The self-aware failure of Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (Interactive storytelling, Part 2)
Hardly one not to be late to a party, I noted the existence of Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (BM:B) more than a year ago, but have only recently bothered to watch it. Gamedev circles were abuzz when it came out late in 2018—not only was it an interactive narrative, but it concerned the early history of gamemaking—so I was often asked if I had seen it and/ or told I should.
In brief, the story, written by series creator Charlie Brooker, concerns a young developer named Stefan Butler (Fionn Whitehead), working on a game incorporating interactive story elements in 1984. The protagonist’s psychological issues stemming from the death of his mother and deadline pressure from the company he’s working for propel the tale’s action.
Game nerds, naturally enough, gravitated towards discussion of where and how the story branched, and the number of endings there were. My focus was more on if or how the piece expanded the form, which, sadly, I can’t say it did.
Present was the foldback, the device I’ve described before as a means of ending up with the same result while giving the appearance of choice. Ben Allen wrote in the Radio Times:1
In some cases, we arrived at the exact same scene, just with different options.
In our playthrough, some choices were repeatedly pointed to, which felt rather more like being led somewhere than “choosing your own adventure”. I believe it is the combination of foldbacks and forced decisions to which the NYT review refers, saying:2
[I]t’s the “decisions” masquerading as free will that are really frustrating.
Many reviewers and acquaintances alike pointed to the first few branches of the tale, which are quite innocuous and almost definitely inconsequential. The NYT piece reports:3
The minute choices you get to make, like which album he listens to, read as eye roll-worthy contrivances only a small child would get excited about.
As to the endings, Hollywood Reporter contributor, Jackie Strause says:4
[…] Brooker and Jones are clear as to not “prescribe” one ending over the others, especially because they couldn’t agree on what exactly defines one.
But this is BS; the ending where you have Stefan take his meds and the game is delivered on time as a commercial flop is clearly a bad ending, which also sends the swell metamessage it’s OK for artists to sacrifice their personal health and well-being to produce superior entertainment experiences. Even a rather effusive review from David Sims of The Atlantic finally notes the serious shortcoming of the endings:5
Through the various branches I found, I never got to an ending of “Bandersnatch” that felt truly happy or fulfilling, though I’m sure one exists; the best (and last) one I arrived at was, at least, somewhat peaceful and touching, if a little mournful.
The tone of Black Mirror itself might be what’s at work here and no good ending is intended, but as I noted in Part 1, bad endings are a common feature of the format. I “played” BM:B with my family and, as nearly everyone has at least a passing understanding of the form, we played it safe, routinely choosing the path that seemed least likely to result in disaster. I’ve mentioned this aspect of the form as a way the branches are reduced, but it also acts as yet another way the form preempts choice—interesting or humorous options often are left unexplored. Atlas Obscura contributor Sara Laskow noted of another interactive narrative, Journey under the Sea:6
This book is particularly tough on readers. One analysis found that more than 75 percent of the endings are unfavorable or deadly.
Even apart from this unpleasant feature, the more general ways these works break the rules of traditional ones are not surprising and delightful but off-putting. What is lost is the reader’s ability to anticipate what will happen and either have those expectations gratified or thwarted by the author. Back in 1995, The Economist dedicated a lengthy editorial to the form, offering various criticisms, including the following that mirrors mine:7
The snag with most electronic stories is that they tamper with the foundation of narrative structure. When stories wobble and change with our whim, they lose their believability, and with it our willingness to care. […]. But what the typical reader wants to know is: which is the right word to click on? Which path generates the closest thing to a satisfying linear story, the sort that life, experience and thousands of years of story-telling have taught us to expect? For every path taken, there is the path not taken. In frustration, we re-read the story, trying to exhaust all the possibilities in the search for the satisfying tale that surely must lie somewhere within.
So, if you take BM:B on the superficial level of an interactive narrative, it is a failure in all the usual ways such vehicles are. However, this film is self aware, and that saves it as art to an extent—as I already pointed out above, Brooker understands and subverts the expectations of someone playing it safe by giving them a mediocre ending for their trouble. He is attempting to comment on the form rather than simply using it as a gimmick, as several critics have noted; Stefan even says, “Free will is an illusion.”
Right from the start, BM:B is self-referential, beginning with interactive narrative: the game Stefan is making is the same form as the film, and the game is based on a book that’s one too. Bandersnatch was also the title of a real game project from the period which not only failed to launch after being heavily hyped, but bankrupted the developer, Imagine Software. This is alluded to directly in BM:B with a cover of classic gaming mag Crash carrying news of the company’s closure. Finally, there is a scene in the film where Stefan can turn down the opportunity to make his game, mirroring the way Brooker and EP Annabel Jones initially turned down Netflix’ offer to make an interactive film. In both cases, they decide to do it anyway, but on their own terms.
Another obvious Bandersnatch connection is to the Lewis Carroll creature. It appears in Through the Looking Glass in the famous nonsense poem “Jabberwocky”:8
“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
the jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”
The creature appears again in The Hunting of the Snark in greater detail, but the point in BM:B is multiple realities, such as the Looking Glass world of the Alice book. The film even contains a scene in which Stefan literally goes through a mirror, just as Alice does after conjecturing as to the existence of this other reality:9
And certainly the glass was beginning to melt away, just like a bright silvery mist. […]. In another moment Alice was through the glass, and had jumped lightly down into the Looking-glass room.
Another such notion present in Carroll’s work is everything and everyone exists in the Red King’s dream and would disappear if he were to wake. Other references fly thick and fast in the film: to Philip K. Dick’s Ubik, with psychic spies in a world where the shape of reality shifts, and Katsuhiro Otomo’s (大友 克洋) Akira (『AKIRA』), where powerful psychics cause people to be sucked into other dimensions.
These allusions are made manifest in the film as theories held by different characters as to the nature of the reality they inhabit. One other is explored; that of a massive government conspiracy, which is present in both these last works, but particularly in Dick’s. This author got a little crazy, or at least obsessive himself, even attempting to kill his third wife, and some paths in BM:B have Stefan murder his father.
At least in the realm of computer game versions of interactive narratives, there’s an awkwardness created because there is a distinct separation between you, the player, and the character you are playing. This structure denies immersion in the role, as you telling them what to do is essentially a deus ex machina. A sampling of the dialogue between played and player points out this failing:¹⁰
- “That’s not on fire.”
- “That doesn’t need to be kept fresh.”
- “Pick up the moon! Are you nuts?”
Again BM:B explores this space, with Stefan questioning and resisting your choices if they don’t seem natural to him, and therefore also criticizing you as a player. Eventually, he speaks directly to you, asking if someone is there and demanding to know who it is. In the film’s world, Stefan’s sense of an entity outside telling him what to do is seen as part of his growing psychosis, though we as the audience know at least on this score he’s perfectly sane.
Another element referring to the nature of interactive narrative is “the glyph”, essentially an upside-down squared-off ⟨Y⟩ Stefan obsessively draws in the film. This represents the branching structure, just as the Samian letter does, with a single path bifurcating to a pair leading to either virtue or vice. And as I’ve previously noted, the repeated branching needed in interactive narrative leads to the madness of geometric progression.
But all this impressive self-awareness fails to lead to a good work of art. There’s high irony in the fact the film’s bad ending—Stefan’s safe production of a mediocre game—is the fate shared by BM:B itself, which received a tepid 72% Tomatometer score compared to the series’ overall 83%.
I know my views on this type of storytelling risk cries of “treason”. Interactivity is an important element of games, which would seem on its face to suit it to the realization of interactive narrative. My goal in games is to give players meaningful choices supported by continued, engaging gameplay, so false choice is a huge pet peeve of mine as it runs directly counter to that. Interactive narrative regularly—some would say inherently—engages in false choices. Literature remains the main realm in which I’ve seen a possibility space created within a narrative for the reader to explore. Tellingly, although its setting and structure come from games, most of the references in BM:B are not to games but to print.
Based on the reading experiences he had enjoyed most, together with some postmodernist semiotic theories, Umberto Eco codified and espoused what he termed the “open work” (opera aperta). In his works on the topic, he declares a “closed work”, one that limits the reader’s understanding to a single, unambiguous, linear interpretation is the least rewarding one—which I’ll note is essentially what interactive fictions do, but with bad storytelling and false choices along the way to make things even worse. By contrast, an open work creates an interplay between work and audience where infinite readings are possible.
Eco’s starting point seems to have been James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, which he described thus:11
[Finnegans Wake] constitutes the most terrifying document of formal instability and semantic ambiguity that we possess.
I must confess to have washed out on a full reading of this book, but as with many games, I’d argue it’s not about getting to the end, but the journey. The difficulties in reading the book are down to the words themselves, many of which are invented. Take one of my favorite passages:12
Which we all like. Rain. When we sleep. Drops. But wait until our sleeping. Drain. Sdops.
The basic level of meaning here is, “we all like rain when we sleep, but wait until our sleeping stops.” but the breakup of the sentences is poetry—evoking the interruptive quality of the actual raindrops, whose sound intrudes on the meaning of the words themselves with the word sdops, which then also links to the Italian word sdoppiare, “to split in two”, and so on. Eco, in fact, sees such fields of possibility even within single words within Finnegans Wake, such as “meandertale”, which he discusses at length as to how it can be a pun on “Neanderthal” which appears nowhere in the text:12
Our experiment thus has two senses: first, to see if, from a point outside Joyce’s linguistic universe, we can enter into the universe; then, departing from a point internal to that universe, to see whether or not we can connect, through multiple and continuous pathways, as in a garden where the paths fork, all the other points.
The reference to Jorge Luis Borges’ “The Garden of Forking Paths” (“El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan”) is not accidental here as Eco was a fan of his works as well and for similar reasons. So here Eco is saying Joyce’s work is a successful realization of Borges’ concept of expanding possibilities in book form, and I agree.
Still, the qualities Eco sets forth for the creation of an open work are available to any medium; they are:13
I’m quite keen to produce a work in games that incorporates these elements in order to build an active interplay between the audience and the work, generating meaning in constantly shifting ways, as Eco describes. But such a work would almost necessarily not be a commercial one, and unfortunately I need to earn a living.
Read Previous Articles in This Series
- Ben Allen, “How many endings does Black Mirror’s interactive film Bandersnatch have?”, Radio Times, July 2018.
- Aisha Harris, Margaret Lyons and Maureen Ryan, “‘Bandersnatch’ Has Many Paths, but Do Any of Them Add Up to Anything?”, NYT, 2019.
- Jackie Strause, “‘Black Mirror’s’ Interactive Film: How to Navigate ‘Bandersnatch’”, The Hollywood Reporter, December 2018.
- David Sims, “The Branching Horrors of Black Mirror’s ‘Bandersnatch’”, The Atlantic, December 2018.
- Sara Laskow, “These Maps Reveal the Hidden Structures of ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ Books”, Atlas Obscura, June 2017.
- “Multimedia feature: Interactive fiction. But is it story-telling?”, The Economist, November 1995.
- Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass, 1871.
- The first quotes from Grim Fandango, 1998, and the other two from Escape from Monkey Island, 1997.
- Umberto Eco, The Limits of Interpretation, 1990.
- James Joyce, Finnegans Wake, 1939.
- Eco, 1990, emphasis mine.
- Eco, The Open Work (Opera Aperta), 1962.