Bandersnatch: A Movie About Player Character Agency

Netflix recently released an installment of its Black Mirror series titled "Bandersnatch" about a young programmer who gets a big break coding a video game in the 80s. The twist is that he's actually part of a choose-your-own-adventure-style branching-path game that Netflix viewers can play. The many possible outcomes explore player -- and character -- agency. Who is really in control? Please note that this article contains spoilers!



Netflix entry into the branching-path gaming market was led by Carla Engelbrecht Fisher, Netflix’s director of product innovation. She previously founded the game design firm No Crusts Interactive and worked for Highlights for Children and PBS KIDS. Netflix pitched the idea to DreamWorks Animation Television about piloting the interactive format. This led to a series of kid-oriented shows like Puss in Book: Trapped in an Epic Tale, Buddy Thunderstruck, and Stretch Armstrong: The Breakout. We previously discussed the possibility of a similar format for adults. Enter Bandersnatch, which plays through the height of the 80s video game craze:

In England in July 1984, young programmer Stefan Butler (Fionn Whitehead) dreams of adapting a "choose your own adventure" book called Bandersnatch by tragic writer Jerome F. Davies (Jeff Minter) into what he hopes will be a revolutionary adventure video game. The game involves traversing a graphical maze of corridors while avoiding a creature called the Pax, and at times making choices by an on-screen instruction. Butler produces the game for video game company Tuckersoft, which is run by Mohan Thakur (Asim Chaudhry) and employs the famous game creator Colin Ritman (Will Poulter). Butler is given the choice of accepting or rejecting help from the company in developing the game. If Butler accepts the offer, Ritman says he chose the "wrong path". The game is released months later and critically panned as "designed by committee". Butler considers trying again, and the film returns to the day of the offer, the viewer being given the same choice.​

Bandersnatch draws inspiration from real life. There really was a Bandersnatch game in development:

The Black Mirror interactive film Bandersnatch, released in 2018, alludes to Imagine Software and the failed work to produce Bandersnatch. The film starts on 9 July 1984, the date of Imagine's closure, and includes a shot of the cover of Crash reporting on the closure. Within the film, the fictional software company Tuckersoft, which had developed both Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum games, places its financial future on the attempt to produce Bandersnatch, and in some scenarios falls into bankruptcy after the game fails to appear.​

The video game produced in the Netflix movie has a strong role-playing game lineage. Dungeons & Dragons-inspired one of the luminaries of the computer role-playing game (CRPG) genre, Richard Garriott, who created Akalabeth: World of Doom. It was the first CRPG to use first-person graphics, a feature later built upon by Wizardry, which in turn would be emulated by later games like The Bard's Tale, Dragon Quest, and Final Fantasy. The party-based combat in Wizardry in turn inspired Garriott to include a similar party-based system in Ultima III: Exodus. There are other role-playing game call-outs too -- a reference to a Lovecraftian being known as Pax has a three-pronged glyph that echoes the branching path structure of the movie's narrative as well as the Yellow Sign.

As for whatever happened to the real Bandersnatch...like in some outcomes of the Netflix movie, it was eventually released to mixed reviews:

A new company called Finchspeed (formed from the remnants of Imagine) acquired the Bandersnatch rights and sold an option on the game to Sinclair Research Ltd. Finchspeed itself folded, but a complete working version was developed for the Sinclair QL. The directors Dave Lawson and Ian Heatherington then formed Psygnosis and the now-complete game (renamed Brataccas) was released on the Atari ST, Amiga and Macintosh.​

Although the gamebook style of play has a lot in common with Netflix's branched-pathing technology (gamebooks eventually evolved into a form of solo adventures for role-playing games), they differ in important ways. For one, a book contains the "code" of the game that a player holds in her hands -- she can flip to any sequence at any time. Conversely, Netflix's technology moves forward linearly; "wrong" choices (choices that would end the movie quickly) lead to a summary up to the decision point and then an option to pick a different path. In a few cases, the choice doesn't change the path at all, and in at least one instance the player is given only one choice to make a narrative point. It's worth noting that Chooseco, who owns the rights to Choose Your Own Adventure, disagrees -- they initiated a lawsuit against Netflix over the use of the term in the movie itself.

And what is that point? Butler discovers he's being controlled -- he essentially realizes the viewer is dictating his actions -- and thus Netflix creates a meta-narrative in which he tries to resist the control put upon him by the narrative force. The tension between the two feels a lot like an argument between a player and the game master, with the character stuck in the middle.

In a branching-path narrative like this, the movie may help the viewer reach several conclusions or none at all, depending on the ending. Bandersnatch's many outcomes argue that nobody's actually in control because all realities are possible. Netflix's experiment is less about making a compelling game or an interesting movie as it is about presenting a massive number of possibilities to be explored and discussed afterward. There's no "right" ending. The choices we make, like in gamebooks, reflect as much on us as the game itself.

Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, communicator, and a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to http://amazon.com. You can follow him at Patreon.
 
Michael Tresca

Comments

MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
Watched it on my sister's recommendation. It was interesting enough for me to go back and try a number of different scenarios but just isn't as immersive or engaging as just watching a movie.

I feel I need to have sufficient agency to "drive" the story continually, such as in a CRPG, or just sit back and get lost in a story someone is telling me.

The prompts in these Netflix videos just break immersion. It is for similar reasons I don't like Telltale Games and similar episodic video games with the quick-decision mechanics thrown in to build excitement. For me, the build annoyance mostly because my brain treats them as an interruption.
 

talien

Community Supporter
Watched it on my sister's recommendation. It was interesting enough for me to go back and try a number of different scenarios but just isn't as immersive or engaging as just watching a movie.

I feel I need to have sufficient agency to "drive" the story continually, such as in a CRPG, or just sit back and get lost in a story someone is telling me.

The prompts in these Netflix videos just break immersion. It is for similar reasons I don't like Telltale Games and similar episodic video games with the quick-decision mechanics thrown in to build excitement. For me, the build annoyance mostly because my brain treats them as an interruption.
I'm not particularly fond of linear mechanics, and much of Bandersnatch's narrative is to obscure the fact that you have very little agency, there are indeed "wrong" choices (or at least, choices that end the movie very early), and if you just let the Netflix movie churn it will tell a story without you. There's not nearly as much player agency as the plot implies, which I suppose is why so many of the stories are about just that -- the fact that the main character suspects nothing he does matters. Once you realize that though, the whole exercise seems pointless.
 

Advertisement

Latest threads

Advertisement

Top