“It seems very pretty,” she said when she had finished it, “but it’s rather hard to understand!” (You see she didn’t like to confess, even to herself, that she couldn’t make it out at all.) “Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas — only I don’t exactly know what they are! However, somebody killed something: that’s clear, at any rate.”
- Alice (Carroll 64–65)
If you’re like me, you’ve likely recently watched the first hit interactive online television episode “Bandersnatch,” written by Charlie Brooker (Black Mirror, 2018). I would also guess that, if you’re like me, this wasn’t your first time watching it. In my case it took three times. Initially, I was blown away to learn that interactive computer games were once put onto tapes. Wi-fi somehow makes total sense, but this seems like some kind of 1980s magic. The second time I viewed the episode I was disappointed, finding many of my choices led to soft endings and loop-backs that forced me into a narrative that I couldn’t freely escape, or that didn’t seem to have the breadth I expected. Or, perhaps it was that I didn’t want to see the consequences of my choices, so I repeatedly threaded between what seemed like several flavours of vanilla closure in attempt to satisfy the curiosities of the friends I was watching with.
My third viewing was spent methodically exploring each path and condition with the goal of viewing all of the possible footage. Like bubbles on a hot pancake, new lines started popping out at me as the brilliance of the writing became clear. Choice suggestions in Stephan’s gameplay, hints in the dialogue, new meanings to being “in the hole,” a deeper dig into the profound nature of choice or the role of Pax the demon. But more than anything, it was the choices and reactions of the people I was with that started the chill up my spine, that and the terrible need to have a 5/5 come out of the mouth of that pestilent prepubescent reviewer on Microplay.
Since the episode already smashed the 4th wall with a two-tined pitchfork, there was a different wall crumbling in front of me now, and it fell right into my lower abdomen, where it ached. “Why not commit murder?” — the line came out of the television coming out of the television. A strange feeling of responsibility I now semi-consciously felt for the actions of a television character pulled harder on my heart than I expected. How many of my friends were willing to ‘kill dad’? Or, should I say, how long did it take them to be willing? “It’s just a film” one of them said as she fought with the violent choice being presented to her. I don’t know much but I know that what I was watching is not “just a film.” Some accepted it sooner than others, but eventually they all rationalized committing the virtual murder, and some joked about the cheesy foreshadowing with the neighbour’s dog that eventually led them to the headline “Programmer Confesses as Dad is Found in 8 Bits” (5/5 for that one!).
What a fascinating study this would make. If internet media outlets were somehow collecting and distributing metadata without the consent of their users, this data set would send the Zimbardologists into a fugue state. How well does the sub- and super-liminal content affect the choices of the viewer? Do some viewers change their affect faster than others? What is the significance of this? Are we having our temperature taken? Do the first-watch trajectories of viewers vary around the world in a non-random way? Are there geographic or demographic places where violence is more palatable than others? Or P-A-C-ifism for that matter? (2.5/5…had to keep the dad jokes alive). None of us would ever choose to kill, let alone dismember a body for entertainment, and yet we all made it there. The happy ending to a happy game. And somewhere in some data centre there is a record of exactly what was required to get us there. Falling deeper into the hole, one can only look up in wonder and wonder how deep the rabbit hole goes (0/5).
I wonder if Charlie Brooker was hoping we would distill the reality that he had so artfully diluted in fiction and masterfully disarmed. We could be convinced to put a virtual saw to virtual human flesh — by the millions — just to keep the virtual company alive. Or next best, we would at least opt to drive Stephan insane, or worse, betray the rouse and spill the secrets of our control before having our story dead-end. And yet, the story continues. Did we catch a glimpse through the looking glass or simply get wrapped up in a piece of astounding entertainment? You choose.