Cookies help us deliver our Services. By using our Services, you agree to our use of cookies. Learn More.

How Black Mirror: Bandersnatch Puts You In Control Of The Story

Black Mirror is back, and this time, it wants you to do more than just watch.

The feature-length episode Bandersnatch debuted today on Netflix, sporting an innovative "Choose Your Own Adventure"-style interface that allows viewers to dictate the story's outcome. No fewer than five different endings (each with multiple variations of their own) can be seen, depending on the choices that you — yes, you — make as the narrative unfolds.

At various points in the episode, viewers are presented with "left" and "right" choices which can be made using your remote or touchscreen. In true Black Mirror fashion, these choices start off relatively benign, before morphing into nigh-impossible moral quandaries as the story progresses. A ten-second timer accompanies each choice; failure to respond in time will result in default options being selected, all of which were chosen by the episode's writer (and the series' creator) Charlie Brooker. Following the default path will result in a total run time of about 90 minutes, while choosing certain options will stretch the story up to an hour beyond that.

As revealed by The Hollywood Reporter, the episode was nearly two years in the making. Directed by David Slade (who helmed the fourth season episode "Metalhead"), Bandersnatch stars Fionn Whitehead (Dunkirk) as Stefan, an '80s video game programmer who is developing a title of the same name, which is appropriately inspired by a novel in the vein of the "Choose Your Own Adventure" books beloved by readers of a certain age. According to Brooker, Netflix first approached the Black Mirror team with the idea of an interactive episode — an aesthetic which the streamer had previously employed for some of its childrens' content — during the production of season three's "Playtest," an episode similarly focused on video game development (and one of the most abjectly terrifying entries in the entire series).

"We did pretty much walk out of the room and go, 'Nope,'" Brooker said. "But partly because, at that point, we didn't know what the story would be and thought, 'Wouldn't that just be a gimmick?' Annoyingly, several weeks later, we were throwing story ideas around and this idea popped up that would only work as an interactive. It was good to come back and have an idea, but also daunting."

Brooker's highly non-traditional script necessitated the shooting of over 250 segments, which Slade was tasked with organizing in an organic fashion. Significantly, the structure of the narrative means that viewers aren't simply locked in to one outcome depending on early choices; your decisions pile up on one another, and the story can play out quite differently on repeat viewings if only a few selections are made differently. Said producer Annabel Jones: "There are lots of potential paths that Stefan's journey could take and it's up to you for when you feel sated. Going down various branches opens up other potentials, so you may not reach certain things depending on the decisions you make. It's not a simple branching narrative with lots of binary choices — they are all changing your state and what's open to you."

Of course, because this is Black Mirror, some of these choices are going to be difficult in the extreme. Netflix director of product innovation, Carla Engelbrecht, spelled this out rather ominously. "There is a moment in Bandersnatch that I bet is going to be one where 90 percent of the people do not want to make the choice that they want to make. I promise you will know when that moment happens," she said. "This is going to be one of those moments that we think will create such emotion that there will be this beautiful level of engagement and attachment to this story." Jones elaborated on how the interactive aesthetic ups the ante for viewers by making them complicit in Stefan's fate. "You are making a decision at that point about your protagonist and what they have to do. If it wasn't interactive, you'd just watch and probably be appalled and worried and frightened for him in that moment. If you're making that decision, how does that affect your relationship with the film?"

Rather than a simple diagram or flow chart, the construction of the story required the use of a completely new tool, known internally as Branch Manager, that enabled Brooker to keep track of and communicate all of Bandersnatch's possible story paths to the production team. Netflix describes the tool as "revolutionary," and has plans to use it for similar projects in the future, should this initial run be a success. Said Englebrecht, "This is what happens when you take someone like Charlie Brooker and you let him loose with a tool like this. There are millions of permutations of how you can play this story. But because of the complexity of the map and the way it hovers in on itself, it's actually hard for us to calculate how many choices there actually are."

Brooker insists that there is "no correct path," and viewers are given the option to start over or even continue on once the "End Credits" prompt appears. For her part, Jones recommends the latter option: "The character learns things through different branches that then allows them to have a different experience moving forward and leads them to a different emotional conclusion," she says. Slade agrees with this assessment, imploring viewers not to overthink their choices and simply do what they would have done if confronted with such options in real life. "Be yourself," the director advised. "Don't think that there is a best way — find your own way through it. Otherwise, paralysis will set in about what choices to make. And don't go back; just keep going forward."

Black Mirror had already raised the bar for creative storytelling, and with Bandersnatch, this bar appears to be getting launched into the stratosphere; the episode may very well constitute a landmark blending of gaming and traditional narrative which could give rise to an entirely new genre. "A lot of people from the mainstream audience who don't play games or have a console and are watching on their sofa with a remote control will be choosing how they watch," said Jones, suggesting that Bandersnatch is simply a logical progression of the series' longstanding invitation for viewers to see themselves reflected in the stories it tells. "I hope people just enjoy that new way of storytelling and being a part of it. And what it does to their perception of what they watch, and how and why they enjoy it."

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch is available now on Netflix; do your best to give Stefan a happy ending, won't you?