So I fucking love the T.V. show Black Mirror, I even did a write up of every episode from the first four seasons. A quick synopsis for those who do not know what Black Mirror is.
The show is an anthology T.V. series that uses technology as it’s backbone. Each episode is self contained and yet they all take place in one unique shared universe. These are dark and depressing tales often with a sting in the tail. Black Mirror is the brainchild of acerbic and satirical writer, Charlie Brooker. If you like miserable and dreary stories – then Black Mirror is perfect for you.
Season five is set to be released late this year and it had already begun filming last year. But it was pushed back from an earlier release due to something else. That something was Black Mirror: Bandersnatch. This is a special one-off episode.
This particular tale is one set in 1984 and tells of a young gaming programmer, Stefan Butler (Fionn Whitehead) who comes up with and sells the idea of a video game that gives the player freedom of choice. The game is based on one of those amazing choose your own adventure books called Bandersnatch by writer Jerome F. Davies (Jeff Minter – legendary game designer). While writing the book, Jerome went mad and killed his wife.
Stefan sells the idea to game publisher, Tuckersoft. But as Stefan delves deeper into the book and his game, things begin to unravel and history tends to repeat itself…
So this special episode is different to any other Black Mirror episode that has gone before it. You see, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch is interactive. You get to make decisions for Stefan at certain points in the story and those decisions will shape the way the episode plays out. Some choices are very mundane from choosing which breakfast cereal to eat or what music to play (mundane, but still have an effect) to much bigger and important choices that will lead to one of numerous endings the episode has.
It has been said that there are five “proper” endings to the episode, but then there are so many branches you can take that lead to other parts that could be considered endings that even creator Charlie Brooker himself has said he’s not sure just how many there really are and everyone involved in the episode can’t agree on what constitutes as an ending, it has even been said that there are so many possible outcomes that some scenes may never be seen.
Black Mirror: Bandersnatch aired on Netflix only a few days back on the 28th December last year. Yet fans have already been scouring the episode and creating flowcharts and maps to find each and every possible outcome. The view time can vary from 40 odd minutes to a couple of hours depending on your choices and around six hours of footage was filmed to be included for each path. I’ve been (I guess) “playing” this episode for a couple of days and seen a fair bit of it and various endings… but not all of them. But is it any good?
I grew up in the late 70s through the early 80s as an avid gamer, I remember and read a load of those chose your own adventure books back then too. And I really do love Black Mirror – so this episode is seemingly tailor made for me. It’s like an amalgamation of many things I have a strong passion for.
The setting is amazing, the nods and references to 80s gaming and the decade in general is stunning and I broke out a nerd smile more than once throughout this episode. So many childhood memories wonderfully recreated through Black Mirror, the attention to detail is exquisite. Even the name Bandersntach is one that is carefully chosen as it references to a major misstep by one of the most influential British gaming publishers of the 80s (one of many subjects covered in my up coming book). There are great Philip K. Dick references, fourth wall breaks, self-referential writing and all sorts going on here. In that regard, I really loved this episode. I got so much enjoyment from just finding little Easter eggs and references, little sparks that kick-started memories from me growing up.
But as an episode of Black Mirror? It’s definitely one of the lesser ones. There’s no such thing as a bad episode of the show – but there are disappointing ones and this is one of them. The story is just a bit too bland for me and the characters not as well written as in previous episodes. The whole choice thing got tedious for me and I quite honestly just got bored of it all. I “played” though the episode four times, each time making different choices and I can’t really say I enjoyed any of them. There’s an element of Groundhog Day with you “resetting” back to a point and trying again, so be prepared to see the same scenes over and over and over again as you can’t skip them even if you’ve already seen it. A lot of the choices are so mundane they may as well not be there and there’s a lot of filler thrown in to pad out this illusion of choice thing.
There are some nice moments that made me smile, like Stefan realising someone (you) is controlling him and you can respond by telling him you are watching Netflix… which didn’t exist in 1984 when this episode is set. There are some fantastic gaming related choices that will mirror the game Stefan is creating and there are more than a handful of nods to previous Black Mirror episodes. It all gets very meta at some points (including one of the endings) and I love when writers do stuff like this. Brooker’s talent as a writer really does shine in some elements of this episode. But quite honestly, I’d have much preferred just having a “normal” episode without the choice thing with Brooker still doing all his fourth wall breaking and references.
But the story just doesn’t really do anything or go anywhere as it gets lost in it’s own gimmick. There’s no real hook, no punch as with other episodes. Give me White Bear, The National Anthem, White Christmas, Shut Up And Dance, Metalhead, Hated In The Nation or one of the other fantastic Black Mirror episodes in this format and it could’ve been something truly amazing. What you have here is a rather uninspired story that lacks the depth and whole Black Mirror ethos.
There’s a lot to find in the episode including an actual game you can play on a ZX Spectrum (you can play it another way too if you don’t have a ZX Spectrum handy) hidden away in one of the episodes. The game is Nohzdyve and it appears in the episode itself, the name of the game is also a reference to a previous Black Mirror episode too. It’s like an Easter egg inside and Easter egg. If you want to find it an even attempt to play it click here.
All in all, it’s a gimmick and one I just quickly got bored of to be honest. As I said, I “played” though the episode four times and I don’t see myself revisiting it to see the rest of the footage I missed. I saw one ending twice and the other two were just sight variations of each other. I’m really not all that bothered about seeing the rest, but I think I might enjoy it more if someone did and edit of the episode that just played out like a normal one with a defined start, middle and end.
To be completely fair, you can kind of watch it like that as you don’t have to chose anything and just let the episode pay out as is. It will select a choice for you and you’ll see a lot more scenes. But the episode will keep jumping back in time to a previous choice and select the other one to see the alternate path… it all gets a bit tedious as you watch and re-watch the same scenes over and over. As I said, I’d rather just see an edited version without the choices telling an A to Z story.
Black Mirror: Bandersnatch is a great idea, in places it’s brilliantly written too. But my enjoyment came from the 80s setting, the references, the nods to previous episodes, etc and not the whole interactivity thing – which I grew tired of. The story itself is one of the lesser ones in the Black Mirror library of tales. Maybe check it out for curiosity sake if you have a Netflix account, you might get a few hours of enjoyment from it.
It’s a nice little addition to whet the appetite while we wait for season five to come around. But not something I think will be revisiting.