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On Netflix, 'Bandersnatch' gives viewer the power to make story changes

In the 1980s, Choose Your Own Adventure books freed readers from fixed storylines. Instead of passively accepting a single, unfolding plot, readers made decisions that moved them to different parts of the book, with each choice shaping an individualized storyline.

Updating this interactive concept with digital technology, “Bandersnatch” offers a television adventure that’s well worth choosing. Written by Charlie Brooker as a special edition of his “Black Mirror” series currently streaming on Netflix, “Bandersnatch” takes us back to 1984 England. We follow the story of Stefan Butler, a young computer programmer designing a video game called Bandersnatch, based on an interactive novel written by a madman.

We don’t just follow Stefan’s story: we shape it. “Bandersnatch” is designed to invite audience engagement: viewers can physically interact with the story, making decisions for the protagonist that determine how the narrative unfolds.

Thanks to a specially designed software tool called the Branch Manager, each viewer choice causes the story to "branch" off into another path. If a character asks Stefan to do something, the viewer may be prompted, on the bottom of the screen, to choose whether he should do it or refuse. (You can choose by using the TV remote, mouse or trackpad depending on your viewing device.)

The interactive design of “Bandersnatch” enables multiple possible paths through Stefan’s story, leading to multiple endings. Having created 150 minutes of possible narrative film divided into various potential segments, the producers of “Bandersnatch” allow you to experience numerous possible stories. The shortest viewing (which results if you refuse to make any choices for Stefan) is 40 minutes; the longest version could last two and a half hours. The average viewing time is estimated to be 90 minutes.

Directed by David Slade, “Bandersnatch” offers a gripping narrative that mixes 1980s nostalgia with an atmosphere of paranoia and dread. With excellent choices of sets, music and lighting, Slade keeps the viewer just as uncertain as his jittery protagonist about where to draw the line between the imaginary and the real.

Fionn Whitehead is outstanding as the protagonist, Stefan Butler. Whitehead convincingly portrays a programmer facing enormous pressure, conveying both the power of his imaginative obsession and the horror of his intense mental stress.

Other standout performances include Will Poulter as the cocky and eccentric programmer Colin Ritman, who becomes a kind of digital-age guru for Stefan; Alice Lowe, as Stefan’s even-tempered, but increasingly concerned therapist, Dr. Haynes; and Fleur Keith as Stefan’s mother, who powerfully inhabits flashbacks to a traumatic childhood.

According to the “many worlds” hypothesis of quantum physics, every decision we make creates a different universe. If, for example, you are faced with a choice of eating, say, Wheaties or Corn Flakes, and you choose Wheaties, you will go on living in your timeline in your universe—but you will also create a timeline in a different universe where you chose Corn Flakes.

“Bandersnatch” offers us a story where we can experience all possible universes created by a range of similar choices. Blurring the distinction between creator and audience, “Bandersnatch” offers a fascinating space in which you can help create the pathways of multiple narrative worlds.

 

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