Miss Me With Your Laser Beams:
Failed Experiment
of Bandersnatch

jakec / 31122018

For thousands of years, young scholars have asked their superiors: “How will the Ada Lovelaces of the future make TV more like video games?” Those scholars, shortly after, were whipped and beaten, the cuts and contusions letting out the blood and with it, their stupid, stupid ideas. As the mentors stomped their boots on their idiot proteges’ heads, they shouted “TV and video games are separate mediums, you damn dog! Get out of my school!” and threw rotten tomatoes after their useless behinds. A hell of a scene. But not less than these godless scoundrels deserved. It wasn’t adherence to tradition, or even hatred for their pupils, that motivated the older scholars. Well, as a matter of fact, it was love. They’d tried, behind locked door and the smallest candlelight, their own experiments. The results were always abominations, terrible and pathetic half-creations like would offend God themselves. They’d tried to balance an equation even the basest of fools knew would never weigh evenly. They expected from 100% + 100% would derive 200%. But as the Bible says, you can only make one thing out of half of two things. In other words, a bad TV show and a bad video game.

We live in godless times now and the upstarts have disrupted the ways we pass on worthwhile traditions. All those good lessons they blocked out of their dumb, dirty ears are now in the bin. Now people ask all kinds of ridiculous questions, like “How can we make TV more like video games?” And there’s nobody around to remember why. Or besides that, even those who remember have the gall to believe they can do it right. Fate has ordained they reclaim this terrible format. And who better than a former media critic slash games journo turned TV producer?

Charlie Brooker’s screenwriting says more about Charlie Brooker than Charlie Brooker has ever admitted. The alternative is that it only says something about a persona he has cultivated to a sociopathic degree, which fully obscures the real but publicly unknown Charlie Brooker. I don’t credit most people with that kind of energy. I especially don’t credit any journalist with that kind of energy. It started with 2005’s Nathan Barley, a barely fictionalised version of Brooker’s worst fears about the culture. That story culminates in stalwart smart guy Dan Ashcroft (Brooker’s stand-in) in hospital signing away his life rights to gormless gonzo Millennial, Nathan Barley, a thin parody of The Yoof. It’s continued more recently with Black Mirror. Sometimes as blatantly as Nathan Barley (Fifteen Million Merits) but elsewise just inherent to the show as a platform for Brooker’s near-future cynicism.

With Bandersnatch, then, Brooker finally gets to try his hand at making his own video game. This is an opportunity everyone should afford, and many have, thanks to Twine lowering the barrier to entry for building Choose Your Own Adventures. Writers, artists, and anyone else have used the medium to spin gossamer between themes like mental health, queerness, isolation, horniness, music. I know Brooker is aware of these games: the very good games journalist-turned-dev Cara Ellison, who co-wrote Brooker’s gaming doco, also made a very good Twine game called Sacrilege. Brooker himself used Twine to draft the branches of Bandersnatch’s story before porting it to Netflix’s deal. Only instead of a bone-deep exfiltration of the human condition, as acclaimed Twine games pursued, Brooker mustered “Boy make game, but crazy.”

It’s easier to talk about why Bandersnatch fails as a TV show than as a game, so let’s do the former before the latter. But first, let’s talk briefly about why it fails as it is.

It’s annoying and it disrupts immersion in the story.

You can close the tab now, if you want (this essay is a Choose Your Own Adventure, too) because that’s all that needs saying. If you’re telling a story but the method for doing so makes the story harder to persist with, you’re telling that story poorly. The only question a storyteller ever has to ask the audience is: should I keep going? The storyteller is actually asking this question of the audience every second of the telling. The answer is always implicitly yes, until it isn’t. Bandersnatch instead asks that question explicitly by stopping every couple of minutes to alter a banal detail about what you’re watching.

Let’s get one thing straight, though. A caveat that should hang on all criticism, maybe, of noble experiments. It’s a good thing that Bandersnatch exists. Playing with the constraints of genre and medium should be encouraged even if the execution isn’t perfect (especially if the execution isn’t perfect.) The whole point of criticism (besides offering something to rest an eyeball on between meals, arguments with housemates, pithy tweets, etc) is unspooling that execution. Maybe if we talk about it, the next Bandersnatch-alike will be so fully realised, no one will have anything to say about it at all.

Well, let’s talk about its failings as a show then. First, it’s directed by David Slade, whose visual talent ranges from utterly bland to making everything slightly green and grainy so it looks like a crime scene reenactment. Without ponderous and abstract animal metaphors to lean on, Bandersnatch has none of the static-y friction of Slade’s work on Hannibal, but it sure does have the same dirt-coated-phlegm glow over the camera lens. Slade’s previous work also includes American Gods, where Slade never met a shadow he didn’t want to fuck, and Black Mirror’s “Metalhead”, featuring some of the most anodyne shots of the series (but it’s in black and white for absolutely no reason, so it’s artistic, see?)

Credit Slade with this much, at least: the tripping scene was… actually pretty good.

Fionn Whitehead follows in a long line of clammy-handed white boys leading Black Mirror stories and his inexperience shows. You can send me postcards about his brilliance in Dunkirk and I’ll trust you - I haven’t seen it - but he mashes the overact button every time he’s asked to convey tension here. Beyond that, Whitehead’s character is couched in the mythology of the lone wolf hacker genius, which might be period appropriate, although even the single-minded brilliance of Jobs, Gates et al. has been majorly overblown, their support networks stranded in history’s appendices. But it is definitely trite in 2018, where Silicon Valley introspection has begun dismantling the hero worship of the talented but socially inept.

The rest of the cast range from competent to great. Will Poulter is his most convincing here as the jaded aspirational figure to the hapless protag. Alice Lowe is largely underserved as Dr Haynes, but the few moments she gets something worth sinking her teeth into, she plays subtly, and it works. Craig Parkinson is fairly straight but reiterates his talent as one of Britain’s most dependable TV character actors. Asim Chaudry, as the slimy studio executive spinning dreams in the mind of his creatives, is so much like one of my old bosses it was nearly hard to watch. The timing and delivery of his line after Stefan agrees to work for him is, quietly, one of the episode’s greatest moments.

Those performances only overshadow Whitehead’s hyperkinetic lip-trembling caricature of main character Stefan Butler. It feels drawn more from other performances, burdened by screen nerds that came before him rather than grounded in actual human interactions. Whoa, but, like, isn’t that like video game characters? They’re like, only an approximation of like, human behaviour, right? Doesn’t it seem like bad acting because Whitehead is like, actually a character in a video game? Shhhh, darling. It’s past your bedtime. Where typically a viewer is left to ponder these questions on their own, this show bashes the viewer with a lampshade during contrived moments to make sure they get it, the momentum screeching to a halt.

Maybe what's most tiresome about Bandersnatch as a show is how it plays into what Dom Griffin calls "dramaturgical algebra." He was referring to Westworld, but it extends to True Detective and at least as far back as LOST: TV whose goal, in Griffin's words, "is a subreddit about their story." Modernity demands gristle for discussion now that watercooler chat has become an omnipresent churn of online content, such that "Did you see that last night?" has xenomorphed into obsessive sleuthing for irrelevant minutiae. Bandersnatch features an encyclopedia of references to other parts of the Black Mirror-verse, skyrocketing the demand for red string as amateur detectives unravel the many alternate Pepes Silvia.

The same kind of people who mocked Family Guy 10 years ago for its toxic reverence for pop culture now jerk themselves into oblivion over references to the TV show they're already watching. At least Family Guy acknowledged the rest of the world. Black Mirror and its reddit-courting ilk simply chase their own tails into a vacuum of hollow symbols. At one point, Black Mirror was allegedly invested in commenting on our own world. Now it's turned its attention to merely pointing at its own, and become exactly the kind of cultural Ouroboros critics condemned hipsters for when Brooker released Nathan Barley. For semiotics, this is game over, man.

As underwhelming as Bandersnatch is as television, it’s even worse as a game. Over the past 5-10 years, critics and game-likers and game-makers have been redefining what a video game is. Studios like Telltale Games (RIP) and games like the aforementioned Twines or “walking simulators” like Firewatch, Gone Home, and The Stanley Parable have been sledged (especially by action/FPS fans) as insufficiently game-like. But those criticisms have been overwhelmed by admiration and praise for expanding the boundaries of gaming and focusing on immersive worlds or interesting storytelling. Bandersnatch deserves to be included alongside those titles and for participating in that boundary expansion. But beyond spotlighting gameplay for an audience of non-game-likers, Bandersnatch doesn’t really add anything to the field.

“Altogether, there are over a trillion unique permutations of the story,” Variety says. As soon as I read this, I remembered Borderlands 2’s back-of-the-box promise that the game featured millions of guns. The game had this “algorithm” to “procedurally generate” “enough [guns] where it doesn’t matter. It really doesn’t matter,” according to Gearbox founder Randy Pitchford. Pitchford is right in that the number of guns actually never matters and the same is true for Bandersnatch. Some of these “trillion unique permutations” include inconsequential endings where the player did the wrong thing and the show just… ends. It actually cuts to a shot of a TV set showing a previous scene and then offers you the choice to “Go Back” and try a different path.

Man, this is bad game design.

During the era of games Bandersnatch flutters its eyelids at, these endings were common. Continue screens are familiar to anyone who’s ever stepped their playground-worn Adidas runners into an arcade, or bowling alley. But this is a particularly vicious and unimaginative version that only demonstrates how lucky we are that games have grown beyond. In tabletop roleplaying, there’s a term called “railroading.” You can do whatever you can imagine, as long as it abides by some rules to keep the universe consistent. Your D&D party is ostensibly meant to go kill those goblins and free the village. But you can also try to team up with the goblins. Or you can stay in the tavern and spend the whole week drinking. You could instead look for odd jobs around town, or go off somewhere, make a bunch of gold, and come back and buy the tavern, spending the rest of your campaign serving ale and breaking up fights. The world moves along with the flow of time as well, though. Maybe you didn’t deal with those goblins and now it’s your tavern they’re threatening. This is what makes the experience so radical.

Railroading is when your Dungeon Master won’t let you do any of that. Railroading is when your party decides to work their way up to buying the tavern, but suddenly none of the townspeople will employ them or speak to them until they deal with the goblins. The DM has given them the facade of choice, but there’s really only one or two ways to progress. Sooner or later, one way or another, the DM will make it clear: you’re going to kill those goblins.

Not only is this not fun, it makes playing D&D totally pointless. Linear adventures are found in traditional stories. If the players wanted to just go and kill the goblins like they’re told, they could read a book or play a different game. In D&D, you’re supposed to be able to choose your own adventure.

You might assume, from the name, that a Choose Your Own Adventure TV Show is saddled with similar expectations.

Despite “trillions of unique permutations,” there are only five endings. Which really means there are only five endings that aren’t: too bad! You made one choice when the only correct choice was the other one! You pathetic idiot! If we say x is “trillions of unique permutations” then x - 5 choices are meaningless. They lead to nothing. Sorry, they lead to different variations of the game-within-the-game being finished and some dork on TV giving it a bad rating. I wasn’t invested in the main character or immersed in the story when these endings occurred, so I didn’t care. At one point I chose to make Stefan leap to his death. Not because I wanted to see what happened. I was pretty sure I knew what was going to happen. By this point, I wanted Stefan to die. It wasn’t that I was indifferent to his humanity. It’s that I didn’t perceive him as having any. He was just an actor on a set, right, as one the endings suggested. So what? As a player inhabiting the character, the only way to get off this rail was to split my head open on the concrete.

The reward for this choice was being told to go back and choose the other thing. Some choice.

Much of what drives Bandersnatch are questions about the nature of reality. The problem is, they aren’t interesting questions unless, maybe, you’re in primary school, which I was when I first saw The Matrix. What if we were all in a computer simulation? Whoa. What if I’m a little puppet dancing for the entertainment of a being on a higher plane of existence? Dang. It's just that shallow and no less tired. Take that scene where Stefan is revealed to be an actor. The camera pulls back to reveal Stefan and his mum are on a set. It’s unbelievable to me that Charlie Brooker thought this was an inventive subversion, because the finale of The Hills beat him to it by almost a full decade.

The more contemporary idea is Stefan slowly realising he’s being controlled by the player. He tells Dr Haynes, and she, almost staring down the barrel of the camera, asks why whoever’s controlling Stefan would put him in such a mundane situation. This is the point where the crowd, presumably, loses their fucking minds. The person in the game is talking about me!

Except Bandersnatch is late again. The Stanley Parable was built around this conceit five years ago and the format allowed the game to properly explore it. In Destiny, there are creatures that address the player and question their motives in item descriptions. In last year’s Doki Doki Literature Club, every choice forces the player to confront how complicit they are in the characters’ outcomes. Even though these examples vary in the dismount (some of DDLC feels manipulative; the questions Destiny raises are also pretty dumb), they’re still creepy, effective moments and while it’s still a modern concept, they’re better executed in the parameters of a traditional video game. Bandersnatch’s half-breed existence hamstrings them, leaving its execution feeling merely like a wink at the player.

True to Black Mirror, none of the endings are good. That only undermines the player’s feeling of choice, which is - pause for heavy sigh - the whole point. Bandersnatch hammers the notion that free will is an illusion. Brilliant. Five stars. It gives you a bunch of choices and then slaps you in your stupid mouth for believing you had a choice in the first place. It aspires to cleverly subvert audience expectations and start ontological debates about media, but ultimately sells the audience snake oil. It’s an ugly, cynical TV show and a not-even-half-realised video game. Worse, it takes a tired technological gimmick and passes its stupid questions off as revelatory.

Black Mirror built its rep on interrogating the relentless march of progress, but that wit has felt absent from the show for a while now. It continues to affirm the critics who reduce the series to “What if iPhone, but bad?” and avoids contemporary debates about ultra-capitalism and ethics in computing. On the other hand, the incredibly un-serious sitcom Silicon Valley looks worlds more insightful for directly confronting issues that seem a natural fit for Black Mirror. Instead, we get Bandersnatch, the storytelling equivalent of Heelys: a childish answer to a question only children were asking. They can’t be blamed. They don’t know any better. Once, Charlie Brooker did.