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 the next section. 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.
The first choice offered to you, the viewer of Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, it a simple one: Sugar Puffs or Frosties? The choice is put forth by Stefan’s father – you the viewer make a choice of breakfast cereal for Stefan, the protagonist (or hero, if you will?). The choice seems innocent – a demo put there to show you how this interactive thing is going to work – and its only consequence seems to be the advert that will show on Stefan’s screen when he starts watching the videotape Colin leaves/gives him. The second choice you have to make is which song Stefan is going to listen to while on the bus to Tuckersoft: “Hold Me Now” by Thompson Twins or “Here Comes The Rain Again” by Eurythmics? Again, fairly innocent (not to mention groovy). But these choices prime you. They prime you to believe that, in this film that is interactive in the way an RPG video game is interactive, you are playing the role of Stefan. You’re making choices for him – you are the protagonist of the story. The third choice is about working on your game: in the office or at home? Again, a choice made on behalf of Stefan. If you choose to work at home, no problem – you go home, work on your game, and things happen. But, if you choose to work in the office, Colin turns to you and tells you it’s the wrong pathway. You work on it, then it gets released, and you’re home with your dad, watching a bad review of the game, so you decide to have another go at it. You wake up the same day, 9 July 1984, Groundhog Day style, go through the process again, and this time you choose to work from home. Except, this time Colin thinks you look familiar and you seem to somehow know what is wrong with the programming of his new game, Nohsdyve. And by you, I of course mean Stefan.
A later choice is between spilling tea over the computer or shouting at Dad. If Stefan pours tea over the computer, it’s a dead end where the only option you have is to go back to that moment and choose to shout. In contrast with the office/home dilemma, in this scenario you can decide that this is the end of the story – Stefan gets frustrated at a creative block during coding, spills the tea, destroys his computer, all his work is lost, the end. But this choice, which is repeated later on in the episode, signals the turning point of Bandersnatch’s interactivity. Would Stefan pour tea over his computer, destroying his life’s work? His own will clashes with the choice you are presented with. The second time you choose to pour tea over the computer, he doesn’t do it, and there is the twist. You are not Stefan. You are not “playing the game” as him. But you are trying to control him, externally. You are taking control over his decisions, and he knows it.
Bandersnatch, being the deliciously-meta film that it is, even has a pathway where Stefan becomes that villain, mirroring you. During a session, the therapist asks him how the game went and he says that he had given the player too much control, so he had to strip back some of the choices. Ultimately, he says, he decided what the ending of the game is. And of course, there is the pathway where you can send Stefan a sign to let him know who is controlling him, and you can choose to tell him that you are watching him on Netflix. That has to be the most meta move since Italo Calvino started his book If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler with the sentence: “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate.” Like that, but much more surreal. There was a time when people talking to the people on their television screen were called crazy; now we just call it Netflix, I guess.
Do you want to know how the theme of control is explored in previous Black Mirror episodes, or do you just want to know how you go from being the hero to becoming the villain?