Warning! The following contains slight spoilers for Black Mirror: Bandersnatch. Read at your own risk!
Netflix has dabbled in the world of "Choose Your Own Adventure" programming before, but none of its attempts so far have matched the complexity and quality of Black Mirror: Bandersnatch. It's a concept that, when paired with one of the most bizarre television shows this modern era has to offer, works really well. That said, there's something to be said for simplicity, and by the end of my session, I found the experience more exhausting than fun.
After my initial mistake of allowing the studio to make the game, I was bound and determined to make my Black Mirror: Bandersnatch experience meaningful yet still rooted in decisions I would actually make. This inevitably led me down the Netflix path, which ended in the hilarious fight between me and the therapist. The ending was overly satisfying for me, and the meta humor of the episode had me convinced this was the greatest thing Netflix had ever done.
In truth, I should've stopped right there. I found an ending I liked, the episode went on for a solid stretch of time, and I was happy. This is the ideal goal of a choose your own adventure, and yet, there was something nagging at me. Was there another outcome I'd like more? My curiosity got the best of me, and I dove back in searching for a true ending that I'd be satisfied with.
Unfortunately, that didn't happen. After watching Stefan kill himself, allowing Colin to kill himself, killing the father, and a handful of other things, I was angry. I dove deeper into the experience hoping to find more connections to the ending that I had chosen and did not expect wildly different scenarios to be thrown at me. As the different scenarios and endings piled up, I felt as though I had been thrown into an episode that doesn't have a conclusion.
I was wrong, of course, as Bandersnatch has multiple endings that each result in a different outcome. Unlike the "Choose Your Own Adventure" Goosebumps books of my youth, however, there's no definitive ending that stands above all others as the one that all viewers should strive for. In fact, each ending leads to something depressing, which can really get exhausting after a while. It's like watching a car crash in slow motion, except that car crash keeps happening different ways.
Now, to be fair, I shouldn't have expected there to be a happy ending. This is Black Mirror, after all, where killers are used for tourist attractions, and people realize that having a DVR in your eyes is actually the worst. To expect everything to work out for Stefan and for him to be happy was stupid, but I pushed on anyway hopeful. Without spoilers to tell me, I was convinced the happy ending was somewhere to be found.
This is the fundamental problem I had with Black Mirror: Bandersnatch. As a "Choose Your Own Adventure" aficionado across different forms of media, there's often an unspoken agreement between the maker and participant that the grind will be worth their time. In exchange for my several missteps, I'll be rewarded with a happy or satisfying ending that makes me feel accomplished. Because that never happened with Bandersnatch, I was left feeling burnt and like all my effort was for nought.
Perhaps that's the tongue-in-cheek joke that Black Mirror: Bandersnatch is working towards all along. Much like the game, the episode branches off in so many wild directions that you have to respect the amount of work that went into it. At the same time, there's so much choice involved that it felt overwhelming. I began to feel like the game reviewer on television by the end, seemingly finding a way to nitpick the experience further each minute it went on.
Weirdly enough, I think having less choice would've made Black Mirror: Bandersnatch a much more enjoyable experience for me. Say the episode had been split more like a Telltale Games adventure where there are select choices that more often than not lead to similar events. The paths will diverge a bit, but ultimately, the whole journey pulls together and makes sense at the episode's end.
While it somewhat cheapens the experience to know that no matter what decisions you make you'll end up in the same area at the end, there's something to be said for consistency. Consistency keeps things uniform and ensures that users have a similar experience they can share. It also leads to quality control, which I think portions of Bandersnatch were in desperate need of.
Of course, art is subjective, but I feel the storylines where Stefan was aware his actions were being controlled by someone else were much more thought out than when Colin and Stefan did drugs, or when Stefan killed his father. Had I found one of those endings before the initial one I chose, I'm not sure I would've been upset, and not so willing to push on to find an ending I was more satisfied with.
This conclusion was really hard to come to, especially as a fan of Black Mirror. The initial announcement and concept seemed perfect, especially given the show's roots in technological innovation. Yet in execution, it felt sloppy and exhausting for someone who needed closure, and its success makes me nervous for Netflix's future forays into "Choose Your Own Adventure." If I can't enjoy Bandersnatch with the amazingly talented Will Poulter involved, can I enjoy any future attempts of this genre?
That's a bit dramatic, and if anything, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch may have taught me a hard lesson in how to enjoy "Choose Your Own Adventure" in the future. If I'm satisfied with the ending, then it's best to leave well enough alone than to go searching for something else. In the meantime, I'm crossing my fingers and toes that Netflix isn't going all in on this tech, and I can leave the storytelling to screenwriters and not my gut intuition.