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'Bandersnatch': what you need to know before you watch

Netflix's new interactive movie is all over the internet. If you're still among the uninitiated, here's our guide to the phenomena

Fionn Whitehead as Stefan in 'Bandersnatch'. Courtesy Netflix
Fionn Whitehead as Stefan in 'Bandersnatch'. Courtesy Netflix

If you've been anywhere near the internet over the weekend, you've probably already heard of Bandersnatch, even if you haven't watched it. Netflix dropped the new interactive addition to the Black Mirror universe on Friday, and to say it's been trending would be an understatement. But what's all the fuss about? And what is an "interactive movie" anyway? We took a straw poll in The National's office of the questions preying on the minds of those who haven't yet seen the film or become part of the Bandersnatch fan club. If you're still in the dark too, hopefully their questions can also answer some of yours.

Be warned, there may be some mild spoilers ahead, but we've kept it minimal.

What is Bandersnatch?

Bandersnatch is the new episode of Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones’ dystopian sci-fi drama Black Mirror. It comes not in the form of a traditional episode of the show, but an “interactive movie.” That means that, much like the Choose Your Own Adventure storybooks of yore, every three to five minutes, viewers are given a decision to make on where the storyline goes next. If you choose to follow path a, you’ll head down an avenue that leads to decisions c or d. Choose path b and you’ll head for options e and f.

It’s a sprawling narrative tree that Netflix claims has a total of over a trillion story permutations. That sounds unbelievable, but it’s actually not as incredible as it sounds. If every single dual option leads to a further dual option, a mere five decisions would already lead to almost 4.3 billion branches in the story. Maths aside, viewers make their decisions by using their mouse, laptop trackpad, or smart TV remote, leading eventually to one of five possible endings.

How can I watch it?

On Netflix, on a compatible device. Netflix hasn’t issued a comprehensive list of which devices are and are not compatible. What we do know is that Apple TV and Chromecast are not compatible, and nor are “some older smart TVs,” PlayStation Vita or Nintendo Wii U. Laptops and home computers with the latest version of Netflix should be compatible, as well as newer smart TVs, Android and iOS devices.

If your device is not compatible, you’ll see a video telling you this when you try to watch. If your device is compatible, you’ll see a star icon at the top right of the screen when you access the Bandersnatch title page. As a usual Apple TV viewer, I can confirm that Apple TV does not support Bandersnatch, but also that viewing on a Macbook and air streaming to Apple TV is fine, so you can still watch on your TV, you just need to use your Macbook trackpad to control your decisions.

What's the film about?

Bandersnatch puts viewers in control of computer programmer Stefan, who, in 1984, is struggling to adapt a huge, sprawling Choose Your Own Adventure novel into a computer game as well as struggling with plenty of inner demons of his own. Along the way he becomes obsessed with the notions of free will, pre-determination of fate, and simultaneous timelines and basically goes a little bit crazy, or a lot crazy, depending on the decisions you make for him.

How long do you have to make your choices? What happens if you don’t choose?

You have 10 seconds to make each decision within the film. If you don’t choose, the film will choose for you, and the makers have programmed a version of the narrative that will carry the story through from beginning to an ending with no viewer interaction if you really can’t be bothered. I haven’t tried watching this version yet, but — spoiler alert — it does throw up an interesting philosophical question.

One of the major existential questions tormenting the film’s lead, Stefan, is whether he has free will or is being controlled by unseen external forces (fate, demons, or indeed us). If we decline the opportunity to make Stefan’s decisions for him, are we giving him his free will back? One to watch tonight and see what happens, perhaps.

If I were to watch the whole thing with every single scenario played out how many hours will I be in front of Netflix?

How long is a piece of string? There is a total of 312 minutes of Bandersnatch footage on Netflix’s servers, but to see all of it would require multiple viewings and choosing the exact decisions that will allow you to explore every possible story branch. In the interests of completism, I’ve been trying to provide an exact answer to this question, but after around eight hours of viewing I’ve still only managed to unlock four endings, and have read about scenes online that I still haven’t seen myself. Charlie Brooker has admitted that there are scenes that he himself has no idea how to access, so if you’re determined to finish the job, you’d better be prepared for a long viewing session.

Will it cause major marital disputes? Is it the new remote control dilemma?

That probably depends on your relationship. The movie is in essence quite a solitary experience because of the decision-making process, but if you or your partner is happy enough to be a passive viewer while the other makes the decisions, you’ll be fine. I did watch the game with my partner, and we initially tried to make decision-making a democratic process, but the 10-second time limit didn’t really allow for debate, so I co-opted executive power pretty quickly. We compromised with a second viewing where she made the decisions, but she’s not as much of a geek as me and got bored, so with a heavy heart I was forced to co-opt executive power once again for the good of the experience.

Why hasn’t this been done before? Or has it?

It certainly has. The first known interactive movie was 1967’s Kinoautomat, which was screened at Expo ’67 in Montreal. This movie featured a live moderator who stepped in at nine points in the film to take an audience vote, and would then play the next scene accordingly. The concept gained further traction in the early eighties with the rise of laser discs — the first random access video play device.

There’s also a clear crossover with video gaming. An arcade game like 1983’s Dragon’s Layer, where all the player really does is try to make the right move to continue to the next stage of the narrative, exists somewhere in the murky water between gaming and movies. There were further experiments with the rise of DVD in the late 90s, including the John Hurt-starrer Tender Loving Care. Streaming has offered new lease of life to the genre, and Netflix has already experimented with kids' films, starting with 2016’s Puss in Boots.

Bandersnatch is the first time it has aimed the genre at an adult audience, however. With all due respect to previous efforts, Bandersnatch is probably the most complex attempt to date, with its multiple story branches, adult themes, technology designed specifically to enhance the viewing experience and eliminate lag, even on a slow internet connection, and numerous endings. With so much already invested in the genre, it’s a safe assumption that there will be more interactive TV to come from Netflix.

Will watching it fill me with existential dread?

Of course it will. It’s Black Mirror.

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