Bandersnatch and the Paxman

Thoughts on gaming, naming, and interactive media

The author, Pax, in August 2017, posing next to the logo of a jeweler in Montréal that bears their name. Photo by Ziggy Tomcich, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Note: This post includes some spoilers for “Black Mirror: Bandersnatch”.

Recently, I developed a questionable habit of browsing the trending topics on Twitter. I generally dislike that platform, so I follow no one and only use it to post links to my own work. But the social network has taken on such outsize importance, particularly in the U.S., that I look out of curiosity to see what topics others are most talking about.

Yesterday I saw “Bandersnatch” trending, with an explanation provided by Twitter that this was an interactive episode of the Netflix show Black Mirror. As a fan of this dystopian program, I was intrigued. I’ve seen every episode of Black Mirror, though not in order. My partner Ziggy first convinced me to watch “Nosedive” after he’d seen and enjoyed it, then we both watched and loved “U.S.S. Callister” when the fourth series was released. Later I watched “San Junipero” after reading how highly acclaimed that episode was, and by that point I was hooked and continued on to watch the rest of the series.

So I sat on the couch with Ziggy, Roku remote in hand, and we dived into our first interactive television adventure. Having only ten seconds to decide on each choice, we had to make some quick negotiations. But some of the more trivial choices, such as which music to play, were obvious: I was a fan of the Thompson Twins in the 80s, and I knew Ziggy was a big fan of Tangerine Dream.

Early in the story, however, I was intrigued to see my name, Pax, come up on a computer screen. I paused and wondered aloud if the program had possibly taken this name from my Netflix profile. I figured that would be quite a bit of work to accomplish, especially since the name was also spoken aloud by more than one character, but I thought it might be possible. Just a few months before I’d watched a playthrough of a 1998 computer game that included a huge database of names, so the player’s name, even if relatively unusual, could be spoken aloud.

LGR (and PushingUpRoses) playthrough of “Detective Barbie in The Mystery of the Carnival Caper”.

Seeing the name Pax come up again later in the story, and seeing that it was a homophone for another word that was critical to the plot, made me realize that the name was much more likely to be hard-coded. After all, Pax (Latin for “peace”) as a first name is fairly rare; I chose it for myself as part of my gender transition. After finishing the episode, and not wanting to start over using Ziggy’s Netflix login to check, I did some quick searching and found a Reddit thread that confirmed that indeed, Pax was part of the story.

Although the level of interactivity in “Bandersnatch” did not extend to name personalization, I could certainly see that happening in future programs. Ensuring that all Netflix subscribers have the ability to experience customization on such a level could be quite a challenge; I understand that Chromecast and Apple TV users were unable to use the interactive features of this episode, for example. But modern desktop gamers take advanced levels of customization for granted, so it’s only a matter of time before these features come to the television screen.

Aside from enjoying the choose-your-own-adventure plot of “Bandersnatch”, I also felt nostalgia for computing and gaming in the mid-80s. While I grew up in the U.S. rather than the U.K. and was a few years younger than the protagonist, my family got our first computer, a Commodore VIC-20, in 1984, the year where most of the action took place. I remember teaching myself BASIC on that machine, painstakingly typing code from books and magazines while reading a 22-column monochrome display, saving files to a cassette drive, and bumping up against the 5K memory limit (which we later expanded). A couple of years later we would upgrade to a Commodore 64.

Around the time I was messing around with our VIC-20, I visited a computer store and heard a customer ask about the Commodore computers. The sales rep said they couldn’t do anything without a cartridge inserted, and he didn’t have one handy. The customer walked away. I walked up to the computer and wrote a few simple lines of BASIC code that made a stick figure dance around on the screen. A small crowd gathered, which was fun for 14-year-old me. While I never got into video game programming, I would go on to make a decent living as a web developer many years later.

I did play some cartridge games on the VIC-20, most memorably “Cosmic Cruncher”, which was basically a version of Pac-Man. Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man were my favorite arcade games, as I only had one control to worry about. Watching a character in “Bandersnatch” expound on the deeper meaning of Pac-Man while tripping out on LSD gave both Ziggy and I a few laughs.

Cosmic Cruncher on the Commodore VIC-20.

While I (still) spend a lot of time playing video games, and now have access to much more advanced hardware than was available in the mid-80s, my favorite games are not very graphically intense. My favorite game of all time is NetHack, a “roguelike” single-player dungeon adventure which was first released in 1987 and which I started playing in 1993. Though various graphical interfaces have been developed (the game is open source), I still prefer playing it with the default ASCII character graphics.

One thing I really like about NetHack is that it features permadeath. Knowing that my character cannot “respawn” if I die makes a playthrough much more challenging and exciting for me. Another game I enjoy that I started playing much more recently, Starbound, has a “hardcore” permadeath mode that took me four tries to beat, though unlike in Nethack you can continue playing indefinitely after completing the main storyline.

In “Bandersnatch”, the concepts of (im)permanence, regret, and “redos” come up repeatedly, both within the dialogue and in the choices presented to the viewer. As one who finds day-to-day living increasingly overwhelming, I think part of why I spend so much time escaping into the particular video games that I prefer is that I can pause the action and have unlimited time to think before making my next move. And when playing a simulation game like The Sims, I can easily undo actions in build/buy mode or revert to a previous saved state if things go horribly wrong. I can even prevent or reverse aging so that my characters live forever if I choose.

Is this level of escapism unhealthy? I feel that as long as I’m not playing video games to the point where I’m neglecting necessary work or self-care, it’s a relatively harmless hobby that has not reached the level of true addiction. But I do feel concerned and guilty about the number of hours I’ve put into gaming, which is much easier to quantify now that I play some games via Steam and Origin. Some enforced breaks might be in order for the New Year.

Looking forward, I’m intrigued by the potential of interactive television, which will undoubtedly grow to become an even more immersive and personalized experience. As the lines blur between passive and active entertainment, I might find my television competing more with my beloved computer games for my attention. I’m certain that Netflix is eager to attract the attention of more gamers, and other streaming platforms will follow suit. Choices and adventures await.