‘Black Mirror: Bandersnatch’ Takes TV Viewing To An Entirely New Level

The ultimate childhood dream — especially if you grew up in the ’80s and ’90s — involved being able to enter your television during your favourite TV show and become one of the characters. (Yes, kind of like A-Ha’s Take on Me music video.)

Fast-forward a few decades and that dream is ready to become reality, in a way. Netflix’s standalone interactive film “Black Mirror: Bandersnatch”, available for streaming as of Dec. 28 around the world, is letting you enter it. That’s right, you embody a character, and you choose the direction of the story.

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“Wait, wait, wait, what?” you might be asking. It’s true. Those of us who pored over Choose Your Own Adventure books are now able to experience that satisfaction in real life. But how is this possible? How can millions of people simultaneously watching the film possibly control it?

Global News was the only Canadian news outlet invited down to Netflix headquarters in Los Gatos, Calif., to find out all the details about this earth-shattering launch, and boy, was it something. Here’s the dirt on “Black Mirror: Bandersnatch”.

So how does this work, exactly?

“Bandersnatch” is the first adult-oriented/live-action interactive experience in TV history. Netflix has previously done interactive content, but only animated, and only for children: “Puss in Book” and “Buddy Thunderstruck”, for example.

As with any other content you want to view on the streaming service, find it in search and it’ll pop up. The only difference here is that as the story progresses, you’ll occasionally get a series of choices on your screen. (The creators of this episode say choices come, on average, every 1.5 minutes.) Your job is at once simple and complicated — you have to make various decisions for the protagonist, some minor, some major, and decide the fate of the story using your remote control, fingers, or console controller.

Photo: Netflix
Photo: Netflix

“It was difficult all the way through,” said “Black Mirror” creator/writer Charlie Brooker about bringing “Bandersnatch” to life. “To give you an idea, to write the treatment for this show, I had to learn a programming language. Normally you just describe the story, between two and 10 pages. And that was only step one! That should’ve been the first distress flare.”

It took 35 days to shoot “Bandersnatch”, and it takes approximately 90 minutes to get through one story iteration. There are five main endings with multiple variants of each, replete with Easter eggs throughout. It’ll be available in 38 languages, and is usable across most newer devices, including game consoles, TVs, web browsers and Android and iOS devices running the latest version of the Netflix app. It isn’t yet supported on Chromecast, Apple TV and some legacy devices. (For those trying to view on an unsupported device, Netflix provides messaging to help direct you to a supported device.)

Given the mind-boggling number of possible choices, there are more than a trillion unique permutations of “Bandersnatch”.

What is it like?

It’s like a video game wrapped in a TV show in movie form, all of those mediums melted into one.

“When they first suggested to us the notion of doing an interactive story, we smiled and nodded,” said Brooker, laughing, recalling the moment Netflix pitched the idea to him and his executive producer, Annabel Jones. “Then we left the room and said to each other, ‘There’s no f**king way we’re doing that.’ Later on, we were discussing options, and then we came up with the central conceit — you are controlling somebody who becomes aware that they’re being controlled — and went, ‘Oh, s**t!’ The only way we can do this is with interactive, which now means we have to do it.”

The backbone of the interactive story, too, is deeply meta, riffing off the concept of a 1984 video game that was developed but never released, also titled “Bandersnatch”. Additionally, a bandersnatch is a creature from the world of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, which jibes with the mysterious, tenuous reality of this interactive film. Of course, “Black Mirror” itself deals in futuristic, technologically focused stories, so this concept couldn’t have found a better host.

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Set in the 1980s (natch), “Bandersnatch” introduces us to Stefan (Fionn Whitehead), a young programmer who has hopes of creating a best-selling, text-based computer game inspired by a choose-your-own-adventure-style novel given to him as a child. There are so many layers to the story it can make your head spin.

Photo: Netflix
Photo: Netflix

“We didn’t want it to feel gimmicky, we didn’t want it to feel like an add-on,” said Jones.

“I think one of the important things to note is it’s an experience rather than lots of definitive endings,” she continued, discussing navigating through “Bandersnatch”. “One of the most challenging things about making this has been the crafting of the world and the various branches, and also limiting the endless, infinite potential offshoots and different stories you can make.”

What are some things to expect?

This is a foray into a new world, and each person’s experience with “Bandersnatch” will be different. Disparate outcomes, feelings and connections are to be expected. As a part of the story, you can choose what breakfast cereal Stefan eats in the morning, or what music he listens to on the bus. On the heavier side, you have to make weighted, more serious choices that you probably don’t want to make, but you have to for the story to continue. One thing’s for sure, it is very immersive, and a first run-through is exhilarating.

“What’s going to be really interesting is actually seeing how people feel when they get to some of the endings,” said Carla Engelbrecht, Director of Product Innovation at Netflix. “There are literally millions of permutations of the story, and your decisions matter. The choices go beyond just ‘good’ and ‘bad.’”

“Some of them, just like Black Mirror the series… there are different endings with different tones,” said Todd Yellin, VP of Product with Netflix. “Some more ‘out there’ than others. It gets so exciting when you see the choices you get to make, like when you can pick which music to play in a scene. How often do you watch something and get to choose the music that plays in the background? Talk about personalizing it and making something your own!”

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If you’re wondering, there are some harder-to-find storylines and occurrences that only a small percentage of viewers will stumble upon.

“There are scenes that some people will just never see,” said “Bandersnatch” director David Slade, who also directed “Black Mirror” episode “Metalhead”. “To me, the films that are most exciting and interesting are the ones where your subconscious has more control than your conscious mind, which is definitely this story.”

Throughout the story, there is a recurring symbol, a glyph, that represents a key element to the film. Even the showrunners started seeing it in their real lives — that’s how immersive this is.

“Obviously this is f**king huge, and the editing is huge,” said Jones. “It got to the point where I’d be driving down the street and I’d see something and I’d be like, ‘Was that a f**king glyph?’”

It’s a whole new world

The critical consensus is we’re in another golden age of television, with dozens (hundreds?) of shows to watch at any given time and over multiple different mediums. Is “Bandersnatch” a harbinger of things to come, where viewers become more intertwined with what they’re watching? Only time will tell.

Netflix felt like this was the next logical step in TV evolution, and the team is immensely proud of what they pulled off.

“If there’s any pressure, it’s from ourselves,” said Yellin. “We fancy ourselves pioneers in the internet TV space, and there’s now a much bigger ecosystem than when we started out on this path. With that motivation to keep on innovating in the space, we thought, what else can internet TV do that we couldn’t do before to enrich stories?”

Yellin also says that more interactive is definitely coming from the streaming giant, no matter how well or poorly “Bandersnatch” performs. It’s safe to assume, therefore, that competitors will be trying their own versions of interactive content in the near future as well.

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Another bonus with this type of programming is that it essentially eradicates spoilers, at least in the traditional sense. What might happen to one individual might never be seen by another, and thus can’t really be spoiled. Based on my own personal experience, the group of critics with whom I watched had a lot to discuss afterwards. We spent a good 15-20 minutes going over our stories and choices, which only made us want to watch “Bandersnatch” all over again.

“There is a point, where you keep going and going… when you get to an end, you can exit and totally restart from the beginning, clean slate,” said Brooker. “Or you can keep going and we’ll give you shortcuts to bits you haven’t done yet. But that means you’ve seen almost everything.”

“We don’t really want people to exit and start playing again,” said Jones. “The character learns things through different branches, which then allows them to have a different experience in a different branch.”

Brooker jokes that he brings up fake story elements all the time to mess with people, even though they never take place in Bandersnatch. That might become the new spoiler: making up something that never appears, like Brooker’s favourite, a jet-skiing monkey.

“There’s so much content in this, and not necessarily reflected in the content is the craftmanship,” said Jones. “What you have to take out to make the world feel like it’s cohesive. It took an inordinate amount of time, but this is a huge thing, a new, novel opportunity. Not to mention the fun. Just enjoy the experience, this different relationship you have with the TV.”

“Black Mirror: Bandersnatch is now available for streaming on Netflix.

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