Set in 1980s London, it centres around 19-year-old game developer Stefan (Fionn Whitehead), who is in the process of turning a choose-your-own adventure book into a video game. Along the way, he realises that he has lost his free will, and that some force beyond his control is compelling him to make decisions.
That force is the Netflix viewer, who gets to make Stefan’s decisions for him, from what breakfast cereal to eat to whether or not he should murder his own father.
Needless to say, it’s a trip. There are multiple routes the story can take, and after you get to the end of your chosen path, you are offered the chance to go back and try out a different one. In true Black Mirror style, most of them are pretty grim.
Stefan discovers that his father and his therapist have been using him in a psychological trial called PAC (Program And Control), controlling his behaviour with drugs. He then kills his father.
Stefan goes back in time, after discovering his toy rabbit in the safe in his house, to the day his mother died and gets on the same train with her. He dies, too.
The viewer urges Stefan to kill his father, despite Stefan not wanting to. If you choose to cut dad’s body up, Stefan gets away with the murder for long enough to complete the game and for it to be labelled a great success. At the credits, a very meta clip from a documentary set in the present day sees Colin’s daughter attempting to recreate Colin’s game for Netflix, only to smash up her computer when she realises she has lost her free will, too.
The viewer urges Stefan to kill his father, and instead of cutting his body up, he buries him. His dog then discovers his father’s remains, and Stefan is thrown in jail before getting a chance to perfect the game. It receives a bad review.
The viewer tells Stefan that he’s in an interactive Netflix show, and that is why his decisions are being controlled. After a fight with the therapist, he jumps out a window, only to discover he’s on a set, and that he’s an actor.
Someone with a lot of time on their hands has drawn out a map of all the possible outcomes, too. Check it out below.
We don’t want to spoil the surprise but suffice it to say, viewers who have seen it report being “terrified” and having “jumped a mile” after watching it with the sound up.
How does Bandersnatch work?
The choose-your-own adventure thing is absolutely pivotal in Bandersnatch.
At first it seems as though quite a few of the decisions – like whether Stefan should have Sugar Puffs or Frosties for breakfast (Frosties, a no brainer) or what music he should listen to – will be inconsequential. But eventually, it becomes clear that there are quite a few divergent paths you can take.
There are elements that need to go a certain way in order for the story to progress. Stefan needs to work on the game in solitude, rather than in a team. They offer you the chance to do it as a team, but it fast forwards to the game’s release, and it flops, so you are urged to go back and reconsider the decision.
But – full disclosure, we played out two different paths at the same time on separate screens as an experiment – there really does seem to be quite a few ways the story can go, and each decision causes a knock-on effect to the story. In some cases, we arrived at the exact same scene, just with different options. There are clearly multiple layers to this that will take quite a while, and a fair few re-watches, to fully unpack.
For example, on both paths, we came to a point where Stefan demanded a sign to understand what was happening to him. On path one, the options were to send him, via his computer screen, what looked like a Space Invaders alien or a message about PAC, a mind-control programme that may or may not be a figment of his imagination. On path two, we were able to tell him the truth: that we’re watching him on Netflix and controlling his decisions. This was by far the most entertaining of the two, and it led to a bizarre brawl with his therapist, who whipped out two batons during their session.
Is there one true, correct path to Bandersnatch?
No, and that is kind of the point. Though it initially seems like Brooker and co are driving you towards a certain conclusion, it becomes clear that there are no right answers here beyond the ones that allow the story to develop to the point where Stefan works on the game by himself.
He has to develop the game on his own to get into this choose-your-own adventure loop (the Bandersnatch author went the same way), but beyond that, there are plenty of ways that the whole thing can go down.
Is Colin real?
Colin (Will Poulter), Stefan’s role model in the game developing world, seems to be attuned to what is going on. When Stefan goes back and changes his initial decision to work with a team, Colin remembers that they’ve met before.
When the two take LSD, Colin explains to him that there are infinite timelines where infinite scenarios are playing out, and that none of the decisions matter. He suggests that one of them jump off the balcony, and, upon the viewer’s urging, happily plummets to his death safe in the knowledge that, in another reality, he is alive and kicking.
This apparent higher understanding of the situation made us wonder if Colin wasn’t some sort of Tyler Durden-esque projection of Stefan’s subconscious (there’s a scene, in one scenario, where he seems to have been digitally inserted, though that could well have been to avoid having to film scenes multiple times with different cast members). A stretch, perhaps, but food for thought…
Does Colin have to kill his father – and get away with it – in order to make the game he wants to make?
In two endings we came across, Stefan murdered his own father. In one of these, having decided to chop his dad’s body up, he got away with it for quite a while, and managed to finish the game (which then received a five star review from the gamer guy who reviews on the telly), only for it to be pulled from shelves a few weeks later when he had finally been caught.
In this same version of events, the end credits features footage from what looks like a documentary about Stefan from present day, in which a woman called Pearl is attempting to remake Stefan’s game for a modern audience. We then see her in front of a computer, and we are offered the chance to choose whether she smashes her computer or pours tea on it, as we were with Stefan. She smashes the computer, and the film ends.
This seems significant, as it doubles down on the idea that the Bandersnatch game is cursed in some way, and those who try to recreate it are doomed to lose their own free will – and this suggests that Stefan can only succeed by replicating the actions of the original author.
We didn’t see any other endings in which the game was a success, but we haven’t been able to get through all of the permutations as yet.
This article was originally published in December 2018