The televised anthology Black Mirror speculates how new technologies will affect the near future. While some of its episodes play with periods and genres, the series commonly projects dystopian societies and relationships caused by humans’ growing reliance on computers. Created by Charlie Booker, the show originated on Britain’s Channel 4, but in 2015, internet and content overlord Netflix purchased the program. Production sped, and the company produced fifteen new episodes and an interactive film, known as Bandersnatch. The latter venture allowed users to uncover alternative storylines and endings for the 2018 film, as their phones, remotes, and controllers enabled them to make choices within a branching narrative. Launched in 28 languages, Bandersnatch was a show of force for Netflix, and its self-referential, choose-your-own-adventure technology served as a vague admission of guilt for the company.

The plot of Bandersnatch starts in 1984 (of course) and follows Stefan Butler, a programmer, as he codes and launches his first video game. Professionally, Stefan interacts with Colin Ritman, a prolific game designer, who loves hallucinogens and conspiracy theories. According to Ritman, the two lack freedom and their destinies are mapped, even if they seem to have choices. “He thinks he’s got free will, but really he’s trapped in a maze, in a system,” says Ritman, speaking to the game Pac-Man. “All he can do is consume, he’s pursued by demons that are probably just in his own head and even if he does manage to escape by slipping out one side of the maze, what happens? He comes right back in the other side.” The monologue is only Bandersnatch’s first meta reflection, and as the story progresses, Stefan grows aware of the user’s power. Many endings can be reached, but oftentimes, Stefan confronts a belief that he’s being controlled. The plot grows so existential that Stefan learns that a future, online television company, known as Netflix, holds power over his fate.

Reflecting on a simpler era of audiovisual entertainment, Carrie Heeter writes in Interactivity In The Context Of Designed Experiences, “We exist in an environment surrounded by objects and forces. Traditional media recognize our spatiality not at all. They are another object within our space, and we do not exist within their space.” Bandersnatch uses its interface and plot to break down this boundary. Both Stefan and Colin are unable to ignore the user’s presence, and the discomfort of this experience leads both to mental collapse. A dare follows Colin’s speech. Either he or Stefan must jump off a balcony, and it’s ultimately the viewer’s decision. Referencing a 1998 article by Donald Norman, Heeter continues, “In the design of experiences, real affordances are not nearly so important as perceived ones; it is perceived affordances that tell the user what actions can be performed on an object and, to some extent, how to do them.” Colin believes his existence is controlled, if not predetermined, and therefore, he perceives no risk in leaping from a high rise. Many of Bandersnatch’s endings note this perception as astute.

But as the viewer plays with the character, Netflix plays with the user. “We’re internet TV,” said Clara Engelbrecht, Netflix’s director of product innovation, in 2020. “We can do more than you can do on linear television.” Engelbrecht mentions users’ landing screens, which aggregates lists of suggested content, as but one example of the company’s innovation. In a 1989 article, Heeter notes that “continuous feedback is a special form of feedback in which behavior of all users is measured on an ongoing basis” and that such careful monitoring is a key attribute of emerging, interactive media. Netflix watches as viewers watch.  Its algorithms, not critics, determine what content Netflix will suggest, and therefore, viewers can only perceive control over this television experience. 

Bandersnatch‘s characters are aware of this trap. “The past is immutable,” says Stefan’s psychologist to her client. “We can’t choose differently with hindsight.” With each click and every narrative branch, users provide Netflix with permanent data needed to capitalize. All future experiences, real or perceived, will be haunted by this bygone information. 

Works Cited

  • “Black Mirror.” IMDb, IMDb.com, 4 Dec. 2011, www.imdb.com/title/tt2085059/.
  • “Black Mirror: Bandersnatch.” Netflix Official Site, 28 Dec. 2018, www.netflix.com/title/80988062.
  • Carrie Heeter, “Interactivity in the Context of Designed Experiences”. Journal of Interactive Advertising, Vol. 1, No. 1., 2000.
    • Cited within Heeter 2000 and reference here:
      • Norman, Donald (1998), The Invisible Computer: Why good products can fail, the personal computer is so complex, and information appliances are the solution, Cambridge: The MIT Press.
      • Heeter, Carrie (1989), “Implications of interactivity for communication research,” in Media Use in the Information Age: Emerging Patterns of Adoption and Consumer Use, Jerry Salvaggio and Jennings Bryant, eds., Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 217-235.
  • Engelbrecht, Carla, and Andy Weil. “WeAreNetflix Podcast: Interactive Storytelling.” YouTube, 27 Apr. 2020, www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=1&v=QxUj1p-kR1Y&feature=emb_logo.