Black Mirror released their first full length feature film on Netflix right before the end of the year like a final holiday present left under the tree. Similar to the rest of the content from the Black Mirror family, the film, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, is a multi-level mental exercise. Unlike the rest of the franchise however, it didn’t tie itself to a post technology dystopia. Instead Netflix capitalizes on Bandersnatch to tout its technological prowess against its competitors in what was ultimately a thought provoking if not frustrating self reflection on the streaming era.
Last October the news broke that Netflix was going to begin letting users make decisions that would directly affect the plot of a show users are watching. The streaming version of the choose your own adventure novel. Bandersnatch became the first such novel with its premiere.
The plot is relatively straightforward. According to IMDB it reads: In 1984, a young programmer begins to question reality as he works to adapt a fantasy novel into a video game. This relatively straightforward plot holds the story together, at least until the decisions viewers make start to to muck everything up. Viewers are presented with an array of decisions as the story progresses, ranging from painstakingly picking which cereal to eat for breakfast to deciding which unlucky character is fated to jump off a balcony. All of them feel monumentally important…until they don’t.
Two problems immediately come to mind with Bandersnatch. The first is that when you give someone options you inherently are giving them the ability to make the wrong decision. In the myriad of decision points during the show, there are some that lead to a dead end. Literally. In those instances one of two things generally happens. Behind door number one the main character, wakes up as if from a dream to an earlier point in the proceedings. In the much less subtle version, door number two gives viewers the choice to resume play from two different points in the story or pick a different path entirely. Bandersnatch clearly asks – who is in control? And while this makes for a compelling theme, at times it does not lend itself to an enjoyable viewership experience. Making two ‘bad’ decisions in a row feels like you are doing something wrong. In fact, after going through several loops of ‘bad’ decisions, you begin to wonder if you are in fact stuck or if the movie will ever end. After seeing three or four different endings in one sitting there is a return to menu button that appears in the corner of the screen that became the lifeline I didn’t know I would need.
Equality as problematic is that engaging the audience to partake in the story turns the viewing experience from passive to active. The vast majority of moviegoers and binge watchers are looking for the former and having to make multiple decisions instead of enjoying the ride can feel like a chore. If given the choice between watching a movie or the choose your own adventure version of the same, which will users pick?
For Netflix this is just the first wave of active, participatory programing crashing onto the shores of their 140+ million subscribers. While no one is arguing against the impressive technology capabilities, what does this mean for the larger Netflix and streaming viewer? Gen Z through Baby Boomers have had an entire lifetime of viewing experiences being told to them and a few years of streaming giants propping up choose your own adventure shows on a pedestal won’t be able to turn the tide of that learned behavior. Just like there is a market for choose your own adventure books in the vast landscape of literary media there is a place for this technological application to the streaming community. But try to imagine watching shows like Stranger Things, Ozark, Narcos, BoJack Horseman, or Glow where you can affect the story. Where you can change the ending. Is the experience cheapened knowing if you didn’t like the outcome you could pick a different route or give everyone a happy ending? Is the water cooler community weakened, when instead of gossip over the same, shared experience of watching an episode, everyone witnessed their own, personal story played out? Sports is one of the last financially viable live viewing experiences around today because it is wholly unpredictable, with no do overs. (No matter how much we wish we had another shot at a missed field goal.)
The counter argument is much simpler: Netflix wants you to watch. To make their show, their movie, their content the main course inside of side dish left on in the background.To stream and to binge and to ask you ever so often if you are there as more of a courtesy than anything else. Because of course you’re still there, you’re halfway through your tenth rewatch of The Office. Giving users choices in shows and loops to go through and alternate versions to try means consuming the same show over and over again. It means better numbers for Netflix which means more dollars which makes everyone (i.e Netflix exces) happy. It also means Netflix can gain information about what kind of stories users are choosing to inform what kind of content they should be producing. Netflix prides itself on its relationship with creators and letting storytellers tell stories the way they want to. But what will happen when one side has a vision for their project and the other wants the viewer to decide?
We don’t know how this story is going to end. But maybe that’s the point.