6 Things Bandersnatch Should Have Done Better
I watched Netflix’s interactive Black Mirror experience film, Bandersnatch. It’s not good. As a choose-your-own-adventure, it offers a number of potential narratives and allows the viewer to choose between them, exploring the different threads. But they’re actually all really dull story arcs. In fact, not one of them would hold up as an actual Black Mirror episode. (And there’s some pretty bad Black Mirror episodes.)
But this isn’t a review.
What interests me is what Bandersnatch could have been. Because it does do one very interesting thing. In every one of its arcs, the protagonist comes to realize that he’s being controlled by an outside force (us), going so far as to both try and resist decisions we make for him, and even speak to us. (You can even let him know that he’s in a show from the future on something called Netflix, which I’ll admit was pretty fun.) Essentially, the film is self-aware.
But this cool idea is wasted, I’m afraid. Exploring how the different narratives connect and interact makes up the entirety of Bandersnatch’s enjoyment value. And it gets old pretty fast. I comprised the following list to see that it never happens again.
6 things Bandersnatch should have done better
1. Enable FAST-FORWARD, or NEXT
Unlike other Netflix shows, both the fast-forward and rewind functions have been disabled in Bandersnatch. You can skip five seconds forward or back until you get close to the next choice (or to just after the previous choice) but that’s about it. And I mean, I get it; they don’t want people just trying to play it like a video game, skipping through the story itself just to get to the ending. Fine. But since the only enjoyment I could squeeze from this film was exploring how different choices affected the narrative, how about, after completing the story once, we’re allowed to fast forward, or better still, skip any part we’ve already seen. Literally none of the enjoyment would be lost. Not having to re-watch the same few-dozen five-second fragments over and over again, would definitely slow the rate of my boredom.
2. Build Traps and Easter Eggs
Bandersnatch almost does this a few times. There’s a good number of dead-end choices that require you to start over. And there are the two Netflix endings (which are technically dead-ends but are as good as any of the main endings). But we could really use more of the story interacting with the viewer. Give us an endless loop which we actually have to exit the show to escape. Or a seemingly endless loop that we have to persist in to eventually reach a new branch of the story. Create a puzzle like the phone number choice, only it doesn’t just tell you the answer; you actually have to go back and find it in other narratives. Give us a really long static shot that we’re not sure actually ends, but when it does we come to a unique choice set. Or a choice that just switches us to a different Netflix show and we actually have to exit out of it to get back into this one. These are just off the top of my head, and I know some are better than others. Any halfway decent writing staff could come up with dozens of truly engaging interactions with the show.
3. Create a Viewer Objective that Conflicts with the Protagonist’s
As I mentioned above the fact that the protagonist comes to realize he’s being controlled is easily the most interesting aspect of the film. But none of the non-dead-end narratives really play with this at all. The viewer, should have a vested interest in the direction the narrative is going. Like in This is Us. How badly did everyone want to know how the dad died? A LOT. A choose-your-own-adventure would do well building such a setup, teasing us with a reveal, and then making it super difficult to find. Make the choices continually steer us away from the part we want to see. Make the protagonist steer us away. It becomes us against him. A conflict. Instead, Bandersnatch sets up a (mildly) interesting backstory arc then points us to it at every opportunity, even allowing us to jump back at any point. It practically shouts, “THIS CHOICE GETS YOU THE BEST ENDINGS!”
4. Allow the Protagonist to Successfully Resist your Choices
This actually happens a bit in Bandersnatch (when we choose between “Smash Computer” and “Pour Tea Over Computer”), but not enough, and it amounts to very little. Freeing the character from our control would create an even more direct conflict between the us and the protagonist. Example: if we tell the him to “Go Left,” he looks at us and turns right instead. Now our choices become about trying to interfere with his. We become the antagonist. The narrative could easily drive the viewer to do some pretty fucked up shit without thinking much about it. Which, if we are then forced to reflect on what we’ve done and the choices we’ve made, adds up to an extremely Black Mirror kind of story.
5. Give the Protagonist More Personality than ‘Generic White Guy’
I mean, I don’t really have to explain this one, do I? The protagonist has so little personality that I’ve exclusively referred to him as ‘the protagonist’ through this post. Give them more character traits than just ‘is good at programming’ and ‘gets grumpy around his dad’. Or better still, give us the opportunity to follow different people, see different people in the same scenes through each other’s perspectives. And yeah, it doesn’t have to be a white dude.
6. Again, Just Make your Story BETTER
So there you have it. A sure-fire way to make your self-aware, choose-your-own-adventure Netflix film better than Bandersnatch.