Bandersnatch is an impressive piece of work. As a child, I loved to read Choose Your Own Adventure books. I can’t recall any particular titles I enjoyed, and certainly none of them were as elaborate as the titular book Stefan sets out to base a video game on; they were rather all thin little books written in the second person. I’d cull the shelves of what I guess you could call a small library, getting new ones whenever I got the chance, so that I could try to navigate to an ending besides falling off a cliff. That seemed to happen a lot; or, something similar. Then I’d go back and try again.
Bandersnatch recreates that enjoyment, but in a way that is much more complex, and certainly much darker. And it includes that experience of repetition; going back and making another choice. On my first viewing, this happened to me only once, when I accepted the offer from Tuckersoft (or, rather, when I made Stefan accept it) and the game is a failure. Stefan then insists that he will try again, and we loop back to the beginning. From there I navigated a path to an ending. But I imagine that different paths through the story would involve this kind of looping happening potentially many more times.
In this piece I am going to focus on my initial viewing experience. I will tell you what choices I made, where I ended up, and offer some general thoughts about what Bandersnatch is up to. Then I intend to take a deep dive into exploring other paths in a further article. I would like to be exhaustive, but if the claim that there are a trillion possibilities is true, that might be a recipe for madness. Netflix encouraged me to explore where other choices led after I reached an end, but I didn’t like doing it that way. I like the idea of starting over and creating different versions of the film. We’ve been given the gift of a Black Mirror episode that one can not only watch multiple times, but which can differ with each repetition. I’m not ready to jump to the cliff notes. But, I digress. The point is that you can expect a more in-depth analysis of the episode/film/game to be released in the relatively near future, after I have engaged with the work more. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy this account of my first time through.
The story begins with Stefan getting up and having a brief discussion with his dad about the Bandersnatch book (which he found in his mother’s things) and the video game he is creating based on it. After he mentions that it is a choose your own adventure book, his dad asks him to choose his breakfast. I chose the Sugar Puffs. Then Stefan’s dad complains about a dog digging up the yard/garden before Stefan makes his way to the bus. Here we asked to choose which cassette tape he will listen to, and I picked the Thompson Twins. Having already started my second viewing, I can speculate that neither of these first two choices makes much of a difference; they are rather there merely to ease us into the action, and to be referenced later (if I am wrong about that, please let me know).
The first big choice that the viewer is asked to make on Stefan’s behalf comes during his meeting with Tuckersoft, when Mohan Tucker offers him the opportunity to develop the game in the office with a team of helpers. I accepted, only to have Colin quickly tell Stefan this was the wrong path (which is interesting in its own right), before the narrative jumped to a future where the game has been created only to be panned by the critic on the computer game review show that apparently exists in this version of 1984.
As I mentioned above, this caused the action to loop back to the beginning. The early events were shown in sped up fashion, but once Stefan was at the office for a second time, there were differences from the first. This time, Colin knew about the Bandersnatch book, claiming to have read all of it, and lauded Jerome F. Davies as a genius, for example, whereas the first time through all he seemed to know about the book was that Davies had cut his wife’s head off. And there are other indications that the first (presumably erased) meeting influences the second, as when Stefan pinpoints the glitch in Colin’s “Nohzdyve” game.
In retrospect, I wish I had encountered more such instances as I proceeded, but I did not. Instead, after I made Stefan refuse the offer from Tuckersoft on this second go around, I cut a fairly straight path through to an incredibly bleak ending (the bleakest?)
After working on the game a bit, Stefan goes to see Dr. Haynes, who asks if he would like to talk about what happened to his mom. I chose yes (because I was curious), and got the story of Stefan’s stuffed rabbit, and how he held his mother up one morning, which led to her death in a train crash.
Then Stefan goes to a store to buy music based on Colin’s recommendations (I chose Phaedra), and also purchases a book about Jerome F. Davies. I wonder if this choice in music makes a difference to the action, and speculate that it might, but regardless my experience was of a montage of Stefan working on the game, until his dad comes into his room to suggest going to the pub. I chose to have Stefan yell at him, and off they go to Dr. Haynes’ office.
But there outside of the office is Colin walking down the street, and so I chose to have Stefan follow him. This led to my favorite part of what I saw. After noting that Stefan is “in the hole,” Colin offers him a tab of LSD to help get him out of it, and of course I chose to have him accept. The acid trip leads to Colin espousing some conspiratorial thinking about how they are being watched and controlled. They are like Pac-Man, you see: PAC stands for “program and control.” He has the illusion of freedom, running around a maze from specters that are likely only in his head, and if he manages to escape the maze it is only to enter again from the other side. It is not a happy game.
Yet, Colin also claims in this scene that they exist in many parallel universes, that they can change the past, and that all that matters is how decisions affect the whole. This seems to get to the meat of what Bandersnatch is up to, and I expect to have much more to say about it in my second article. To illustrate his point, Colin insists that one of them jump off the balcony. I chose for Stefan to tell Colin to do it, and he does, apparently dying as he hits the ground. Stefan then sees a demon.
Now, in my path through on this initial viewing, Colin’s point was not proven, as neither I nor Stefan saw him again. After Colin’s suicide, the action jumped back to Stefan and his dad in the car outside of Dr. Haynes’ office, as though all of this with Colin had perhaps been a dream. Stefan tells Haynes that he feels he is not in control; that it feels like someone else has been deciding what cereal he’ll eat and what music he’ll listen to. I chose to have him bite his nails during this session. But he doesn’t; he effectively resists. It begins to feel as though I, as the viewer, am becoming his main antagonist, but of course I cannot escape this structure any more than he can, lest I turn the show off.
This is illustrated when the next choice is whether he should flush his pills or throw them away (there is no option for him to take them). I chose to have him flush them down the toilet (not good for the environment, I know).
Stefan’s September 12th deadline arrives, but when he takes the game to the Tuckersoft office to show it to Mohan it doesn’t work properly. Stefan is given the weekend to fix the problem. Also, Colin is not there and no one knows where he is, although an intern gives Stefan a VHS tape labeled “JFD,” saying that Colin asked him to do so (this it turns out contains a documentary about Jerome F. Davies).
We cut to a montage of Stefan trying to fix his game. When he gets frustrated, I choose to have him hit his desk. Then after he stands up, I choose to have him pick up a book about coding instead of a family photo. He sneaks into his dad’s room to steal the keys to his office and goes to the safe. I choose “PAX” instead of “PAC” as the combination, and the safe does not open. Stefan sees a demon.
We return to Stefan attempting to successfully code his game, and when things aren’t going well I choose to have him throw tea over his computer, but he doesn’t do it. Instead he asks who is doing this to him. The choices are Netflix, or the symbol from “White Bear.” Of course I choose the latter. Stefan freaks out and gets into an altercation with his dad. Asked whether he should back off or kill his father, I choose the latter, causing Stefan to bludgeon his dad to death, all while protesting that he is not in control.
Next question: bury the body, or chop it up? Stupidly forgetting the dog from the beginning of the story, I make Stefan bury his dad’s corpse. The phone rings, and it is Mohan asking whether the game will be ready by the end of the day. I make Stefan say yes.
We cut to Colin’s girlfriend Kitty coming to the office looking for him. It seems no one has seen him since whenever it was that he gave the intern that VHS tape for Stefan. So Kitty heads to Stefan’s house and rings the doorbell. Stefan grabs a knife as he heads to the door. She asks if he knows where Colin is, and I choose to have him respond by saying that he has no idea, instead of mentioning Colin’s jump.
This seems to get rid of Kitty, but that dog has begun digging up dad’s body. Cutting to the future, the news tells me that Stefan has been arrested and convicted for the murder of his father, Colin is still missing, and Tuckersoft has gone under because the Bandersnatch game was never completed. The story ends with Stefan sitting in prison scratching the “White Bear” symbol into the wall over and over again.
At this point Netflix gave me the option to go back and decide to have Stefan chop up his dad’s body instead of burying it. I did do that, and arrived at a different ending where the game was made successfully before his arrest for murder, and was now being remade for Netflix—very meta. But, as I said above, I found this style of learning about other possibilities to be a bit unsatisfying, and plan to work through the episode as a whole a few more times to discover possible paths and the other endings (I have read that there are five).
Bandersnatch raises questions about free will v. determinism. Its structure pulls the viewer into those very questions. One is implicated in the action and complicit, if not straightforwardly responsible, for what Stefan does. This is, frankly, the kind of thing that I expected Black Mirror would do when I first read that there would be an interactive episode, as the show had already called the motivations of the viewer into question with “Black Museum.”
Bandersnatch can get very meta, and indeed its name is not only an allusion to Lewis Carroll, but refers to actual video game developed in 1984. Yet it also goes beyond what is usually meant by that term. It doesn’t so much comment on itself from the outside as pull the outside in, from the viewer to the platform of Netflix itself.
Colin claims that there are parallel universes, as he himself exists within a story that potentially bifurcates in every direction. Of course, the possibilities aren’t infinite. It is theoretically possible to work through every permutation of this narrative. But would this be to risk the kind of madness that affected Jerome F. Davies, and then Stefan? Colin says that what matters is how decisions affect the whole, but can the whole of Bandersnatch be brought into view? Are there really a trillion possibilities?!
Regardless, in my next piece I will dig deeper into these questions that Bandersnatch raises, both through its content and its form. I will do my best to be comprehensive. Pray that I don’t cut a loved one’s head off, or throw tea over my computer.