Cut off from the moral high ground, hero and villain become seemingly interchangeable as they both vie for control. This is what I realised last week while watching Black Mirror’s latest offering, Bandersnatch. It is the story of Stefan Butler, a young programmer who is trying to adapt a choose-your-own-adventure style novel, Bandersnatch, to an interactive video game in 1984. There are already two levels of choices at play but that is capped with an extra level, as the standalone movie is actually an interactive one where action is constantly paused and the viewer gets a time frame to make one of two decisions, thus controlling how the story progresses. Or so you are led to believe. You start off by aligning yourself with Stefan Butler, as you are made to believe that you are him. Imagine if you were a young computer programmer in 1984 – how would you go about life? That is the hook which allows you to lower your guard as you assume Stefan is a vessel that you have come to embody. You think you are in control of Stefan to the extent that you are Stefan. There is something sublime about that experience, in the Kantian sense, as you get to role-play without any personal stakes. It’s like watching a shipwreck from the safety of the shore – the key difference between horror and terror. You get to play God but no one else knows that. So, none of the Uncle Ben bullshit. Not only are you unprepared for what is about to come but it is only in hindsight that you realise how slowly but surely you have been lulled into a false sense of control which will render you vulnerable, which will highlight your helplessness and not Stefan’s. An early realisation of not quite being in control happened for me when I instinctively tried to look for the progress bar in the Netflix player UI and it wasn’t there. Quickly I reassured myself that its absence was owing to the atypical nature of the episode and maybe they don’t want me to know how much time is remaining so as to heighten the drama. Little did I know that my understanding of how time works in a movie/TV show was about to take a beating. But we will get to that in a moment. Part of the what explains the meteoric momentum of Netflix and other streaming services is that you have greater control over the watching process and the progress bar is the cornerstone of that control. It shapes our content consumption habits fundamentally and these habits tend to have a spillover effect in real life by answering the age old question of “are we there yet?” once and for all. But the control it provides is illusory. You see, if I tell you of this hot new murder mystery which is 8 hours long, there will be few takers who will even give it a try, but break down the same content in 8 hour-long episodes and chances are that you will binge watch it back to back in one night. That’s the beauty of the progress bar; it lets you know that you can stop at any point and quickly resume while knowing full well that just because you have that control doesn’t mean you’ll use it judiciously. That is exactly the way control works in Bandersnatch.
Do you want to know why I’m the villain?