And made history.
Hugely anticipated, the latest “Black Mirror” episode was released on Netflix on December 28th. A quick search on the internet shows that basically everybody is talking about it. And with reason. Here is what we experienced while watching it (and exploring its many twists for about 2 hours in total), some notes on its cultural references, and thoughts on why it will be relevant for storytelling and media in the future.
Warning: below, mild-to-average spoilers and a easter-eggs are revealed. Proceed with caution.
The story – in short.
It’s 1984. 19-years old Stefan (Fionn Whitehead, “Dunkirk“) is an aspiring video game designer with a vision: he wants to make a videogame from “Bandersnatch”, the sensation novel written by author-turned-mad Jerome F. Davies. The book was one of those “choose your own path” novels [a genre so popular in the 80s and 90s and that, mainly for the emergence of interactive storytelling through videogames, started to fade away].
He approaches Tuckersoft, a (fictional) videogame powerhouse of the time, and receives and offer he can’t refuse. The journey of his creative process will be in perfect Black Mirror style and will have some grim, grim consequences.
Why is it so special?
Because just like the novel that inspires him, Stefan wants to create a game with multiple choices and endings. His creative process is deep and troubled, and as if this weren’t enough to provide a challenging experience to viewers, Charlie Brooker and Netflix decided to design the entire episode as an interactive tv experience. The viewers get to make their choices using their remote (or mouse). So it’s an interactive experience of an interactive experience of an interactive experience. Inception, anyone?
Users are still mapping them (and having lots of fun in the process), but apparently there are 5 main endings, and as many as one trillion possible combinations to explore. Boom! Users on reddit are reporting their real time progress, as in this flowchart by alpine:
Some are minor decisions (“what do you want for breakfast?”), while many will have a much deeper impact on the story, and the way the protagonists and the viewer experience it.
Plus, and here is the Black Mirror signature twist, sometimes the characters react to the choices you make. Meeting a character later in the story can prompt him to say “We have met before”, even if they haven’t in that particular storyline. But you, as the viewer, have experienced it. So the fourth wall is breached. And this will happen again, and again, until the endings.
In one hilarious twist that made us laugh out loud, the protagonist becomes aware that “someone” is manipulating his actions, he suspects he may be inside an entertaining program, and then the question prompts on screen: “wouldn’t you want a little more action if you were watching this on telly?” (telly is the affectionate nickname television gets in the UK).
One possible answer is “fuck yeah”. Needless to say, the one we chose. What followed was a hilarious Tarantino-esque sequence of martial arts fight (read more about it, here), in which Stefan confronts his therapist and his father.
The five possible endings – you can catch them all here – explore many shades of dark, as I wrote before. But after all this is Black Mirror, so what do you expect? They represent the various degrees of success Stefan can have in the creation of his game. The reviews he can get at the end of the episode range from zero stars to five but fear not, there is no happy ending as such. Being this a dystopian universe, creative success will always demand a steep price to pay on Stefan and his sanity. Because of course .
References and easter eggs everywhere!
“They are coming outta the walls! They are coming outta the goddamn walls!”
Now this is when we really enter the rabbit hole (reference intended, he he he). Here is a collection of the references I could spot, directly or indirectly, and more will be added as the internet hounds do their work.
The title, Bandersnatch, refers to a creature with “long neck and snapping jaws” in Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking-Glass” (1872). The creature is described as “ferocious and extraordinarily fast” and is described as living in the world behind the looking glass. The existence of a monstrous predator behind the mirror in the fictional universe of Alice in Wonderland is an obvious anticipation of what is going to happen in the story.
The year, 1984. It’s hard to imagine a more meaningful date for dystopian art, forever immortalized by George Orwell’s novel. Also, as we approach 2019 we will be 35 years away from 1984 – exactly the same distance from 1949, the year Orwell published his book. Maybe it’s far fetched, but still I found it a nice reference.
1984 was also a pivotal year for videogames, with a number of huge hits being released such as Tetris, Elite or Impossible Mission. The medium was experimenting its sphere of possibilities, with 3D graphics starting to be used, and pioneer concepts like “Deus Ex Machina“, which wanted the player to “experience the emotions of human life, from birth to death”.
The game was
incredibly boring well ahead of its times but this “director’s cut” released 30 years later shows what was its conceptual potential. 1984 is also a landmark for computer industry in general, with the release by Apple of the Macintosh which would lead to the vertical rise of personal computers.
The fictional book, Bandersnatch, is written by a “Jerome K. Davies”, who apparently went mad as a consequence of his massive creative effort, and ended up beheading his own wife. Whoops!
Because that is an absolutely normal reaction when a guy is interrupted again and again and again when trying to do some creative work.
Such an author never really existed, but the reference could lead to Philip K. Dick (a poster of Ubik, considered his masterpiece, can also be seen in one of the main characters’ flat). Dick wrote masterpieces of dystopian narrative such as “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” (which inspired “Blade Runner“), and have been adapted on tv and film in works such as “Total Recall“, “Minority Report“, “A Scanner Darkly” – definitely an influence here – and more).
Another possible reference could be to the equally ponderous Infinite Jest by David F. Wallace. Its narrative structure consists of several plot lines heavily interconnected, and at its core describes a film so entertaining that viewers lose all interest in real life after watching it. Another creative and deeply troubled mind, Wallace ended his own life by committing suicide. The names of both Philip K. Dick and David F. Wallace sound very mich like “Jerome K. Davies”.
(Funnily enough, Jerome K. Jerome is the author who inspired the title of this blog, but I don’t think this was a major influence at Netflix)
It’s also easy to feel the influence from other films. Colin, a mentor-like character, offers Stefan the iconic “red pill” in the form of a LSD paper, and directly mentions entering the “rabbit hole” more than once. It’s a sequence that references almost frame by frame the iconic meeting with Morpheus in “The Matrix”.
Colin is also the protagonist of a sequence that involves jumping off a window, with a context very similar to “Inception”. The concept of a story within a story within a story is also obviously central in “Bandersnatch”.
And the feeling of time travel, and the character’s choices influencing future branches of the story recall similar experiences seen for example in “Memento” or “Donnie Darko”.
Stefan understanding that he is the unwilling protagonist of a live action, entertainment show and jumping out of the window, forcing the director to shout “cut!”, seems taken from a page of the script of “The Truman Show”, which in 1998 introduced to the masses the topic of bringing the logic of reality shows to its extreme consequences.
Stefan’s personal journey through the creation process of a videogame, with the implications that touch on legacy, the compromises between artistic vision and the editorial process, the description of the burdens and dilemmas of a creative process – including its consequences on sanity and personal relationships – reminded me of similar struggles as seen in “Misery”, “Finding Forrester”, “Adaptation” or, more precisely on videogames “Ready Player One”.
Other references can be found from the videogame culture – of which Black Mirror’s creator Charlie Brooker is an expert and historian as you can see here – from “The Stanley Parable” which is all about free choice, or the lack of choice,
to the games of the “Mass Effect” series (of which I wrote here), and their epic, massively branching storyline and multiple endings.
And, of course, “Bandersnatch” presents many, so many other “Black Mirror” references and easter eggs!
From the names of previous hit videogames released by Tuckersoft (“Metal Head” and “Nosedive” are two previous Black Mirror episodes); to the clinic where Stefan meets his therapist which is aptly named “San Junipero”.
The glyph that appears multiple times on screen and informs Stefan that “someone is watching” has been previously seen in “White Bear”,
and there are many, many more. To see a wonderful complete list, check this article.
But perhaps the greatest (and hardest to find) easter egg is this: if the viewer follows correctly all the instructions provided in a after-the-credits scene, a mysterious series of sounds appear. If run through a ZX Spectrum emulator, they turn into a QR code. Congratulations for the discovery!
It leads to a make-believe Tuckersoft website (or rather, its history repository version, since the story takes place in 1984) which welcomes visitors with its cheerful 80s graphics:
and allows you to find some more easter eggs, download a playable version of “Nohzdyve” (you will need a Spectrum emulator for that), and apply for a job:
(note: if clicked, it will lead you to the Netflix “jobs” page).
It’s a treasure for fans, and a viral marketing strategy between the virtual and the real world, similar to what we have seen for example in “Cloverfield” (2008).
The cultural relevance. Why we will keep talking about it for a long, long time.
Because it’s a bold experiment on meta-storytelling that bends the boundaries of its own medium, and defies definition.
While playing (or watching), I was repeatedly asking myself: “is this a videogame?”, and the answer is not an easy one. The episode breaks multiple time the fourth wall, with characters asking meta-questions about creation, manipulation and the nature of storytelling – and sometimes, but only sometimes, they receive an answer.
In another bold decision, it enraged some users because the episode can only be watched on platforms that are compatible with the latest version of Netflix. It’s one of those “update or die” moments – and also a strong statements against piracy, I guess. There is no way to download this.
Tvs of previous generations and many laptops are also left out of it (web browsers, however, are fine: I could watch it on chrome).
The story touches nonchalantly on topics such as free will, manipulation, the nature of storytelling and the entertainment industry, but also family relations, mental sanity, conspiracy theories, perception and the creative dilemmas.
Creativity and manipulation: Stefan is creating a story, but as he finds out, he is also the protagonist of someone else’s story. He experiences painful and horrific situations, and it’s all our fault. There is a subtle pleasure in making this happen, and the story makes sure the viewer fully acknowledge it. It’s the “God complex” openly challenged: here is what happens when you make a character die. Do you see the blood? Are you happy now? No, not really. But I enjoyed exploring the emotions, so thank you for that.
And more. “Bandersnatch” explores time paradoxes (with a direct hint – “mirrors allow you to travel through time” – which again echoes and blends in “Alice in Wonderland”, “The Matrix” and more) and dives happily in the Simulation Hypothesis (if you don’t know what it is, you may be in it right now).
Plus – it’s great fun. It’s hugely entertaining, well written, and stuffed with references and homages for the most hardcore fans. It’s a big leap forward from the “choose your own story” books of years ago, because it explores the potential that crossovers between media offer with the current state of technology and breaks multiple times the boundaries between characters, creators, and viewers/players.
In short: it’s a trip worth making.
further read: check out also what my geek buddy and convergence culture specialist Michele wrote about it! He managed to find out the story about the original Bandersnatch game, which led a real software company to bankrupt: