Should Stefan Butler have Sugar Puffs or Kellogg’s Frosties for breakfast? Should he bury a man he has just killed or chop the body up into little bits? You decide for Stefan and he will act likewise, and based on that, his life will follow a certain route, till you reach the next decision point and again take the call for him.
New interactive episode of Netflix’s Black Mirror, Bandersnatch, which released on 28 December, has already generated more comments and analyses than any other show in recent memory. It is a choose-your-own-adventure online show about a young computer programmer in 1984 (the year chosen is not a coincidence) trying to build a choose-your-own-adventure computer game based on a choose-your-own-adventure novel whose author was driven mad by his own creation and murdered his wife. Every few minutes, the show gives the viewer two options and depending on what he clicks with his mouse, the story twists this way or that.
Depending on the choices the viewer makes, the story could end in 40 minutes, though, according to reports, the average viewing time has been about 90 minutes. Since everyone knows that there is more than one possible ending to the story, most viewers are going back and trying out different choices to see what happens to Stefan and his game Bandersnatch in alternative storylines. A complete viewing, going through all the available options, and reaching all endings through hundreds of different pathway permutations, would take many hours.
I spent about three hours over two evenings, trying out various options. As far as I could make out, there are six absolute endings, and several minor abrupt unsatisfactory ones, where Netflix asks you to “go back" or the film shifts to an earlier scene. Each different ending is as valid as any other, built up logically through sometimes-parallel sometimes-intersecting narratives.
It is extremely difficult to write about Bandersnatch without giving away any spoilers, so for those who have not watched the show yet, I promise that I will reveal only one ending in this essay, and I shall give you the option to stop reading before I get there.
Bandersnatch is the most elaborate multiple-ending story attempted on any entertainment platform till now. It is also a meta commentary on Netflix and how we watch television currently.
A story with multiple endings is not a new concept. In the 1970s and 1980s, there was a burst of children’s books where the reader could follow various pathways and reach different endings. In fact, Argentine author Julio Cortazar’s 1963 novel Hopscotch offered the readers the opportunity to read the chapters in several different sequences. Netflix itself has done it before with a few children’s shows, like Puss In Book, where the viewer guides Puss in Boots through a fairy tale universe controlled by the storyteller. But nothing has been done in the filmic medium on the scale of Bandersnatch.
The story. Stefan Butler has been asked by the gaming company Tuckersoft to develop a multiple-pathway multiple-ending game based on a cult novel Bandersnatch. He is a mentally disturbed person who has not got over the trauma of his mother’s death when he was five, and regularly sees a psychiatrist. As he works on the game, he increasingly gets the feeling that someone or something is watching him and trying to control him.
The first hint comes when he tells his psychiatrist that he has, instead of working in Tuckersoft’s office with a small team, decided to do it alone, sitting at home. “I don’t know where the urge to say that came from," he says. (Of course, the viewer chose that option for him.) As the story progresses, Stefan’s unease grows. “I feel like I’m not in control of things," he tells his psychiatrist. “All sorts of things. Little things. What music I should listen to, what I should have for breakfast, whether I should shout at my dad?"
He also starts fighting back. In one scene, the viewer is asked to choose between Stefan biting his nails and touching his earlobe. Whichever option the viewer chooses, Stefan, with a physical act of will, stops himself from doing either. For that one moment, he defies the viewer’s control.
Illusion of free will
Bandersnatch raises many questions. Almost all the stories we read or view are essentially linear. In every story, the author is God, and he makes his characters take decisions, or for events to happen (a car accident, a typhoon) so that the plot moves according to his design. As in real life, stories hang on particular moments when the fates of the characters are decided by actions that they take. Throughout history, battles and wars have been lost on the basis of one wrong decision.
Similarly, in stories, especially in great ones, readers are often left wondering what would have happened if a character had turned right on the road instead of left. What if Friar Lawrence had been able to reach Romeo in time and inform him that Juliet was not really dead? What if Draupadi had not turned away Karna at her swayamvar, but instead allowed him to take part in the archery contest to win her hand?
Bandersnatch gives that power—in a limited sense—to the viewer. I say “in a limited sense", because in a standard linear story, if a certain character takes a different decision (the “what if" decision), infinite probability pathways open up. Here, the viewer can take Stefan only in a certain given number of directions that have been pre-decided by the creators of the show. The viewer may get a sense of power, manipulating Stefan, but he has to play by the rules set by someone else.
Bandersnatch repeatedly brings up the issue of free will and alternative realities. The author of the novel Bandersnatch murders his wife, and when arrested, tells the police that while writing the book, he became convinced that there are many parallel realities. Whatever we choose to do, there is another reality where we do the opposite. Free will is nothing but an illusion. An “expert" who studied the author’s arguments, says: “If you follow that to its logical conclusion, then you are not guilty of any of your actions. The results of your actions are out of your control. It’s not even your action…. You are just a puppet. Your fate has been dictated. You are not in control."
Stefan’s hero, the master computer games creator Colin tells him: “Time is a construct. People think you can’t go back and change things, but you can. That’s what flashbacks are. It’s an invitation for you to go back and change things…. When you make a decision, you think you’re doing it, but it’s not. How one path ends is immaterial. It’s how our decisions along that path affect the whole that matters."
Colin’s words are of course profound-sounding pop philosophy that has no meaning other than a self-referential message from Bandersnatch to the viewer who is sending Stefan down various paths (and consequently, Colin too).
So Stefan does not have free will—his possible destinies have been mapped out for him, and the viewer is pushing him in one direction or another. But the viewer too has little free will.
He is strictly bound by the choices that Netflix has given him. If, for Stefan, the viewer is in control, then for the viewer, Netflix is in charge.
Big Netflix is watching
But for Netflix, in a way, the viewer is also in control, because the company is dependent for its revenues on subscribers, and it has a mountain of debt to service.
So who is really in control here? In an earlier column in this paper, I had written that video streaming services like Netflix, unlike the cinema hall or television channels, let us take control of the what, when and how much of our entertainment consumption, since we can choose to watch any of the shows at any time of our convenience and for as long as we want to.
But Netflix collects every tiny bit of data about the viewing patterns of its 135 million subscribers worldwide, and analyses to sub-granular level how they interact with programming. So detailed is this analysis that the company has identified almost 2,000 “microclusters" that each Netflix user falls into. These microclusters are “taste communities" that cut across geography, age, gender, income and other demographic attributes. Netflix uses this data to decide which programmes could be of interest to a viewer and recommends them. So, your neighbour’s Netflix home screen is different from yours. And recommendations drive 80% of what people watch on Netflix.
In fact, a show like Bandersnatch may give Netflix access to a whole new sort of data—product choices (which breakfast cereal does the viewer choose for Stefan?), music tastes (what music should Stefan listen to?), and most importantly, insights into deep recesses of the viewer’s psychology. When it’s a choice between having Stefan or Colin commit suicide, who does he choose? When he replays Bandersnatch, does he prefer the versions that involve a murder? Among these, does he prefer the one with the flash forward to 2018? Could this dataset, if large enough, be used by Netflix to decide plots and devices in future shows? We are now in some serious mind game territory. So who is in control?
SPOILER ALERT: If you have not watched Bandersnatch yet, I give you the option to go straight to the last paragraph.
At one point in Bandersnatch, the plot loops back on itself in Escher-ian fashion. Stefan is losing his mind and asking whoever he thinks is watching him: “Who is it? Just give me a sign! Give me a f***ing sign!" The viewer is now asked to choose between “Netflix" and a mysterious glyph. If the viewer clicks on “Netflix", Stefan’s computer screen shows two lines: “I am watching you on Netflix. I make decisions for you." (That is, the viewer.)
When Stefan asks what Netflix is, he is told: “It’s like TV, but online. I control it." (The viewer controls it.)
Stefan tells the psychiatrist that he is being controlled by some entertainment service from the 21st century. Says the psychiatrist: “So all of this is happening to entertain someone. Through you. So why aren’t you in a more entertaining scenario?.... If it was supposed to be entertaining, surely you’d make it more interesting.… Wouldn’t you want a little more action if you were watching this on telly?"
The viewer is given two choices: “fight her" and “jump out of the window". But when Stefan tries to jump out, he finds that the windows cannot be opened. Someone calls: “Cut!" The camera zooms back to reveal that the psychiatrist’s room is a movie set. The director walks up, asks Stefan what he was trying to do, because according to the script, it’s the fight scene now. She calls him Mike, which confuses Stefan even more, because he thinks (or knows) he is Stefan. The director tells Mike/Stefan to take a break and asks for some medical attention for him. That’s one ending to the story.
This is meta-fiction at its best, and this ending tells the viewer that he is not in control, since one of the options he was given was a bogus one. So Netflix is in control.
Now, just for fun, take a lateral logical leap. If jumping out of the window was not in the script, how did it appear as an option on the Netflix screen? Is Netflix then fully in control? And why doesn’t Stefan know that he is just an actor called Mike in a film? Who is Mike?
Of course, these are just amusing brain-teasers that have no answer, and that’s the way the creators of Bandersnatch want it to be.
Bandersnatch cleverly plays with the concepts of free will and the nature of reality, and is fine entertainment. Two points, though. One, since we know that there are multiple endings, we are much less concerned about Stefan’s fate than we would be if this was a regular thriller. Two, even though Netflix may not have wanted to, Bandersnatch raises questions about choice and power hierarchies in the real world, and the relationships and interactions between producers and consumers.
Sandipan Deb is a former editor of Financial Express, and founder-editor of Open and Swarajya magazines.