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- Black Mirror: Bandersnatch
There is a wide-ranging debate raging across the internet about video games. For once, it isn’t about whether games are art, inspire violence, or if they should be political. Instead, the debate was about whether or not Bandersnatch, Black Mirror’s latest special was a video game or not. And it’s not for a few key reasons.
Breaking away from the traditional way that content on Netflix usually tells stories, Bandersnatch is interactive and forces viewers to make choices throughout the narrative that can heavily influence the journey the main character takes and the ending. The format is similar to the interactive fiction games like Life is Strange, Telltale’s catalog, and anything by David Cage where the audience is forced into an active role as they make decisions and influence the media in a way that passive viewer does not.
But while that does make it sounds a lot like a game, there is one important difference between Bandersnatch and the games it emulates. In games like Life is Strange, you play games as a character within the game and have complete control over them. They are the player’s vehicle in the game world. While other games might have you build your own character or see their non-personalized avatar in the starring role, narrative games typically have players take on the role of a pre-existing character that has a scripted place in the game world. You take them from point to point, choosing their dialogue and dictating their most important decisions. That isn’t the case in Bandersnatch.
Playing as yourself
Although like the narrative games, Stefan, the central character in Bandersnatch, is a scripted character created by the filmmakers. He is different from the likes of Bigby Wolf or Chloe Price; Stefan has his own agency outside the player’s or viewer’s control. In Bandersnatch, you don’t play as Stefan even though you follow his actions, you play as yourself. You can see him, even from the beginning, questioning the decisions that the viewer makes, instantly proving that there is a disconnect between his actions, free will, and the people deciding his fate. And more importantly, he is aware of the viewer’s presence and influence.
When he questions his actions, it is not because of the regret, but because he didn’t feel like the decision came from him. Bandersnatch does not allow the player to explore different personalities and absolve themselves of the responsibility of the consequences like most games. You are playing as yourself and the decisions you pick are yours. You are not roleplaying as a different character; you are forcing someone to do as you command, however dangerous or stupid those orders may be.
Stefan begins to suspect and then outright knows that someone or something is controlling his actions. He is even able to resist them if you order him to do something he does not want to do. In at least some of the branching paths, Stefan is able to subvert the viewer’s will and do what he wants instead, reversing the role between active and passive participant. This battle of the wills is a major theme of the show and removes it from any of the games that inspired it.
Life is Strange players never have to worry if Max, Chloe, or Sean are going to rebel against them or hate the decisions they are forced to make or openly resist the player’s control. Sure, some game choices don’t pan out as the player anticipates, but it’s never because the game characters are trying to exert their own free will. In these games, the player is roleplaying as the central character, not themselves. Or to put it another way, the game character and the player are the same as far as the game is concerned.
Playing as someone else
Bandersnatch creates the illusion of independence in the film. Obviously, Stefan has no actual agency or free will because it is just a scripted, fictional piece of entertainment. But Bandersnatch wants you to believe that he does have agency outside the player’s control. Games don’t typically agree with that premise and instead consider the player character an avatar for the player’s will and agency within the game world.
If Bandersnatch were a game, the story wouldn’t work in the same way. You would have unreliable control over the character because you weren’t playing as them, you were just playing with them. With that, you would constantly move from the driver’s seat to the passenger’s seat as the character wrestles for control. This change is a key part in how Bandersnatch is not a video game.
Consider how game characters would react if they felt their own “free will” being stripped away by the player. Imagine the confusion as they spend time unwillingly hunting for collectibles as a mission urgently waits to be completed. Spider-Man would have an existential crisis when forced to chase pigeons instead of criminals, Kratos would probably wind up swinging his ax at the screen to kill the god attempting to control him, and Arthur Morgan would be screaming about his lack of control as the player forces him to leave another victim tied to the railroad tracks.
The player’s character and the players have to cooperate together in a video game. Even if the game challenges you at every turn, the protagonist does not resist your control. When you play a narrative game, you are not playing with the character as you do in Bandersnatch, but as the character. It’s an important distinction between Bandersnatch and narrative games, and one that clearly separates the two. Games do not portray the avatar as something with agency outside of the players, not just because of the horrible social and ethical issues of enslaving a consciousness for our entertainment, but also because it wouldn’t be fun probably a bit weird. Kojima is probably toying with the idea right now.