This is Bandersnatch, an episode(? Film? Insert New Word Here?) which asks the viewer to direct its protagonist like an interventionist God. Some of our choices are banal – Frosties or Sugar Puffs? Which cassette tape for your Walkman? – and others are anything but: jump off a balcony, or…? On the one hand, geeky, gamey, soulless; on the other hand, the revelatory and excruciatingly ambitious birth-of-a-hybrid-genre which grapples with some of the most profound and uncomfortable questions about our very existence. No, seriously – Brooker’s protagonist Stefan (Fionn Whitehead, Dunkirk) is playing out the limits of free will, our illusions of autonomy and mental illness/wellness, all within a kind of meta-story you’re directing about his quest to make a video game concerning the same issues. It’s enough to give you an existential crisis, or at least a headache, but it’s a pretty fabulous achievement – and it’s most exciting when we’re standing on the threshold of the fiction as it spins itself.
We’re introduced to the rhythm of Stefan’s world and our role in it pretty quickly, prompted off the bat to make two easy choices without consequence (breakfast, music, I see where you’re going with this) before stumbling. It’s 1984, and Stefan’s on his way to pitch a video game (Bandersnatch!) to the studio where his idol (Colin Ritman, Will Poulter) works. This is Very Exciting, and so when the firm’s director picks up our protagonist’s project and offers to assemble a team to help him work on it in their office, we (via Stefan) jump at the chance. At least, I pressed ‘accept’ – thereby hurtling down Bandersnatch’s first shortcut to nowheresville, each signalled by a flash-forward where the video game is released and reviewed to varied acclaim by TV presenters with bad haircuts. Taking the seat in the office was a mistake, we learn; the game feels “designed by committee”, “rushed”. Right. As in real life, the ‘responsible’ decision is not always a guarantee of a good outcome. As in real life, ‘bad’ decisions don’t necessarily have the worst consequences; Bandersnatch’s starkest demonstration of that nasty truth unfolds when you choose to dismember a corpse rather than bury it (rock and a hard place, eh), which is followed by the ‘best’ flash-forward review of all – 5/5! Didn’t bad behaviour use to have consequences…?