game maker Colin. He encapsulates everything you'd expect out of an Atari-era designer, both the good and the bad.
It's a shame then that it's easy to miss most of Colin's scenes in the narrative. In Bandersnatch's first major branching path, you have the option of following Colin home. After meeting his family, you two share a wild drug-fueled night and then he drops out of the tale, never to be seen again. If you leave the scene alone, Colin will remain in the action. The problem is that Colin draws first-time viewers into the path where he disappears. It was my first path through the story and I tested it with several other players. It's a great scene, but it robs Bandersnatch of its momentum in the home stretch.
Choice in Bandersnatch is strictly binary. You always get two options and a short ticking clock before you move forward. Even with these limits, there are multiple scenarios where the game will force you into making a certain decision in order to move forward. Outside of a pair of clever scenarios, Bandersnatch doesn't seem as playful as it should be. Especially considering that the game seemingly wants to mix things up and break the fourth wall. Too often I was hit with an early ending or a dead end, forced to circle back to a previous false choice and pick the correct option. There just aren't enough alternate paths and fake-outs to really sell that you're in control of this story.
While the first playthrough does lack these features, Bandersnatch is playful if you're interested enough to want to see every ending. If you're willing to invest the time, the game tweaks recap scenes to be slightly different. This completionist tactic feels like the intended way through Bandersnatch. Both endings are vague enough that you don't really get a sense of closure until you scour through the episode for new paths. This problem doesn't exist for other episodes of Black Mirror because they're linear videos. You have all the information and you can make informed guesses about what you're presented. Here, you have an interactive story that's still presenting a linear narrative. All the interactivity serves to do is just muddle the message.
Speaking of, Bandersnatch's loose grip on interactivity isn't its worse problem. Even if the game had an impressive array of avenues to explore, unreliable narration hangs over the entire endeavor. Between Stefan's constant breaks from reality and the drug use throughout the tale, you're never really sure what's actually happening. It's easy to disregard most of the twists and turns as products of a drug haze and an unwell mind. It's similar to the narrative issues of recent Far Crys. A drug trip is all well and good if it serves a narrative purpose, but it's too often used as a crutch to get from one place to the other. Bandersnatch seems happy to use the tool as nothing more as an excuse for visual flair. For a series that has produced such tight and surprising stories in the past, this is nothing if not disappointing.
Overall, I think it's clear that Black Mirror: Bandersnatch will serve its purpose. As a proof of concept for interactive storytelling and streaming video games, this is a success. A whole new group of people will get what gaming is truly capable of, and that's a cause for celebration. However, if you're coming to Bandersnatch looking for something that hangs with modern adventure design, there's nothing for you here. Games like Night Shift and The Shapeshifting Detective show that live-action adventures still have plenty to show us. Bandersnatch is a fine novelty, but it'll probably be hard to streamline good game design into a Hollywood production pipeline.
TechRaptor reviewed Black Mirror: Bandersnatch on Netflix with a subscription paid for by the reviewer.
- Authentic 80s Presentation
- Great Side Characters
- Simple Mechanics
- Drug Trips Aplenty
- Completionist Mindset
- Too Many False Choices