The latest installment of the dystopian tech anthology series Black Mirror, “Bandersnatch,” set in the 1980s, is a choose-your-own-adventure movie about the troubled, twitchy Stefan (Fionn Whitehead), a young man who is single-mindedly adapting a massive choose-your-own-adventure novel, Bandersnatch, into a choose-your-own-adventure video game. At various points viewers are prompted to decide what Alex should do: Eat Sugar Puffs or Frosties? Make his game at home or in the office? Jump off a balcony or not?
A New York Times piece about “Bandersnatch” matter-of-factly explained Netflix’s interest in this style of program: “The idea behind the interactive push is simple: Viewers will care more if they are complicit.” It then quoted a Netflix executive as saying “If bad things happen, you’ll feel even more crestfallen, because you were responsible. If the character is victorious, you’ll feel even more uplifted because you made that choice.”
The notion that Black Mirror—a series about the horror effects of tech—would be pioneering a method that makes TV screens more addictive, while giving Netflix troves of data about its users’ choices, as it helps to further turn “engagement” into a closed loop where viewers play in inscribed and controlled ways masquerading as freedom is so darkly ironic. I could only hope that this irony was the actual subject of this episode of Black Mirror— which it sort of is.
I haven’t played through all (or much) of the episode—unlike in a CYOA book, you can’t flip back and make another choice, and there’s no fast forwarding or rewinding; i.e. you have much less freedom and control—but it’s apparent from the jump that this episode is knowingly about choice or the absence thereof. Choose whatever you want; this adventure is getting very dark. Stefan feels like his every decision is being determined by some outside force, controlling the sort of cereal he eats or music he plays. Structurally speaking, certain decisions presented to the audience aren’t choices at all: you select one option, and it basically turns into another. Stefan’s video game mentor delivers a read of Pac-Man that pertains to the episode more generally: “He thinks he’s got free will but all he can do is consume. People think it’s a happy game, but it’s a fucking nightmare world, and it’s real and we live in it.”
But just because “Bandersnatch” is about the illusion of choice doesn’t mean it isn’t also foisting the illusion of choice onto Netflix subscribers. Self-awareness isn’t a value. The episode is the latest high-tech advancement being proffered to consumers as something that will give us “more control” at the expense of giving up control of our data, our details, our time, and our attention. It’s tech we’re supposed to be able to boss around that bosses us around instead. In that way, it’s a perfect Netflix show.