Disclaimer: This article contains mild spoilers for the Black Mirror episode Bandersnatch
On December 28th 2018 Netflix released a new episode of its hit-series Black Mirror. The episode, Bandersnatch, has an interactive format. Throughout the narrative, viewers are offered choices, and each combination of decisions leads the protagonist on a different path. You can use your remote control to select on of the offered options, or your mouse, touchpad or touchscreen if you are on a laptop or mobile device. As you select your choice, a thin white line at the bottom of the screen shows you how much time you have left to make your decision.
The story of Bandersnatch is roughly as follows: a young man named Stefan is contracted by a games development company to adapt a choose-your-own-adventure novel titled Bandersnatch into an interactive game. As Stefan struggles to complete the assignment before the deadline, he is plagued by memories of his mother’s death, for which he feels responsible. There are a number of other storylines that you only get to see if your specific combination of choices leads to them.
In total, the interactive tv-experience is made up out of more than five hours of footage which, in different combinations, can lead to five different endings. Some of these endings are fairly straightforward while others are more complex. They include meta-commentary on the nature of interactive television and various breakages of the fourth wall. In one particularly strange twist, the viewer can opt to reveal to Stefan that his actions are actually being controlled by a 21st century streaming platform called Netflix.
At crucial times, however, viewers are offered no choice at all or, ironically, are led into the choices-menu but only offered one option. The interactivity of Bandersnatch, then, is intentionally limited. Black Mirror has a history of pointing viewers to the dangers of modern technology, and perhaps Bandersnatch is aimed at showing these dangers; don’t let the concept of interactive television fool you, it’s actually very restricted. Viewers are lured in by the promise of control, the appealing prospect of ruling over a shiny fictional universe like its god. But this is a lie.
All in all, while this lie invited me to reflect on the new medium of interactive TV and on viewer agency more generally, I think it leads to a dissatisfying experience. Some endings are hollow; they do not resolve the plot at all. Once or twice I made a choice out of curiosity only to find that I had unintentionally brought an end to the story. It was finished at an unexpected moment, but none of the plot points had been resolved. It made me realize I enjoy having a creator create an ending to his or her story for me; I don’t want to do it myself, because I know I’ve chosen almost randomly, which makes the storyline seem meaningless in the end. Of course the concept of interactive TV is appealing, but the reality is actually a little dull. As a New York Times reviewer remarked: “It’s hard to lose yourself in a story if you’re constantly being pulled out of it” .
Perhaps Netflix just wants to try out a new technology. Perhaps offering interactivity is a way for the company to stay ahead of the relentless force of illegal downloading. But maybe, and this is the most unsettling possibility of all, “Interactive filmmakers will take your preferences (…) and convert them into numbers that will guide the creation of new shows you will be programmed to find irresistible” . Considering the amount of people I know who are currently on the verge of Netflix addiction, this is quite a worrying prospect. What if TV and movies became so specifically tailored to your desires, your dreams, and your fantasies that it became literally impossible to resist? What, then, would happen to subversive narratives, to the stories that are unpleasant to hear but nonetheless need to be heard? What would happen to stories of oppression, political inequality or unfairness? What would happen to complex narratives, the ones that are not pleasant or easy to understand, but very necessary?
The prospect of a Netflix that knows exactly what we want at all times is unsettling, to say the least. I don’t think I would be able to tear myself away from the screen if it did. A completely hegemonic media platform that offered only the majority’s favorite type of entertainment, though? No, thank you. We already have a Hollywood. The picture of interactive, totally audience-attuned Netflix might be bleak, but let’s not forget that Netflix also has a history of producing diverse, politically engaged shows. Think of Orange Is The New Black or Dear White People. It is easy to think that by producing its content through Netflix, controversial and innovative Black Mirror has made a deal with the corporate devil, but the situation might be a lot more nuanced than that. There is certainly a possibility of subversive content being co-opted or taken over by big media, but I would also argue that some political engagement through a widely-used media platform is better than no diversity or representation of minorities in mainstream media whatsoever. If Netflix knows exactly what people want, it might also discover that a lot of people want diversity and equality recreated on television.
Watch Bandersnatch. Do it for its novelty value. But please also recognize that underneath the shiny new technology, its plot is not very engaging, its characters do not have a lot of depth and its message is ultimately not very satisfying. Please, let’s not have interactive television take over our lives. It looks appealing but is hollow underneath. It seems like you have power as a viewer, but it is actually just a more intricate way to manipulate you, to turn your preferences into a marketing tool. Consider the possibility that interactive television is a straitjacket disguised as free will.
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