Read: The universe of ‘Black Mirror’ coalesces
Brooker started his career as a game critic and writer, working for PC Zone magazine in the 1990s. Some of Black Mirror’s best episodes, such as “Fifteen Million Merits” and “Playtest,” explored the horrifying limits of futuristic gaming. “Bandersnatch” is set in 1984, at the height of computerized text adventures such as The Hobbit and Zork, which first introduced gamers to worlds that didn’t entirely proceed on rails. You could make choices, solve problems in different ways, and even arrive at different endings, much like you can in “Bandersnatch.”
The story itself is a simple bit of meta-narrative: Stefan is an aspiring programmer, who is building a game called Bandersnatch based on a fictional choose-your-own-adventure novel by a psychotic, now-dead cult author. He visits a cool gaming company and meets his idol, Colin Ritman (Will Poulter), and the business-minded manager Mohan Thakur (Asim Chaudhry). The latter offers Stefan a chance to create the game in-house, while the former stresses independence; it’s the first significant choice of many the viewer will make, picking between options that flash on the screen (if you don’t choose within 10 seconds, the show randomly chooses for you).
But there are insignificant picks the viewer can make, too, such as which breakfast cereal Stefan eats, or what music he listens to, or how he talks with his father, Peter (Craig Parkinson), and his therapist (Alice Lowe). Or are these choices so meaningless? With every click of a button, the story begins to snowball in weird and confusing directions, and the panicked sense of making the wrong pick every time increases the stakes. That’s the magic of video gaming, of course—the sense that you’re in control, that every right (or wrong) move is attributable to your thinking.
Games like BioShock have poked at the fallacy of that concept. Everything is, after all, programmed; even with advanced technology at work, there’s always going to be a limit to how much you can mimic real life through scripting and algorithms. In “Bandersnatch,” Brooker sometimes lets the viewer go back if a decision ends in Stefan’s death or artistic failure, much as you could always flip backward in a choose-your-own-adventure book, or reload from a save point in a video game. I explored various permutations of Stefan’s story before finally hitting a brick wall and an end-credits sequence (the entire viewing experience ran about 90 to 100 minutes for me, but it can be shorter or much longer).
The episode also, unsurprisingly for Black Mirror, veers into self-awareness; at one point, I communicated with Stefan through his computer screen, sending him messages about how I was watching him on Netflix (from the vantage of 1984, he was mostly baffled). At another moment, I loaded a completely pointless action scene that seemed to exist mostly to mock any complaint that things were getting too boring. I’m sure there are many more rabbit holes for me to tumble down, but the overall darkness of the story (Stefan is frequently being pushed toward madness) might make it a slog to watch over and over again.