Netflix won’t reveal much about how Bandersnatch works, but it has resulted in one of the most talked-about episodes of Black Mirror, writes Ed Power.
CHARLIE Brooker and Annabel Jones did not quite jump with joy when Netflix suggested, in May 2017, that they consider an “interactive” episode of their hit future-shock anthology Black Mirror. It struck the pair as gimmicky. As a former video game journalist, Brooker was all too aware of the industry’s lost years in the 1990s when studios poured millions into lugubrious “interactive” CD roms.
But then, a few weeks later, as he and his co-producer were having their first meeting to discuss scripts for the next season of Black Mirror, he realised that he did indeed have an idea that would work in an interactive format.
Out of this germ of a notion sprang Black Mirror: Bandersnatch – the “choose your own adventure” Black Mirror episode that has become a talking point since its release on December 28.
How does it work? Only Netflix truly knows that answer and it is understandably keeping the proprietary secrets to itself, having invested millions in developing the technology (again, how many millions is a question to which the company does not furnish an answer).
But what can be said is that the software provides a consistent experience across different devices. The Bandersnatch you play on your phone is that same as that you experience on your tablet or smart TV.
There are exceptions though as users of Apple TV discovered when unsuccessfully attempting to stream Bandersnatch. They were met with a sort video in which the word “sorry” was repeated over and over.
The reason for the lack of compatibility, experts have theorised, is that certain technologies do not facilitate Netflix’s revolutionary “pre-caching” software.
This functions by storing several possible options before the user makes their “decision” in the game. That way, the film moves seamlessly to the next scene, regardless of what you have opted to do.
This isn’t terribly far removed from the way Netflix usually works, which is to pre-cache an up-coming scene. The big change is that now it is pre-caching two sequences rather than one — and because the tech is in its infancy, not all devices are calibrated to function smoothly with it. “This is one of the biggest challenges of my career,” says Bandersnatch’s Irish-born editor, Tony Kearns, outlining the difficulty of making the scenes look as if they had naturally proceeded from one to the other.
“As you watch or play you kind of become part of the story yourself. there’s all sorts of different narrative paths,” explains Brooker.
“They can even lead you in a great big loop all the way back to the beginning.”
This being Black Mirror, Bandersnatch is more than merely an interactive game of course. It is also a bleak commentary on the fallacy of free-choice in a technology-saturated society. And it’s a charming period piece set in the glory days of eight-bit personal computer gaming. If you have a soft spot for imperial phase of the ZX Spectrum and the Commodore 64 and games such as Jetpack and Alien-8, then you’ll be drawn in, even without the pick your path element.
“I knew I wanted to do another period episode,” says Brooker. “What if you were controlling somebody in the past? So it kind of spiralled from there.”
Netflix has trialled its interactive technology with several kids’ TV shows. In Bandersnatch, however, it has its perfect fit in that the “gimmick” is of a piece with Black Mirror’s over-arching anxieties about computers and the illusion of agency technology can foster.
The process of making it was quite dystopian too. “It was very challenging at every stage,” says Brooker. “There were times when working stuff out literally looked like doing a Rubik’s Cube in your head. I had to literally get up from my desk and walk around the house holding my head. Then you’ve got actors having to keep track of where their character is — bearing in mind that the previous morning they may have played themselves in a different timeline.”
Bandersnatch’s viewership is destined to remain the biggest mystery of all, as Netflix does not release ratings. However, if it was the company’s goal to generate hype, then this was surely money well spent. Reddit is brimming with Bandersnatch threads and social media “engagement” — as tech guru types call it — is impressive.
There have been downsides too though. Actor Will Poulter, who plays game designer Colin Ritman, quit Twitter after a cavalcade of abuse about his acting and appearance in Bandersnatch. An actor driven from social media after starring in a show about the dark side of technology is itself the stuff of Black Mirror.
Bandersnatch is a triumph and a great leap forward. But the response it has provoked from certain quarters is a reminder, too, that its cautionary message about the dangers to our psychological wellbeing posed by tech is more relevant than ever.