Bandersnatch: is it really the novelty we were looking for?

Netflix has recently released Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, an interactive episode connected to the series. A new way to make television… or an experiment that will soon be forgotten?

A few days have passed by since the release of Black Mirror: Bandersnatch and yes, I made the effort to watch it only today.

An unforgivable delay, some would say, considering the work I do for fanheart3 and the fact that Bandersnatch seems to be exactly what I should be interested in: a product that openly steps over the line between consumers and producers and makes the audience an integral part of the story: a character itself, that shapes the actions of the other characters.

An exciting idea, apparently, but that raised three questions in me:

  • I was born in the 80ies. Game books were quite common in my generation, so much that they found a great spread in that period (only to lose it in the following decades);
  • we have been talking about participatory cultures for 20 years, now. The idea that fans can be co-authors of a story, rework it through their artistic creations and become, in short, something more than consumers… well, it is certainly not a novelty to us;
  • looking at the potential of VR in Cinema, what Bandersnatch seems to be is a step behind the possibilities offered by this technology.

Three things that made me doubt the effectiveness of Netflix’s operation and, above all, the idea of innovations that everyone seems to associate to it.

Italian game books from the 80ies

After watching the movie, playing a bit with the options and basically wishing strongly for an image accelerator I could use to move forward the scenes that kept repeating, I realized that, at least for me, this initial feeling was quite confirmed.

Looking at the mere construction of the product, surely the possibility of orienting the choices of the main character is an interesting element, but something that makes the vision something closer to the experience you do with a Telltale -styled videogame rather than the one you make with a film or a tv-show.

Batman Telltale and Life is strange: two famous videogames where our choices open up alternative storylines

There is certainly a pro on the narrative side of things: the protagonist is at least partly aware that we exist and shape his actions, even when he tries to prevent it. In fact, from this point of view, all the scenes born out of the “Netflix” choice (and I’ll say no more to avoid spoilers) were the best, to me, as it was probably in the intention of the series itself.

At the same time, the disquieting idea that permeates the whole plot – a superior power shapes the destinies of the characters and determines their lack of choice – is definitely familiar: Matrix being the ultimate example, we find variations on the concept in Person of Interest or Mr Robot, just to mention two series. 

Indeed, the idea that there is a thin line between illusion and psychopathology and that the world around us is governed by menacing figures on which the characters do not have any control is quite the popular one in cinema and television.  

There is another problem in Bandersnatch, in my opinion (but here I speak in a more personal capacity here, considering the success the series met in social networks).

It is true that as fans we have dreamt once or twice (…maybe more often than that) to be able to correct our favourite characters’ choices or to decide which ones they will be. However, the point? They have to become our favourite characters, before.

He walked away.

In Bandersnatch I did not care for the main character at all. Not only I had never seen him before, and found him very annoying, but I could feel very little empathy for him (but for when he talked to me directly). His background and interior conflicts are believable and human, but we have already seen them multiple times.

Also, the characterization itself seemed to be based on detachment: something that with more episodes I could have overcome, but that an hour and a half was not enough to make me forget.

As for the “options” given to the audience: I certainly tried a few different choices, but I got bored fast and after a hour or so I just wanted the episode to end, in spite of its multiple endings. But, I have to say, something made me change my mind: after the aforementioned “Netflix” option a new world opened up to me and that was the kind of world I could have kept playing in forever. The episode itself prophesies it when it tells you that the audience wants real entertainment. And yes, it is true.

In short, if the interactive film I was playing with had been an action movie, my fun would have been less intellectual and intrinsically “trash”, but at least I would not have felt a subtle desire to finish the experience as soon as possible.

Personal tastes do matter, here, sure, but it’s still something to consider if Netflix or anyone else is planning to create more products in this format.

In any case, unlike what happened to me when I tested VR for the first time, this interactive experiment did not change my way of perceiving future possibilities offered by the film industry. We will see if the next experiments confirm this general impression or not.

(cross-posted on fanheart3 in Italian)