Black Mirror is a speculative-fiction anthology series created by Charlie Brooker that highlights the dark aspects of modern society, particularly as it relates to our relationship with technology. Each stand-alone episode paints a picture of a world that’s futuristic, yet believable; sleek, yet horrifying. Each of these study guides will examine the themes of a particular episode. All screencaps are mine.
When we first got word that 2018’s entry of Black Mirror would be “interactive” and a choose-your-own-adventure-style story, I laughed. Black Mirror, with the exception of episodes like “San Junipero” and “Hang the DJ,” is a very pessimistic show. So an episode said to allow you to make choices would undoubtedly be about the illusion of choice, free will, and control. With Bandersnatch now released, that remains true.
Choices and Consequences
Right off the bat, the first choice you’re presented with is between two breakfast cereals for Stefan. The second is a choice regarding what music Stefan listens to on the bus to Tuckersoft. They’re obviously small choices, serving more as a tutorial for the rest of the episode, a proof of concept that shows your choices will have material effect. Stefan’s fate is in your hands; you can determine how the story unfolds and ends.
Soon after Stefan arrives at Tuckersoft, there are hints that this might not be the case. As Stefan presents his game to Mr. Thakur and Colin Ritman (played by Will Poulter, who I will never not see as Kenny from We’re the Millers), he arrives at his game’s first fork-in-the-road: Shall the player deny Pax the Demon or worship him? Colin chooses to worship Pax, but Stefan quickly tells him not to choose that. If you, on behalf of Stefan, accept the job at Tuckersoft, Colin then informs you that your choice was a bad one.
Any story about choices and consequences is really, at least partially, about time, and Bandersnatch is no different.
This is where things get interesting because if you choose to accept the job offer, the show flashes forward to Christmas, where Stefan’s game receives a zero-star review. Then you’re returned to the last checkpoint, where Stefan is offered the job. First, this shows that your choices don’t have consequences because your decision is undone for you. This can happen at several more points, and any determined viewer can also just restart to get the exact permutation of the story they desire. Second, this shows that you actually have no choice at all because your only way forward is to turn down the job offer.
Any story about choices and consequences is really, at least partially, about time, and Bandersnatch is no different. That is, unless you subscribe to Colin’s “if it exists at all” line of thinking. You may have noticed that Bandersnatch takes away your viewing timeline, meaning you can’t see how much time you have left before you get to the end. Of course, this is largely because the various permutations of the show results in varying lengths, but it also adds to the feeling that exploration of different plot-paths is encouraged. Why then, are you given a set amount of time to make each choice?
One of the quirks of storytelling is that we almost always root for the protagonist. We want them to do well. We want them to get what they want. So, if a story gives you a choice between an action that aligns with the protagonist’s desires and one that is in conflict with them—is the decision really yours? If you’re given a time limit to make said decision, is it really a decision? Or is it more of a gut reaction? Are you even responsible for that gut reaction, or did the storytellers induce it via the framing of the story?
The Illusion of Free Will and Choice
Stories that give you agency and choice are not a novel concept, particularly when it comes to video games, the most apt comparison for Bandersnatch. These games give you a protagonist, an objective, and some twists and turns along the way. The rest, they say, is up to you. You’re free to make decisions, do what you want, shape the game in your image. These games tout the abundance of choices, whether it’s what you wear, what you say, or what you do. The fun of it all comes with freedom of choice. But are you really making the choices? Do you really have free will?
In the one of the darker Bandersnatch endings, Stefan has a breakthrough that results in his game receiving a five-star review. Explaining this breakthrough to Dr. Haynes, he says, “I’ve been trying to give the player too much choice…Now they’ve only got the illusion of free will, but really, I decide the ending.” Creating the illusion of choice is a specialty of video games. Brooker, creator and writer of Black Mirror, was once a video game journalist. It’s not a coincidence that Bandersnatch plays like Life Is Strange, or Quantum Break, or a game made by Telltale Games.
If you’ve heard anything about Bandersnatch, besides its interactivity, it’s probably that it includes more than three hours worth of footage and sports five different endings, not to mention the millions of permutations that could be generated by viewer choices. How many of these choices actually make a difference though? If you look at all the possible choices, which the internet has kindly mapped out, you’ll find that your choices don’t affect the plot as much as it seems.
When it comes to the big inflection points, your choices aren’t fully yours.
The end goal for Stefan, we’re led to believe, is to finish Bandersnatch and receive a five-star review. If you’re aware of this as you play Bandersnatch, and you want Stefan to get what he wants—which, again, you’re predisposed to want—this means that options like spilling Stefan’s tea on his computer or breaking his computer entirely or jumping off Colin’s balcony are not really options. You might also realize that all the endings where Stefan accomplishes his goal require him to not only kill his father, but also chop up his body. There’s the Black Mirror I love!
When it comes to the big inflection points, your choices aren’t fully yours. Look at the choices that aren’t predetermined for you—cereals, music—and you’ll see they’re hardly fate-changing. Sugar Puffs or Frosties? Coke or Pepsi? Colgate or Crest? Honda or Hyundai? What the hell is the difference? It’s either so many choices and no consequences or so many consequences with no choices. If those are your options, do you really have free will?
If you don’t have free will, then what do you control? Are we even in control? The setting of Bandersnatch hints at some answers. The story begins on July 9, 1984. Now, as much as I hope that Brooker chose to set this episode in this particular year to allude to George Orwell’s dystopian classic Nineteen Eighty-Four, it seems like more a happy coincidence, as this exact date is the date that British game developer Imagine Software went bankrupt, resulting in their game, titled Bandersnatch, being canceled. That being said, you don’t set a dystopian story in 1984 if you don’t want people making connections to Orwell.
In the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, it was The Party that was in control. In Bandersnatch, because there are multiple permutations of the story, there are multiple answers to the question of control. First is the shadowy organization behind the Program and Control Study, the organization that appears in White Bear, whose logo is the “multiple fates, potential realities splitting in two” glyph that reoccurs throughout Bandersnatch. Then, if you get to the meta level plot path, there’s us, the viewer. To Stefan, we, the PACS organization, and The Party are the same: We’re all just some shadowy, unseen entity that controls him. We are The Party, The System, and The Machine. And he’s right. In Bandersnatch, he doesn’t have free will, he’s not in control. We are.
On a meta level, much of this remains true for us too. As Colin makes clear, in a monologue that shares DNA with ones from the movie Fight Club and the television show Mr. Robot:
There’s messages in every game. Like Pac-Man. Do you know what ‘Pac’ stands for? P-A-C. Program and control. He’s program-and-control man. The whole thing’s a metaphor. He thinks he’s got free will, but really he’s trapped in a maze, in a system. All he can do is consume. He’s pursued by demons that are probably just in his own head, and even if he does manage to escape by slipping out one side of the maze, what happens? He pops right back in the other side. People think it’s a happy game. It’s not a happy game. It’s a fucking nightmare world. And the worst thing is it’s real, and we live in it.
Program and control. Like Stefan, we are constantly being programmed and controlled. Look no further than Black Mirror’s own medium. What you watch is literally television programming, and it exists to capture your attention, allowing companies and corporations and organizations to advertise to you—in order to influence you, to control you. We’re all just stuck in an endless maze, consuming and consuming, thinking it’s all a happy game. We’re given choices. We’re told that we have free will, that we’re in control of our lives, but we’re not. It’s all a grand illusion. They are in control. The Party. The System. The Machine. It’s a nightmare world. And we live in it.
Bonus: Three Small Details I Loved
- Colin’s Pac-Man/living nightmare speech is preceded by Stefan looking past a poster of the cover of Ubik, a Philip K. Dick novel described by literary critic Lev Grossman as “a deeply unsettling existential horror story, a nightmare you’ll never be sure you’ve woken up from.”
- The windows of Stefan’s house are oddly shaped and the ceiling lights in the Tuckersoft office are tiled in odd diagonal lines.
- The founder of Tuckersoft is named Mohan Thakur, and the logo is fashioned with the famous Sega font.