Call me old-fashioned, but I like a good story, and none of the versions of “Bandersnatch” I watched — made? enabled? chose? — had quite enough. I don’t know if this is a failure of my own imagination and decision-making, and if I am therefore panning my own existence in The New York Times. Maybe I am! Maybe this is all part of the big “Black Mirror” plan to make everyone as nihilistic as possible; to remind us that being British is very sad but it’s better than the alternatives; to illuminate the fact that we are just cogs in a machine that produces more machine; that my futile role such that it is will soon be obviated by that exact machine. And have I ever noticed that things that are supposed to bring us closer together actually keep us further apart in some ways, hm?
Anyway, I wanted — thought I wanted? — a story. So on my first pass, I followed the advice of every improv teacher I’ve ever had and sought to make the most emotional choice available. But it often didn’t matter; my choices sometimes just looped back toward a main path, or they didn’t materialize how I’d envisioned. Sure, I told Stefan to “yell at Dad,” but if I were really controlling him, I would also have told him what to yell. I wanted either more control or less. I didn’t want just to declare the outcomes, I wanted to influence the motivations. Otherwise the outcomes have no grounding, no purpose. Unlike a physical “Choose Your Own Adventure” book, I could never tell how far I was from the end, and thus how far I was from the beginning, and so I could never cogently construct a narrative arc that made sense for pacing or structure.
Even when I replayed — rewatched? reselected? — “Bandersnatch” for a few other passes, I was torn between competing goals: one, to create the most interesting “episode,” and two, to find the deepest, most secret pathways to see if I could trick the show or myself. This tension between meaningful narrative and tricksterism resulted in the worst, least joyous aspects of both. Perhaps this is how the writers of “Westworld” feel.
I don’t think “Bandersnatch” is an episode or a movie, and I’ve seen it described elsewhere as a video game, but it’s more of an ecosystem, and not all of “Bandersnatch” is “Bandersnatch” itself: It also relies heavily on the internet response machine (which this article is also part of). I suppose there are people who will play through the story, reach the end credits option, and then just go on with their lives, not deigning to do even a cursory search online, but I can’t really picture it.
I knew as soon as I finished that I could find a Talmud’s worth of dissections of every possible selection, perhaps an oral history of how the project came together, a full walk-through of how to get to however many endings there were, maybe a personality quiz to tell me what kind of person I am based on whether I ever poured tea on the computer. (I could never.)
That material is not auxiliary, even if Netflix and the “Black Mirror” team didn’t create it. The response is as essential as the product — which Stefan himself thinks, since he’s more focused on that one TV review segment about games than on any other kind of feedback, or even just his own sense of satisfaction. His own death (I got there a few times) is less significant than the rating his game gets. I think “Black Mirror” knows this is bad, but I’m not sure.