How do you choose what you’ll have for breakfast? Sure, you may have some things that you like or don’t like, but ultimately, what happens in your head to make you choose Sugar Puffs over Frosties? Questions like this, of choice or free will, are central to the first Black Mirror movie, Bandersnatch. But I want to ask something more fundamental to the medium in general: is it a movie, or is it a game?
For those uninitiated, Bandersnatch markets itself as an interactive movie, drawing not-subtle parallels to a Choose Your Own Adventure book. This is undoubtedly true; it is, after all, a movie you interact with. But interaction is the core of what makes a game a game, isn’t it? Where do we draw the line between “interactive” and just a game? Are the two mutually exclusive?
The first thing we must do is define what exactly a game is. This is surprisingly difficult to do, and many people have provided their ideas, but my favorite comes from The Art Of Game Design, by Jesse Schell, who spends a chapter refining his definition before finally nailing a game as “a problem-solving activity, approached with a playful attitude.” I think this is a good definition because it includes many things like sports or video games which are games while excluding things like life itself, which isn’t a problem-solving activity. It is, however, a bad definition because it requires knowledge of his other definitions for what things like “play” or “fun” means. For the sake of completeness, I’ll list all of his definitions:
- Fun is pleasure with surprises.
- Play is manipulation that satisfies curiosity.
- A toy is an object you play with.
- A good toy is an object that is fun to play with.
- A game is a problem-solving activity, approached with a playful attitude.
Well, Bandersnatch is undoubtedly a toy. I would even venture it’s a good toy, as it certainly surprises, but surprises are almost Black Mirror’s whole brand at this point. The issue here is the “problem-solving” part of his definition: does Bandersnatch offer problems for you to solve? For most games, the problem you seek to solve is to “win” the game. But, without spoiling too much, I’m not sure you can win Bandersnatch. The end of each route in the game provides you with a literal rating out of 5 stars, and while one of the endings does give you 5/5, it’s hardly satisfying. The other issue is this definition relies on the attitude of the viewer.
So, to summarize, what Bandersnatch is depended on you when you watch it. Did you watch it over and over, trying to get the best ending, to see all the paths? Then for you, it was virtually indistinguishable from a Telltale game. Did you watch it once, satisfied you got your own experience and heard the story it wanted to tell? Then for you, it was a strange new kind of movie. Now, for me, there’s no question: I played a game. So was it a good game?
Well, that’s kinda tricky. One common criticism I’ve heard thrown at it is that the choices you make don’t matter. I can only assume the people who said that haven’t played a game in the last decade. Any game designer worth their salt know the illusion of choice is just as necessary as the real thing. That is, also, ignoring the fact that your choices in Bandersnatch do influence quite a lot. Sure, in the end, everything collapses down to around five different endings, but I think that might be the point. You, the viewer, are meddling in a story that isn’t your own.
By the end, the characters taking the initiative away from you is them taking back their story. Regardless of the narrative, however, Bandersnatch is clearly lovingly crafted. You can tell from the flowchart above, while your choices don’t send you down clear, distinct paths, for the most part, almost all of them do come back at some point.
Also, this experience couldn’t be anything but what it is. That is to say; this story only makes sense as an interactive movie experience. Limiting it to being a total movie or a total game would reduce the story, which is a sign it is worth your time at the very least.
Whether Bandersnatch lands on all that it attempts is up to the viewers. There are indeed some things I would change, but overall, I think it was an excellent experience which I would recommend in a heartbeat. And, above all, it is everything I could have wanted out of a Black Mirror movie. If you haven’t watched (played?) it yet, do it now, as the conversation around it is worth as much as the experience itself, and ignoring it denies you one of the most interesting conversations you could be having to start your 2019. If you have finished it already, leave a comment! Tell us what you went through, what you would change. And be sure to be back here in the next few days as the rest of the NIHF community talk about their own experience going through Bandersnatch.