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Black Mirror: Bandersnatch

Year: 2018
Production Co: House of Tomorrow
Studio: Netflix
Director: David Slade
Writer: Charlie Brooker
Cast: Fionn Whitehead, Will Poulter, Alice Low

I never played the 80s-era arcade game Dragon's Lair, but I was always fascinated by controlling characters in locations that looked like the best example of cel animation rather than the 8-bit videogame graphics I was used to in game systems as I grew up. On screen it was even more seamless than what you see in a lot of high end game consoles today.

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch is the same concept writ a little larger. I don't want to be hyperbolic – it's not that I found it the most brilliant entertainment ever or even the best example of what could become a more widespread form, but this movie/videogame hybrid might give us a glimpse into a possible future.

It's a Choose Your Own Adventure story in film form (hilariously, the publishing company that still owns the rights sued Netflix over it). At critical points in the story you have to make a decision about what the character will do.

Some of them drive the story down one of several paths, some lead you to dead ends before taking you back a few steps to try again, and there's probably nobody alive but the creators who've been down every single permutation and pathway it's possible to find.

The story itself deals with Stefan (Fionn Whitehead, a little forced when called on to do more than he had to in Chris Nolan's Dunkirk) in 1984, a guy with a history of mental health issues who wants to adapt his favourite fantasy novel Bandersnatch, written by a reclusive conspiracy theorist, into a videogame.

He catches the eye of uber-programmer Colin (a blonde-spiked Will Poulter), geek figurehead of the nascent industry who works at the studio that decides to release Stefan's game after he's programmed it.

It's the starting point for any number of rabbit holes Stefan goes down that make him wonder about his sanity and the nature of the reality around him, the story turning bloody as he gets more desperate and unhinged.

Is he being controlled by entities beyond his world? Is his whole world a construction? Is his Dad – with whom he shares a fragile relationship after the death of his mum years before – really who he says he is? Is Colin right, that we're all pawns in an endless game of consumption like Pac-Man (which he rather brilliantly casts as the then-modern equivalent of a mouse on a treadmill)?

It would have been great fun to storyboard and plot out every possible line of the narrative and where they'd peter out or bear fruit. In fact, it would have been a job not unlike that of the writer on a videogame for screenwriter and series steward Charlie Brooker.

And it would have been just as interesting to program the actual platform behaviour. When the story reaches a crossroads and the viewer has to make a decision, the question appears on screen for a given period while the action's still going on behind it.

I watched it on a Sony Playstation, and the controller in my hand vibrated when a question appeared, growing stronger the closer you got to the time limit to decide. On a phone or TV with a normal remote, the interaction with the story would need completely separate behaviours programmed in to the stream of the video content.

But the reason I think it might become a whole new class of entertainment product is simply because like Dragon's Lair, it's the complete blending of two until-now divergent forms. Sure, selecting whether a character goes left or right isn't nearly as immersive as choosing to swing an axe and behead a zombie, but it's a far cry from sitting back and passively absorbing what a writer or director decides to show us, like we do with movies or TV.

Even though it's kind of a gimmick to get Netflix subscribers in this particular case, it made me wonder if it might not be a whole new kind of product. So far the streaming platforms have only delivered the same kind of content as movie and TV screens, the USP being simply that you can watch it where and whenever you want.

But just like we realised in the web 2.0 era that the internet was a lot more than magazine articles on PC screens, streaming technology will allow for a lot of different form factors we haven't even imagined yet. This might be one of them.

What's more – at least in this case - it's not just a showcase for streaming interactivity using a quirky story. The combination of the two actually seems like a bit of an artistic comment on the whole nature of passive versus active entertainment.

The greater philosophy is about the nature of stories and characters, our relationship to them, how they only exist temporally for our consumption and how the nature of being caught up in someone's story makes you forget you exist while you vicariously live their life.

I wasn't sure if that was one of Brooker or director David Slade's intentions, but it seems that way during one pretty comical scene. Convinced his life and decisions are being manipulated by some omnipresent force outside his world (which he is – you), Stefan looks at the ceiling and asks desperately for the malevolent force to reveal itself, whereupon you can choose to tell him through a cryptic message on his 80s-era PC that you're watching a Netflix show about him decades in the future.

As well as the narrative rabbit holes you can disappear down, it's as much a love letter to 80s entertainment as Ready Player One was, with so many easter eggs about music, early video games, books and their marketing ephemera you could give it as many go rounds for them as much as the different plots.

Like most Black Mirror episodes so far it successfully melds some interesting themes into the action, but the interactivity gives it a new dimension that might be more thrilling than any of us yet realise.

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