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All I wanted for Christmas, it turns out, was a new Black Mirror episode. And boy, did they deliver.
(Note: Spoilers ahead, obviously)
I normally don’t do reviews of movies or TV shows – I just watch and enjoy them. This one’s a special occasion though: between the compelling story and the sophisticated framework used to deliver it, I got sucked right in. It’s a proper work of art, really.
Bandersnatch follows a boy (Stefan) developing a game in time for Christmas, based on a choose-your-own-adventure book. The first bit of self-reference: As the viewer, you’re getting to choose your own adventure in this story about a boy building a choose-your-own-adventure game.
Depending on the choices you make, you can end up at a total of 11 endings (that I’ve found). Some of the choices are inconsequential, others are inflection points that you can keep coming back to. All told, it took me a good four hours to explore as much as I did.
The story itself is something of a departure from Black Mirror’s last few seasons. The recurring theme has always been the dark side of technology, but in Bandersnatch the technology plays a limited role (making it easier to set in the 80’s).
Instead, this is a story about the limitations of choice and free will – a refreshing departure from the season 4 tropes, and a very compelling one at that. Considering the implications of free will vs predestination is a favorite philosophical past time, after all!
The story really contains everything: Nostalgia, callbacks, easter eggs, self-referential humor, man-vs-author, bringing the ARG into the real world, you name it. And then the references to other Black Mirror episodes:
White Bear: The symbol used in the original episode features prominently, as does the theme: The main character trapped in a script written by somebody else, forced to endure a horrible experience for the entertainment of others.
Nosedive, Metalhead: Referenced as games within the story itself.
Playtest: One of the endings is a callback to the entire horror-mansion experience Cooper went through, and the revelation at the end that he was still in the testing room the whole time.
There’s loads of other references and hidden easter eggs: Like the fact that Bandersnatch was an actual game, which failed when the studio went bankrupt in 1984. There’s an implied connection between Tuckersoft and TCKR Systems, the fictional company that ends up producing the crazy technologies in season 3 onwards. One of the endings features a news crawler that’s loaded with headlines from across other episodes.
What fascinates me more than the story though, is the way the story was designed and delivered. Being able to explore multiple outcomes is already quite a feat in itself, especially since they all tie together in some way – so that’s some really good writing and planning.
And then there’s the technical aspect. Not only does the Netflix player need to cache multiple potential outcomes (so that you get a smooth streaming experience regardless of your choices), but I found out that it’s also remembering how many times you’ve been through each choice, which can affect the way the story turns out.
These are all the endings I’ve found. While I’ve taken the trouble to map out all the decisions that lead to them, that would just kill any exploration you might otherwise do on your own – so they’ll stay my secret 😉
Most of the endings are reviews – a TV show in which a presenter critiques the game. Possible outcomes:
- Zero stars, with the game being “too short”
- The presenter rattling off a litany of synonyms for how bad it is, with the scene ending abruptly
- The presenter notes that the developer “gave up halfway through” and “went on autopilot” for the remainder
- A successful, 5 stars out of 5 review, followed by a cut to a modern-day news broadcast about how the creator of the game was arrested for murder, and the game is being re-built by Colin Ritman’s daughter
- A 2.5 star rating noting the “grisly backstory”
- The first “team-based” game from Tuckersoft feels like it was designed by committee.
Then there’s an ending where the game company (Tuckersoft) collapses, with 3 variations:
- Stefan’s father is dead
- Stefan’s father and Colin Ritman are dead
- Stefan’s father and Mohan Thakur are dead
- Stefan dies without warning, and it turns out most of the story was just a vivid last-moments-before-death dream
- It turns out Stefan is just an actor on a film set
My other favorite little detail: In all story branches you end up with a documentary about the book’s author. When the documentary starts, there’s a TV ad that plays right before – which ad it is depends on the cereal you choose at the start.
There might still be more endings and variations, but I feel like I’ve explored this one quite enough to be satisfied. If you dive into it, let me know what you think!