Bandersnatch, Netflix and the importance of expectation

Welcome gamer and players! Today we’ll discuss a little about Bandersnatch! What is good, what is… less good, what is innovative and what is appalling.

Post-Scriptum: this post was wrote in the last days of 2018. My original plan was to wait a little time before publishing it, in order to allow as many people as possible to watch the movie, think about it and jumpstart a discussion, before going into details. But, since discussion seems already hot, I’ve decided to publish it sooner. It’s a little longer than usual, but I think the topic deserve it. Good read!

Please note that I WILL NOT include any specific spoiler. However, if you’re particularly spoiler-sensitive check the movie before continuing.

First I’ll write a few words of introduction, then I’ll illustrate my vision on the layer that compose the movie, and finally take a few conclusion related to how the marketing and promotion of this product has been slightly off (in my opinion, to attract more “casual” viewers selling them an easier description of the product, rather than a realistic one).

What is Bandersnatch?

It is my firm conviction that, with this production, Netflix bordered a few interesting idea and meddle with a couple of very interesting production values… but at the same time, a relatively foggy vision somehow gimped the final result (which is passable, while in my opinion it could – and should – be mind blowing).

Because Bandersnatch is presented as an “interactive movie”, it is immediate easy to compare it with a lot of productions in different media (book, comics, movie and games) with the same idea. The “choose your adventure” books were something that was quite big in the ’80 and ’90 in Italy, but there were a lot of other experimentation on the matter, starting from those in the porn industries more than a decade ago, to the recent Detroit Become Human, Compared to almost any advanced or “good” production… well, Bandersnatch isn’t good. It lacks a number of meaningful choices, it enforced repetition (more on that later), it’s completely devoided or circular path within the movie… all features and techniques well know, when creating and interactive media.

However, Bandersnatch IS NOT a “proper” interactive movie. This is the reason why I’m writing this post: in my opinion none realizes that Bandersnatch is something different. It’s a composite experience, with at least three different part, that channels three different kind of relationship with the movie. This regard to gamification (the main topic of this blog) because I think this will shows particularly well how the expectation from audience drift (heavily) the perception, fun and behaviour towards a media product. If you think about it, that’s exactly what gamification is about, and I believe that we can learn a lot from Bandersnatch.

You may wonder why I feel entitled to wrote about interactive movie. Because, even if we never finished it, we at SboccoStudios shoot and produced an interactive movie (back in 2006).

“Interactive movie”

Yes, of course, Bandersnatch is an interactive movie. You made decision, and what you subsequently see on the screen is affected by that.
But, as said, if you play it expecting a rich, multiform and personalized experience, you will be disappointed. I, for example, literally hated the first 30 minutes (more of less) of the movie. And, since I’m a Black Mirror fan from the first season.

Why it is unsatisfactory? Because, specifically in the beginning (and you know how much the embarking process is important), you ONLY get either irrelevant decisions.  The first real choice that you made in the movie (the third) is more of less a trapdoor, one that expect you to make the “wrong” decision (note that, given the context, the character and whatever you know until that point, one choice makes sense while the other doesn’t) to be able to tease you with a “try it again!” message.

The answer is in front of you! But it’s WRONG!

Having played that in almost any possible variation, I believe that there are only two “real” choices in the movie (and both that regard Stefan). If you already watch the movie, those are the password choice and the answer to Stephan. To be precise, both of them are more of a three-way path, however the movie will present you only two of them at the same time (more on this on the “meta” level, below).

What is very interesting is that, of the only two “real” ending that the movie has (the two that brings you directly to the final credits, instead of giving the chance to go back and make another decision), at least one may be reached only playing at least a couple of different path (so, failing at least one time). The character in the movie that incarnate this topic is Stefan, the protagonist..

“Iterative movie”

Then, it is something else. I haven’t got a proper terms to define it. Probably “iterative movie” is a good name?
As in the famous (and copied thousand of times times) “Groundhog Day” movie (and differently from ANY “proper” “choose your adventure” book and games), you can repeat the same story line. In the books or in video-game, you can do it only by a save-point, basically discarding the entire alternate pathway you choose, in order to “go back” and pick another path.

On this, Netflix make a very good (and interesting) innovation and something that, to my knowledge, none as ever done before.

The movie itself remember your previous path and, like in Groundhog Day, the second time you walk a path, something is different.
In the original movie (and almost in all of its similar iterations), only the protagonist was able to remember the alternative timeline, and he/she does it fully (another example, always from Netflix, is the season #1 ep. #6 of “3Below – Tales of Arcadia.
In Bandersnatch, instead, almost ANY character on the screen somehow “remember” the previous iteration that you played, but they NEVER do it fully. Only you, as an external spectator, may really appreciate the difference that you created.
What happen is that a line or two of dialogue are moved from a character to another one; the characters meet for the first time and say something like “haven’t we meet before?” and so on. If we wish to identify this aspect with one of the character, Colin is the one that bring these topics into the movie.

“Meta-movie”

The third is a “meta-movie“. This is particularly interesting because it connects with both the other aspects described above. Somehow, the movie “knows” that it is a movie. A few of the characters, here and there (and more prominently later in the movie) know that they are character. At a certain point, while taking a decision, you can literally tear down the 4th wall to the extreme consequences (you can effectively “escape” from the fiction and find yourself in the real world (on the set of a movie, watching the light, the production team, the actors and so on).

Also, the philosophy behind those meta-level are quite interesting. There is a good ending (maybe “satisfactory” is a better word: it’s Black Mirror, and no ending is really “good” in the end) that literally says that “People don’t want choice, they want the illusion of choice” and also “my original idea of including any possible outcome was too complex, so I stripped it down: you can choose something, but you go where I want you to go“. This is, quite literally, the authors staff and the director that are talking to you, admitting that they couldn’t create a proper interactive movie, but more the illusion of an interactive movie, that manages a few selected story lines (those who bring the themes they want in a Black Mirror episode).

More importantly, at least from my point of with, are the hints embedded in the fiction for the audience: there is an entire scene (an hallucinogenic trip) that is no more than a big spoiler and description from fictional point of view about any possibility you have in the movie. Basically a meta-fictional guide.
I think that the character of the Dr. Haynes embed this meta-level (someone may make a case for Colin, but I think that is pretty clear that Colin always talks to the characters within the movie, while the Dr. Hayes often speak directly to you, on the other side of the scree).

This side of the movie was for sure the one more directly entertaining: that because it really feels like you (the audience) do really matter. Unfortunately, it slightly broke the suspension of disbelief (to replace it with a witty but already seen meta-comedic jokes).

Final Considerations

To bring the topic of this blog back into discussion: is Bandersnatch about gamification? Is it a gamified movie?
No. In my opinion, it’s a game-movie, or a movie-game, or whatever you want to call an artistic product that put itself exactly on the intersection between a game and a movie.

As an interactive movie, it’s not so good. Acceptable, but somehow weak. There a number of techniques that are missing (one glaring omission is any circular pathway, that will have matched perfectly idea of repetition within the movie).
Also, the movie isn’t written to favor the replayability between different screening (rather is encourages a full-exploration contained within a single watching session).

As iterative movie, instead, it’s brilliant. The more I think about it, the more I believe that the entire movie could have been compressed BEFORE the third choice that you make (the one related to the location of the job). Having a richer experience before, trying to put together the pieces of the relationship of Stefan with his father, helping him solving is psychological issue and being able in the end (like in “Groundhog Day”), to accept the proposal of Tucker without going towards doom (and a literal “0 star” ending) would have probably been an experience I could enjoyed a lot more.
However, this is not the movie how it is, but rather the movie like it could be.

It’s always better to write about stuff you know

I’m talking about this specific storyline

Last, but not least, I want to include a brief consideration related to the “multiverse” concept that is (in my opinion) the “true” ending and the most similar to a classic Black Mirror episode.
I’m talking about the choices related to the symbol aside.
The idea that the multiverse defeat the freedom of choices, and that, assuming that we exist in infinite variation, brings the conclusion than we can do anything we want without held any moral responsibility: that not only is extremely stupid but (I think) is also offensive towards the intelligence of the audience.

While I can understand that someone that read about the multiverse for the first time in his/her life may be fascinated by this ideas. However, the multiverse and multiple dimension are an overused cliche (especially in comic) so I find baffling and annoying that a professional screenwriter may have included this in the script. Even more, do that believing this was somehow smart, or provocative, or even meaningful. Instead, I think that shows that either the author were using concept they did not fully understand, or they tried to water them down for the illiterate audience to the point where somewhat interesting became simply bullshit. That really hurts me because it’s a few year that I’m working on a RPG that allows the player to play a fully-fledged multiverse, while keeping it somehow simple and accessible for the casual player.

So, let me explain better why this idea doesn’t make sense. Let’s suppose that we really exist in infinite variation. What is our freedom of choice? We are simultaneously making ALL the possible decision in any given second… choose is irrelevant, right?
WRONG. While we can admit that, “somewhere in the multiverse” we may be the bad guys, we are not God. We cannot “see” the entirety of the multiverse from our point of view. We can’t see the exact path of the future before making decision. We don’t know if, taking a train, we may be involved in a crash. We don’t know the exact size and amount of consequences that a single choice will bring.
This means that we effectively DO NOT KNOW our relative position in the multiverse compared to the other possibilities.
This is really the case to say that “ignorance is a bliss”: since I do not know where we are, we can’t effectively decide for our future…. we can only guess. That’s freedom in the multiverse: the opportunity of being blissful ignorant of the real consequences of what we do, so that our choice are really meaningful.

I can’t decide if I am a serial killer, in the entirety of the multiverse. I for surely will be, in a dimension or another. What can I do is decide WHO I AM, between the infinite iteration of my character. I believe think that this would have been a great to create a better storytelling. However, the movie want to push idea that “choice is an illusion” (and I understand that, it’s more of a topic for a Black Mirror episode). This, unfortunately, reinforce both the “meta-movie” and “iterative movie” point of view, but undermines totally the idea of “interaction movie” where you make decision that means something.

And, to conclude explaining the tile of this post: that’s a problem, because your entire marketing campaign revolves around the “interactive movie” idea. Any single person that, in theory, should be extremely excited to see this movie (those with experience in interactive story line) are those who have a lesser opinion of this movie. I think that’s because of the expectation.

I think that the reception to the movie will be a bag of mixed feeling (somehow it seems it already is): who never experience interactive storytelling will be blow away. Anyone who has proper experience of a book/movie/game that actually is an interactive story will find the main claim of “choose your path” as an misleading marketing in best case, and as untruthful statement in the worst. I think that, if you belong to this audience, you may find more enjoyment in the subtle meta-experience and the iterative structure of the movie.

My preferred ending

At the first attempt (aside from the “zero stars” finale working at Tuckersoft that I’m sure has been reached by more people than those who will ever admit it) we ended with the government conspirancy story line. Immediately after, we got the “rabbit” ending, that in my opinion was the more rewarding and the better for the story (and with that sweet and sour tone perfect for a Black Mirror episode).
It feels like that was the only “serious” ending: the others were too much out of the line of paradoxical to be considered “serious” (specifically because all the serious ending revolves around those idiotic concept of how multiverse work).

As a final consideration, I think it’s very interesting and speak volume about the Interaction vs Iteration described above the fact that this ending, one of the two “proper” ending, can be achieved only if you walk forward and back at least once.

So, what do you think about Bandersnatch?

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