Why I Cannot Play Netflix’s “Bandersnatch”

There was always another option. It has taken me decades to realize this.

Title card to Black Mirror’s “Bandersnatch” interactive movie, courtesy of Netflix

Like many, I grew up reading Choose Your Own Adventure books, multicursal narratives where readers selected from various paths and actions to determine the plot. In fact, I read a variety of these titles, from the adventurous Escape from… series to the RPG-infused Lone Wolf books. I enjoyed having a part in shaping my characters’ fates, but, in particular, I loved exploring all the possible paths and endings, leading me to frequent re-readings. Restart the story and try a new path.

“Bandersnatch,” the interactive movie released this month from Netflix, should have been my childhood dream. Instead, it made me consider whether I was contributing to a nightmare.

CYOA Box Set

From the Choose Your Own Adventure books, I jumped media over to video games, not unlike the ones featured in “Bandersnatch.” There were the Sierra Entertainment games of the 1980s: King’s Quest, Space Quest, Police Quest, and the “mature” Leisure Suit Larry. These were puzzle-solving and interactive but not necessarily choice-based; there was only one true ending to pursue. This was also the time of Ultima and Dungeons & Dragons digital games, attempts to mirror the role-playing and battle experience but, again, not the branching narrative trees of my reading. And, as CD-ROM technology improved, a breed of interactive movies arose that I relished, precursors of Netflix’s new enterprise, evolving from Don Bluth’s animated Dragon’s Lair to even a live-action The X-Files. Still, there was only so far one could stray off the main path, short of dying and having to restart again.

More recently, moral choice has become a component of many big-name games including Mass Effect, Infamous, Fallout, BioShock, and Red Dead Redemption 2. In many cases, though, these titles revert to the Choose Your Own Adventure paradigm of exploring as many different paths and unlocking alternate endings as one can. Adhering to some moral principle only tends to limit gameplay, ultimately, especially when there are no real-world repercussions attached to making (and repeating) questionable choices.

When HBO released Steven Soderberg’s Mosaic app starring Sharon Stone, I did not have same issue with it that confronted me when attempting “Bandersnatch.” Perhaps this was due to the characters themselves being adults, being more morally gray, or being personally unrelatable. Moreover, the path-choosing mechanic for Mosaic was more oblique, neither offering a distinct pair of options to propel the plot nor showing the moment-to-moment result of a choice. Soderberg’s paths were much more thematic, as they followed characters rather than necessarily determined their actions. This kept the whole story at a distance for me.

Steven Soderberg’s Mosaic

However, “Bandersnatch” controls one protagonist, the young and aspiring video game creator Stefan (Fionn Whitehead). As the viewer — or “player,” if that’s at all more accurate here — I would make choices for Stefan as he attempted to sell his new game to distributor Tuckersoft. Early on in the story, Stefan expresses sincere concern for keeping his game true to its source material, the Choose Your Own Adventure-like book of the same name by writer Jerome F. Davies. He does not want to alter the richness and the experience of Davies’s work by compromising with shortcuts in the video game adaptation. Stefan’s passion is unmistakable.

Also apparent from the early minutes of “Bandersnatch” is Stefan’s delicate mental state. He lives alone with his widowed father (played by Craig Parkson) and is in talk therapy treatment for some mental issue he claims to have overcome. To his therapist Dr. Haynes (Alice Lowe), Stefan shares his sensation of being “controlled,” whether by his well-meaning father, by Tuckersoft, or some unknown force separate from himself. He doesn’t know why he made a particular choice — one I made for him, in fact — and though Dr. Haynes writes it off as Stefan finding new confidence, he still appears uneasy with the sensation. His life is not his own.

That’s where I turned off “Bandersnatch.” That’s where I had to stop playing. After decades of savoring multicursal narratives, I could not go any further. I couldn’t do it to Stefan.

You see, in all of these books, games, and movies, there was always an unspoken choice being made, one which did not overtly appear on the page or on the screen. The hidden choice always being made was this: To play. I always chose to, in a sense, animate these characters, to push them ahead from choice to choice, and to have them pursue some inevitable end.

Except, in watching Stefan, I realized that it wasn’t “inevitable.” I could always have chosen to leave the book closed or the power off. The characters, albeit entirely fictional, could be left at peace.

Not too long ago, I became a father. And, as many parents do, I revisited the books of my childhood with my kids. Among them, we read Sesame Street’s The Monster at the End of This Book where Grover delightfully warns the reader on every page not to proceed any further: there is a monster at the end of this book. (Spoiler: Grover himself is the monster at the end of this book, a cute and furry one.) Sesame Street even made an animated storybook app our of it and a sequel, Another Monster at the End of This Book, with Elmo, as well. (Spoiler, again: Elmo and Grover are both the monsters at the end of this book.) In any of its iterations, there is a mischievous thrill in ignoring Grover and turning the page to find what lies ahead in the story. Unlike a Choose Your Own Adventure title, the plot is linear, and there is no jumping to alternate pages. Nevertheless, in the face of a character entreating the reader to stop, that hidden choice remains there: We could — but never do — listen to Grover and choose not to pursue the monster.

The Monster at the End of This Book by Jon Stone and illustrated by Mike Smollin. Published by Golden Press.

I never took this seriously with Grover, of course. It’s Grover, after all! But, watching Whitehead intone Stefan’s desire to be let be, I was powerfully compelled to do just that. This wasn’t a Muppet, hand-drawn or hand-manipulated, yet I felt the powerful puppetry at work. Rationally, I knew this was an actor in a scene, an entirely fictional and constructed persona. Yet, at the same time, that hidden choice became remarkably clear. Real or not, why do this to Stefan?

Here is my guess: There is a monster at the end of “Bandersnatch.” (After all, the word bandersnatch itself is the name of a Lewis Carroll creature, even before Davies — a fictional author within a fictional work — utilized it.) I cannot say for certain how that monster will manifest. Will Stefan’s dead mother become suddenly relevant? Will his father take a dark turn? Is Tuckersoft the evil stealer of dreams and destiny? Or Davies? I fear that, simply by pushing him from unwelcome choice to choice, Stefan himself could succumb to his mental issues and turn into something he never wanted.

Worst yet, I could be the monster that is hunting Stefan to his multiplicity of ends. I torment him in a loop of restarts and alternate choices until I tire of the unfolding endings. Then, as with Lone Wolf, Choose Your Own Adventure, or even Grover, I discard him. Stated that way, this entertainment is pretty monstrous.

Stefan may not be real, but my choice to “play” with him is. And that impulse is one I choose not to follow.