Netflix’s Bandersnatch and the Future of Interactive Media


black mirror

Alison Niet Culture Editor

By now, you have probably made it through Netflix’s interactive “Black Mirror” episode “Bandersnatch” at least five times (and if you haven’t, you probably shouldn’t be reading this). You probably played it through once, were unsatisfied with your ending and played for three more hours to see all the content. Perhaps you found yourself disheartened when — no matter how badly you wanted it — Stefan (played by Fionn Whitehead) would not work at Tuckersoft Games. Or, maybe you were frustrated when all you wanted was to get the kid’s bunny back from his dad. Either way, “Bandersnatch” accomplished its goal of entertaining audiences for either 45 minutes or 3 hours. But although audiences were captivated over and over, “Bandersnatch’s” story rarely offered anything new on the second or third watch. There was no depth to the characters and with the multiple storylines crossing over and over, there was no way to develop these characters or track their progress.

As a story, “Bandersnatch” is, by all accounts, kind of boring. It starts with Stefan, an eager young game developer who is trying to adapt the “choose-your-own-adventure” book of the same name that was left with his late-mother’s things. The special starts with Stefan going through the drudges of everyday life, shutting off his alarm clock, going downstairs to see his father (Craig Parkinson) suspiciously lock the door to a room in their house and the first choice is presented to viewers: Sugar Puffs or Frosted Flakes. The day continues, with Stefan riding the public transportation whilst listening to a cassette (either the Thompson Twins or “Now That’s What I Call Music 2”) on the way to Tuckersoft to discuss his new project with Mohan Thakur (Asim Chaudry). 

The first 20 minutes view like a regular movie, the exposition of what the book is, what the game is and who the characters are is revealed, as well as the stakes of creating a game as innovative and imaginative as the one Stefan has envisioned. Stefan is introduced to his hero, Colin Ritman (Will Poulter of “Meet the Millers” and “Maze Runner” fame), a game developer who has found fame in the development of games that shaped Stefan’s passion. This is explored later in a conversation with his therapist, Dr. Hayes (played by Alice Lowe). 

After Stefan pitches his game to Ritman and Thakur, you, the viewer, are given the choice of having Stefan work for Tuckersoft to develop the game or creating it on his own. The choice seems clear. Of course, he should take the job at a company that employs the likes of his personal hero and can provide the materials to produce everything in house. However, this choice leads to a deadend, with Colin patting Stefan’s shoulder after he accepts and muttering “Wrong path, mate.” The game is rush job, negligible in the holiday market and receives 0 out of 5 stars. This prompts Stefan to angrily shut off the television and proclaim that he has to try again before the viewer is watching the same beginning scene of Stefan shutting off his alarm clock, trudging down the stairs to see his father lock the door and be served his breakfast cereal. From there, the choices take off and the storylines seem to intertwine far more frequently.

Stefan travels back to Tuckersoft, spots the glitch in Colin’s game because it was explained to him in the other timeline (thought he doesn’t know it) and much to his dismay, rejects the offer and opts to work on the game alone. From there, the viewer is tasked with ensuring that Stefan achieve that 5-star rating whilst juggling his therapist, father and hero Colin Ritman. 

There are a couple of interesting points in the game in which the viewer is tasked with making a lasting decision that affected the rest of the film. For example, after a particularly stressful couple of weeks of game developing, Stefan finds himself being taken to Dr. Hayes’ office. Once arrived, he sees Colin walking down the street and you are tasked with the option of going to the therapist or following Colin. If you choose to go to the therapist, Stefan receives medication that he can either take or flush down the toilet.  If you choose to follow Colin, he takes you to his apartment to help you “see.”  At his apartment, Colin offers Stefan drugs, but regardless of whether or not you choose to take them, Stefan will get high and he and Colin will have a discussion about multiple realities and the fluidity of time which turns into a conservation about free will and the lack thereof in our choices. 

“People think there’s one reality but there’s loads of them all snaking off like roots and what we do in one path affects what happens on other paths,” Colin says to Stefan in a drug-induced rant. “There’s messages in every game. Like Pac-Man. Do you know what PAC stands for? PAC. Program and Control. He is Program and Control Man. The whole things a metaphor, he thinks he’s got free-will but really he’s trapped in a maze.” Immediately after this conversation, to prove his point, Colin takes Stefan onto the balcony, where he declares that one of them will jump. The viewer is given the burden of choosing. If you choose to throw Stefan over the edge, the game hits a dead-end. If you choose to throw Colin over the edge, Stefan awakes in his father’s car as if from a nightmare and you are forced to go to the therapist. This path has consequences that last through the game and are either remedied or cemented by the remaining choices. 

Another choice that seems to be integral to the film’s gameplay is the choice to either bury or chop up the father’s body after killing him. Either way, Stefan is found out and remanded to prison in atonement for his actions and his game is pulled from the shelf after the news breaks that its creator has killed his father and left the severed head on the bureau with the walls painted in the blood of the deceased. This leads to two endings, each dependent on the other choices made in the game. If you choose to bury the body, Tuckersoft will call and ask if the game can be finished by end of day. Then, either Kitty (Colin’s wife), Thakur or Colin himself will come to the house to check on Stefan. From there, Stefan’s secret is uncovered and he is sent to jail, where he watches the television and sees the news coverage of his game, giving it 5 stars but being pulled from the shelf. From there, there is either an interview with Colin Ritman, who is alive (because you chose to simply go to the therapist and not follow Colin), or a search for Colin is being enacted because he has been missing (all the while, we know he jumped out the window). This is the Jail Ending, and the most likely one to get. The History Repeats Itself Ending is accessed almost the same way, but instead of chopping the body up, you need to choose to bury him. Stefan then finishes his game to critical acclaim, but it is pulled of the shelf after the gruesome murder has been uncovered.  Fast forward to the future, and Pearl Ritman, daughter of Colin Ritman, is working on a interactive choose-your-own-adventure adaption of Bandersnatch for a rumored streaming service platform. Whilst developing the content, the computer glitches and the viewer is given the choice previously given to Stefan: “throw tea over computer” or “destroy computer.” 

There are two other endings are accessed sooner in the film. When Stefan asks “who’s there” after refusing to throw tea over his computer, the viewer has the option to tell him that it’s Netflix and they are watching him on their computer. This leads Colin to the therapist, where he tells Dr. Lowes about Netflix, to which she asks, “wouldn’t you want a little more action if you were watching this now?” A fight commences, and Stefan is either dragged from the office by his father—where you access the “Netflix Action Sequence Ending”—or leaps through the window, where it’s revealed that Stefan is an actor who got too into his role. Bandersnatch is a set and you are told it wasn’t in the script for him to jump out the window. This is the film ending and what I found to be the most exciting ending of all.

Finally, we get to the audience’s favorite ending. This ending involves talking to the therapist about Stefan’s mother and taking the book to bed. From there, Stefan will access his father’s safe and be able to input “TOY” as the password, which will bring him back to his childhood when he was 5. He will find his rabbit under the bed and accompany his mother on the 8:45 train, destined to derail. He will die as a child and the Stefan who is developing the game in the 80s will pass away in Dr. Lowes’ chair. This is the most peaceful ending and seems to be the one that viewers enjoy the most.

Interactive media is all around us in the shape of video games. You are able to choose your path and dictate the ending. You can be the villain or the hero and, if you mess up, you can try again. Netflix’s experimentation with this interactive form of television is reminiscent of a video game and, while entertaining, it loses what makes a film so distinctly special. I believe we will see more platforms experiment with this new type of film, with hopefully as much if not more success than Bandersnatch received. If you are reading this and you haven’t had the opportunity to see all five endings, I highly encourage you take the two hours and go through the material. This is by no means everything in the special, but it’s a start, so go choose your own adventure.