We’ve reached the late stage of Netflix show development. An already pioneering format like Black Mirror has turned in on itself and created a meta-commentary on the difficulty of creating immersive content on streaming platforms. We know from the previous four seasons, and the accumulation of his work, Charlie Brooker is a provocateur and subversive creator. This segment takes the form of a choose-your-own-adventure videogame. Even amongst FMV (Full Motion Video) videogames, it’s particularly innovative. Multiple permutations of each timeline suggest that even when we’ve circled back and made new, better informed choices, our previous context has been remembered, altering the context and development of a prior segment.
There seemed to be some difficulty in getting this genre off the ground on Netflix. The episodic videogame form’s greatest and most prolific developer, Telltale Games, were contracted out to bring their expertise to the streaming space. It did not work out very well. After some time, they only brought a stripped-down version of their Minecraft: Story Mode (2015) to the service. Ostensibly due to this poor resolution, an outdated engine, and a reliance on licensed properties over owned IPs, the studio’s since announced their closure, much to the dismay of fans of some of their best work (shout-out to the stunning The Wolf Among Us (2013)). Now we have Black Mirror, exploring through meta intrigue, exactly how hard it is to create within this form.
The product is an intriguing labyrinth of choices, extending far, and folding in on itself. Like an early text-based adventure game, occasionally we’re lead astray, and must circle back to the right answer. The plotline concerns a young man trying to create his own videogame. It explores the very real difficulty of getting anything made, and especially produced, circulating from the origins of his game to the end review process on local television. Choices are as consequential as what to eat for breakfast and whether to end your life. Either choice will be reflected in the story and create a stunning feedback loop about the creative process and the strange nature of consuming a product on a platform like Netflix.
Fionn Whitehead plays amateur programmer Stefan Butler. He lives at home with his oddly creepy father and has given his life to adapting his favorite fantasy book into a choose-your-own-adventure PC game. This is smartly centered around the British indie game scene of the ‘80s – Commodores will be mentioned and that evocative style, of the cool open source Eurogames of the era, are neatly captured. He finds some assistance with a publisher who wants marketing rights to his new idea, and is potentially taken under the wing of a John Carmack-like hot shot developer, played by a confident Will Poulter. Both actors are promising excellent forthcoming careers – also check out Whitehead in The Children Act (2017).
Maybe that’s the story. Maybe you’ll get one about the meta experience of filming a show like this. Maybe it’ll be something else entirely. I surely have not explored every avenue of the story. I’ve gotten at least five endings. The PR story is there’s one that even the creators cannot seem to access. Whether or not you can find them all is a part of the fun. Our passion for film is understood as passive entertainment. It doesn’t take even partially the amount of work as reading a book or playing a game. Black Mirror, like Twin Peaks before it, has challenged that relationship. Perhaps there is no definitive ending, no clean wrap-up – when you’re authoring the story – it is a kind of agreement that you’re the storyteller.
Does it work all the time? Not truly. Occasionally there are dead ends where there ought to be development. The first time it wraps around and sends us back to a previous choice we think – so this is an lazy out, isn’t it? Then our previous choices from another timeline are wrapped in anyway. That comes as a moment of great relief and progressive forward movement where, even amongst FMV videogames, Black Mirror offers another way forward.
This is a review of a singular experience with Black Mirror: Bandersnatch. It certainly does not reflect your experience which will inevitably be totally different. It has not created the form, but like the best interactive stories, it has iterated from the best. It’s a learning experience, that says exactly why other experiments on streaming networks might’ve failed and teaches us something about our relationship with using its content.