You Won’t Destroy Yourself on a Single Try — Why I think Black Mirror: Bandersnatch is Terrible

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Days ago, I watched the latest interactive film Black Mirror: Bandersnatch on NetFlix with my roommate. After 20 minutes, I stood up and said: “How can you bear such a terrible show?” My roommate was surprised and asked: “Why do you think it’s terrible?” I was even more surprised: “You can’t see why it’s terrible?”

On the Chinese social media Douban, we can see Bandersnatch has the lowest score among all the episodes of Black Mirror Series (All other episodes’ scores are higher than 8.0, but Bandersnatch is 7.0).

It seems like I’m not the only one who thinks it sucks.

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Actually, I don’t watch American TV shows since three years ago, when I finished a course in Television Script Writing. After knowing how the Script Writers create a TV show and set the characters, I can predict how most of TV shows would tell the story, and I totally understood that why there are so many brilliant TV shows ended up with a hasty ending.

The charming part of most things, is the obscure shadow under the veil. It’s very hard to keep admiring something after totally understanding what it is.

With some understandings from my professional background, let me explain why I think Black Mirror: Bandersnatch is terrible.

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Unlike other independent episodes that reflect the reality and bring up instructive questions, Bandersnatch is using interactive storytelling, which is providing two options and a countdown timer while the audiences are watching, and the audiences are supposed to make choices within limited time. Based on the audiences’ choices, the film goes to different plots.

Before graduating from NYU ITP, I took a Non-linear Storytelling course (taught by Alon Benari), it taught me how to create an interactive film. And I also did my thesis on this.

Let’s first think about a question: Why are these choices in the film? What is the functionality of these choices?

Alon said, these choices have three functionalities. First, Reveal Character. Films are not like novels, there shouldn’t be too much narrative voice-over that introduces the background and protagonists. These options are used for showing the personalities of the protagonists.

For example, there’s an arrogant father and a docile son, who are badly lack of communications. When they are having breakfast, the father gives the son a box of cereal which the son totally doesn’t like, what will the son do? 1. He eats the cereal without complaining; 2. He doesn’t say anything to his father; 3. He declines it gently.

These three ways of handling the situation is reasonable for the characters. The son will never throw out what his father gives to him, or leave the table in a rude way — if the father is always gentle and kind and the son is always rebellious, the corresponding options would show up to tell the audiences what the characters are like.

Therefore, although the options are just different actions which lead to different consequences, essentially, they are here to provide information about the character and background settings.

Let’s see how Bandersnatch gives the options:

The father says: “How about decide what you want for your breakfast?” Then he gives his son two different flavors of cereal.

As an audience, I don’t even know what’s the difference between the two flavors.

What is the purpose of this question? What is the meaning of these two options?

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The second functionality of the choices, is to set a callback in the context which let the audiences feel that their choices really had decided something in the story.

For example, I have made an interactive comedy about how a bisexual girl handling the complicated situation that she’s dating a boy and a girl at the same time. In the story, the girl she’s been dating sees her with the boy and asks her what’s happening. She can deal with the situation in three different ways: 1. Tell a lie: “He’s my brother”; 2. Pretend nothing happened, don’t explain; 3. Try to tell the truth — if the audience chooses to let her lie that “He’s my brother”, then in the following plots, the girl she’s been dating will ask the boy she’s be dating: “You are Sarah’s brother, right?”

This single line doesn’t influence the whole story at all. But with this line, the audiences will think: Wow, this is what I chose before! This story is going exactly based on my decisions!

However, in Bandersnatch, the questions and options are meaningless. For example, when the protagonist gets on the bus, the audiences are asked to choose one song to play on his walkman. Then the chosen song will become the background music.

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Does this choice have anything to do with the following plots? Will there be any dialogue in the film working as a callback of the protagonist’s music taste? Unfortunately, no.

Do you believe an audience will enjoy the boring experience of customizing the background music?

Surprise! This isn’t the only place that asks you to customize the background music.

The third functionality of the choices, working for longer projects, is to accumulate value. As a matter of fact, most films are the reflection of reality, and in the reality, our lives can’t be changed thoroughly under a single decision.

For example, when you are having a class, suddenly your teacher stops the lecture and shouts loudly. When he behaves like this for the first time, you and your classmates will get surprised, maybe confused, but no one will escape from the classroom immediately. Unless your teacher stops the lecture and shouts loudly over and over again, you and your classmates will start to think that maybe the teacher is crazy, and you guys will leave the classroom.

What happens to you is mostly related to you behaviors, but not all your behaviors lead to an immediate, visible result. Most of the time, your behaviors or sayings are just planting a seed in other people’s heart, they won’t break with you until you have collected enough astonishment, embarrassment, and disappointment in their hearts.

The “Accumulate Value” functionality works better with longer projects (like Bandersnatch), while projects shorter than 30 minutes are supposed to focus more on the first and the second functionality.

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Beside the meaningless choices, Bandersnatch has made an unforgivable mistake:

In its settings, the choices are either RIGHT or WRONG.

If an audience makes a choice that doesn’t follow the screenwriter’s expectation, the film will suddenly go to a hasty ending, and a question will show up on the screen: Do you want to go back to somewhere and make the choice again?

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In the film, such “hasty ending, force the audience to make choice again” situation happens a lot. It seems like the producer is telling the audiences: “We only made one story line, you can either follow my order or get out.”

Their attitude of interaction is not decent at all.

Admittedly, most of the interactive experiences (including Drama Game and Interactive Films) are going to the settled endings that the creator has written. But how to show it skillfully? There’s one thing that the creator should never do: tell the audience that he/she has made a wrong choice, and he/she has to go back to choose again. If so, what’s the meaning of those questions and choices?

I think the best solution is to set hidden values like “Growth Value” and “Favorability”, just as how the early stand-alone games did. Our professor showed us an example: the protagonist is working in a supermarket, and he’s in love with a female colleague. One day they encounter a robbery, the protagonist needs to answer several questions from the robber, and he has to choose either to hide somewhere or to fight with the robber.

In their conversation, absolutely there are “smart answer” and “stupid answer”, but there’s never a “wrong answer”.

If the protagonist keeps choosing the “smart answer” and chooses to fight with the robber in the end, he will defeat the robber and win the female colleague’s heart. If the protagonist keeps choosing the “stupid answer” and chooses not to fight with the robber, then after everything, the female colleague will despise him. If the protagonist chooses lots of “smart answer”, but not to fight with the robber, then the female colleague will fall in love with another colleague who fought with the robber, but she will still thank the protagonist after everything.

In this story, the audiences are making choices for the protagonist, and lead the film to different story lines. None of the choices will let the robber kill every one immediately, restart the film, and force the audiences to make choice again.

“Having to make another choice” is the worst experience of interaction.

Meanwhile, there are lots of totally meaningless choice questions in the film.

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There are also some very clumsy settings like “let the audience control the protagonist to fight with everyone, and tell the audience it’s just a dream, because the fighting scenes have nothing to do with the story”. From here, the audience can only feel the power that they are “able to control the protagonist”, but the whole thing is totally meaningless to the overall plots and storytellings.

In the dialogue and format, this film has been telling the audiences over and over again that, interactive storytelling and parallel space setting are essentially still having you follow the script writer’s expectations. Therefore, some audiences think Bandersnatch isn’t a terrible film, instead, what it makes the audiences feel is exactly the theme of the film.

However, “throw the theme into the audiences’ face” is the worst storytelling that I could imagine. Thank this film for telling us how the form of a project grows much greater than the content.

Because of the failure of this film, lots of people says that interactive film will not have a bright future — I think it’s still too early to make such a conclusion.

Maybe interactive storytelling can try another way. For example, among the 20-to-30-minute episodes in a sitcom, there could be one or two “special episode” that provides an interactive experience. Firstly, with a length less than 30 minutes, it’s easier to control the pace. Secondly, telling a story by interacting with the audiences, will work better for comedies.

Before learning interactive storytelling, I assumed that setting a backstage like this will be extremely hard, because any single choice will lead to different consequences, and it will grow up to be an endless cobweb, like rolling a snowball. After learning it, I suddenly understood: in fact, if you have settled the background and characters, every person’s fate is already arranged in a limited scope. Most of our choices are not powerful enough to open up a new map and take us to a new continent — they are just accumulating values for our destined endings.

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Our professor’s company has made a short interactive film “You Get Dumped in Public”. In the film, the audiences are able to control how the girl behaves through the night: either to remind her boyfriend of some sweet moments, or to lose her temper; either to apologize gently or to splash her water on her boyfriend’s face. However, all the choices just decide how this night will be: the best ending is letting her boyfriend feel sorry and apologize to her, the worst ending is being thrown out from the restaurant by the waiters because of her discourtesy.

Whatever she behaves will not be able to avoid the break-up or let the boyfriend fall in love with her again.

As a Chinese old saying goes: “The embankment of a thousand miles was destroyed by the ant.” We always blame some accidental behaviors for bringing the disaster — But we never realize that, most of the earth-shattering changes in our lives, had already shown us some clues in the tiny little details in daily lives. Unfortunately, at the time, we were always unaware of them.

Btw:

I highly recommend the good interactive films on Eko.

Written by

Master in Interactive Telecommunications from NYU. Master in Television, Radio and Film from Syracuse University. Bachelor in Chinese Language and Literature.

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