“You Can Have Any Narrative You Want, As Long As It Is Netflix’s”
There is a consensus developing among critics of Netflix’s new Black Mirror episode, “Bandersnatch” (Netflix, 12/28/18) that it is a show built on a mere “gimmick.” The story concerns a young computer programmer, Stefan Butler (Fionn Whitehead), who in 1984 is developing a video game based on his favorite novel, a massive tome called Bandersnatch, written by an author who went insane from the complexity involved in finishing writing it.
As one watches the show, at various decision points, viewers are asked to click on choices provided below the screen on Netflix’s interactive streaming platform. To call the brilliant use of the Netflix platform in “Bandersnatch” a gimmick is akin to positioning the Gutenberg printing press as a flash in the pan technological development.
Figure #1: At various moments, the Netflix presentation of “Bandersnatch” pauses the image, asking the viewer to choose Stefan’s fate
There’s a moment in one of the narrative threads where Stefan comes to realize he is being controlled by an unseen presence. In the bedroom where he programs the game by pouring over the tome of Bandersnatch to render the impossible—fidelity to the source text—Stefan cries out into the void, “Give me a sign!”
The situation is a reworking of the far less interesting film, Stranger Than Fiction (Marc Forster, 2006) in which the life of Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) is being narrated by Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson). “Bandersnatch” is to Stranger Than Fiction what Luigi Pirandello’s play, Six Characters in Search of an Author (1921) is to Duck Amuck (Chuck Jones, 1953). In the former modernist masterpiece, characters and actors engage in a discursive battle to the death, whereas in the Warner Bros. cartoon, the unseen animator terrorizing Daffy Duck turns out to be his normal diegetic nemesis, Bugs Bunny.
In “Bandersnatch,” if we choose the button labeled “Netflix,” Stefan’s computer screen types back at him: “Netflix is a 21st century media platform. It’s like TV but online. I control it.” I want you to imagine explaining an e-book to a 13th century monk who is used to transcribing sacred texts by hand. In the intervening seven hundred years, the printing press has transformed the fundamental ways in which human beings think and communicate.
Figure #2: Within hours of the December 28 premiere of “Bandersnatch,” the website, The Verge had published a full decision tree mapping the show’s pathways to most of the various possible endings
Understanding how media forms morph historically is crucial to understanding the complexity of “Bandersnatch.” It is axiomatic in media studies that a new technology serves to archive the one it replaces. Thus, early television content consisted largely of old movies. The vaunted innovative interactivity of the Netflix streaming platform houses a remarkable array of older narrative technologies: the linear classical novel, the “Choose Your Own Adventure” novel, and an earlier form of interactive narrative, the early 1980s central protagonist role-playing video game.
The “Choose Your Own Adventure” series of novels, created in the late 1970s by Edward Packard, began with the publication of The Cave of Time in 1979. Published by Bantam Books, the series sold a quarter of a billion copies before production ceased in the late 1990s. The books asked readers at certain turning points in the plot what they’d like to see happen. These decisions led readers to denoted pages in the book.
“Bandersnatch” updates the premise of the “Choose Your Own Adventure” story for the Netflix streaming platform, but within a political economy that is crucially different from the simplicity of book publication. The a priori fundamental premise of Netflix is interactivity, indeed the platform is so driven by its user interface that the company must tamp down our decision-making proclivities. When we are watching a series of episodes, Netflix doesn’t want us to click to a different site, so it skips the end credits, immediately playing the next episode before we can take preemptive action.
Our normal state as we enter the Netflix platform is allegorized by Stefan’s inability to capture the thousands of permutations of the novel he is adapting into his video game. In many encounters with Mohan Thakur (Asim Chaudhry), the crass boss who has hired Stefan to complete the game for his company, the purportedly finished game crashes; the programmer has been unable to sew up all of the narrative threads.
Figure #3: Stefan’s boss reacts hysterically to the failure of the purportedly bug-free video game
Insanity defines the very project. Jerome F. Davies (Jeff Minter), author of the Bandersnatch novel murders his wife; Stefan follows him down the rabbit hole, trying and failing to replicate his hero’s accomplishment. Such insanity threatens us each time we open Netflix; their production capabilities far overwhelm our ability to keep track of what we should be watching.
We are as blind picking shows as the operator is in playing any computer game. All but the final run-through of any video game results in death; this is why games give us extra lives, free lives, more lives. In our world, we waste our lives sinking into the depths of the Internet, on Facebook, Wikipedia, and, Netflix hopes, their stockpile of what used to be known as film and television.
Death lies at the center of all narrative experience, something that is beautifully allegorized in “Bandersnatch.” In many of the possible endings, someone dies, sometimes the computer programmers, sometimes Stefan’s mother and father, sometimes the video game itself. “Bandersnatch” builds an understanding of the state of narrative in 2018 on the shards of media texts which lie behind it, corpses left behind by technological “progress.”
The episode archives many literary experiences: Stefan crawls through a mirror, as does Alice in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871), one of whose fantastic beasts is called the Bandersnatch. The massive science-fiction tome, Bandersnatch resonates with other massive narratives, such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (1937-1949) and George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (1996-present), the latter of which may never be finished, perhaps suffering the same fate as Stefan’s Bandersnatch video game in some of the endings of the Netflix show.
Figure #4: The source of Stefan’s interactive video game is a novel, a form of narrative hundreds of years old
“Bandersnatch” also intertextually resonates with other maddening novels: for example, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851) is another narrative about an unfulfilled quest to understand the complexity of the world, marked by the morbidity of the Romantic hero, Ahab. The self-destructive end David Foster Wallace, whose masterpiece, Infinite Jest (1996) lurks in the backwaters from which “Bandersnatch” creeps.
“Bandersnatch” of course also houses the history of video games, retelling the story of one British software company’s bankruptcy in the early 1980s, failing to finish a game called “Bandersnatch,” also one of the stable endings of Stefan’s story in the Netflix show. In most of the endings, Bandersnatch gets released, sometimes receiving rave reviews, other times getting brutally panned.
The arrival of video games in the 1980s, developing ever more complex forms of interactivity—from first person shooter games to Wii Sports—offered the most profitable challenge to the 20th century dominance of film and television, like the novel, narrative forms that at least superficially work via one-way communication from authors to consumers.
I have offered a defense of “Bandersnatch” as a theoretical gesture that calls our attention to the turgidity of one form of narrative media grinding its tectonic plate across older forms. Yet, it is true that none of the show’s endings are particularly satisfying in the way that traditional narrative delivers. When Stefan climbs through a mirror, the show invokes Lewis Carroll’s far more playful and interesting Through the Looking Glass (1871). The interactive screen which allows us to control the events is not much more sophisticated than the “Choose Your Own Adventure” novels invented by Edward Packard in the late 1970s.
Figure #5: Peter Newell’s drawing of the Bandersnatch (bottom right corner) for Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass
However, “Bandersnatch” points toward a future in which we are destined to become Stefan, a world in which narrative flow will be predetermined by media conglomerates who mine data to pretend to give us choice when in fact the company’s algorithms have already decided what we “want.”
Indeed, right now, Netflix has the technology to mine our choices in watching “Bandersnatch” to create new shows “just for us” in the future. The result will be a stream of narrative threads created for me that will differ radically than those for you. We will further lose our sense of community, glue which binds civilization.
Facebook has already threatened to destroy the world by using such data mining to give us our own versions of the news, also under the pretense that this gives us what we WANT. The genius of “Bandersnatch” is that it darkly represents a world that denies us what we NEED: a loving family, a nurturing meaningful workplace, caring and interesting friends.
Facebook’s maneuver has threatened to murder off the entire print and television news industries, and has also thrown global politics into chaos. “Bandersnatch” is about the next logical step in this process. Not only will our news feeds be determined by corporations pretending to give us what we want; so too will our narrative experiences be delimited by them.
The transition between shots of the Hollywood cinema — so-called classical continuity editing — works because, from trial and error, artists over twenty-five years discovered just when to cut, slightly before we consciously realize we need to see new information. Facebook relies on computer algorithms to scientifically replicate that trial and error process far more effectively and efficiently.
The future media form that will archive Netflix as a technology of the past will not require us to click on buttons. The interface will appear invisible to us, much in the same way that we cannot palpably know that Facebook is different for us than it is for other people, even people with whom we are intimately connected in the physical world.
Nor will the creation of these complex decision trees create terrible burdens on the sanity of narrative artists: It took the Black Mirror creators two years of work to create the very simple branching of “Bandersnatch.” Instead, computer algorithms will accomplish instantaneously that which drove the fictional creators within the show to insanity and/or death.
Far from a gimmick, “Bandersnatch” is dystopian science-fiction in its most cunning form. Our clunky control over Stefan’s story foretells our future, one in which we will not even have the ability to control our leisure time. This is, of course, not just our future, but our past: capitalism began sculpting our leisure time long before even the rise of mass media in the 19th century.
The seeds of the control of our consciousness via mass media were planted by Gutenberg in the early 15th century. As Friedrich Kittler so compellingly describes it in his masterwork of cultural studies, Gramophone/Film/Typewriter, modern machinery strips us of our humanity, leaving us in a state he calls, “so-called Man.”
Stefan is one such simulacrum of the human, and just as he followed in the footsteps of the madman, Jerome F. Davies, we cannot help but be drawn into his disastrous orbit.