In 2018, Netflix announced a series of cancellations of original programming. Cancelations of shows should not be surprising, except these shows have one important thing in common. They are all Marvel properties.
With at least 63% of its viewed library consisting of licensed titles, as opposed to its original offerings, we can be sure that announcements of a new streaming service from Disney– Disney Plus– is ominous for Netflix.
While reports that Disney will not be moving their Marvel properties from Netflix, cancellation of these same properties presents Netflix with a need to strategize. With a focus on original content, shows like Bojack Horseman, Stranger Things, House of Cards, and Black Mirror will be tasked with holding subscriber eyeballs.
Surely with this in mind, Netflix is willing to explore more experimental programming with an objective of viewer retention. Welcome back Black Mirror with their interactive movie, “Bandersnatch”.
BLACK MIRROR AS SCIENCE FICTION
Black Mirror is a series of vignettes of science fiction thrillers. While there are political and social discussions, these philosophical threads only work to further entrench Black Mirror in that cannon of science fiction. Since Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel that is widely touted as birthing science fiction, science fiction has been a melange of various genres often embracing social and political critique. Black Mirror is not an exception.
Black Mirror’s Bandersnatch is even less of an exception. While it poses as a “choose-your-own-adventure”, 1980’s console video game, it is really a show critiquing these mediums and their influences. “Bandersnatch” drops us into Stefan Butler’s life, a young man with a desire to sell a game based on his favorite choose-your-own-adventure style book. Stefan’s game developing idol, Colin Ritmen, is not only this story’s mad scientist, but he is also a character intentionally used to present an ideology that this show’s writers work to debunk or question throughout “Bandersnatch”.
ON MAD SCIENTISTS
In his June 19, 2018 Paris Review piece entitled, ‘On Frankenstein, A Monster Of A Book’, Hernan Diaz describes Dr. Victor Frankenstein as a canonical mad scientist. Diaz states,”Victor Frankenstein embodies the double contradiction at the core of the mad scientist…First paradox: though deprived of reason(mad), this character is also the ultimate embodiment of reason(a scientist). Second paradox: even though mad scientists are always outcasts who rebel against the establishment, they tend to represent that very establishment — they are, for the most part, well-to-do white men”. Colin Ritmen typifies this double contradiction in “Bandersnatch” as well.
In Marimba Ani’s seminal work on Western cultural thought and behavior, Yurugu, she discusses what she terms ‘the problem of the “Mad Scientist”‘. In this work she writes, ‘According to the European self-image, “scientific man” is in a desirable position, for he is above all logical–remote and detached. But this is not quite the same thing as being “a scientist”. A scientist, in terms of the European image, is one who envelops himself in science. He is totally immersed in the laboratory and wears special “glasses” that allow him to see nothing but his work–the “objects” on which he experiments. This image has a special place in the European cultural ego. Such “scientists” are relegated to a very small portion of the collective personality, but on an unconscious level this personality is identified with a characteristic tendency of the entire culture. It is a part of the self that Europeans perceive themselves to be, yet they neither want to become nor to identify with it.’
‘In this sense, it is not part of the European self-image as a “positive” self-concept. It is the only aspect of their culture towards which they express ambivalence and possible fear. A major vehicle for the expression of this fear is the “horror” movie. The recurrent theme of the “mad scientist” in the European nightmare fantasy is an expression of the fear and recognition that somehow it is the European asili that produces such madness in every “European.” The madness of this characterization is not the emotional confusion of an overly sensitive human being who refuses to accommodate to the inhumanity of contemporary life(quite the opposite), nor is it of a weakened and depressed individual. It is nothing caused by ordinary human frailty. It is a culturally induced madness caused by the very absence of humanity.’
‘In the typical plot one finds the same person. He (always male) is committed only to his experiments and will not stop them, no matter what danger they imply to the community. what excites him are the implications of his being able to control and manipulate some part of nature that has previously been untouched, perhaps something sacred. This he insists is “science” and “progress.” As he is typically depicted, this man cannot love, has no friends, becomes deaf to the admonitions of those around him. He loses the ability even to understand what they are saying. He is a fanatic in the fullest sense of the term. This is Dr. Frankenstein (depicted in 1920, 1932, and 1941 films), Dr. Jekyll and all the others not sufficiently infamous to be known by name, but always there. The Deadly Mantis(1957); Dr. Cyclops(1940);The Island of Dr. Moreau(1977); The Thing(1951); Alien(1979, the more modern vintage)–the theme does not “go out of style” but continues to provide material for the European/American science fiction “thriller.”‘
‘An intensive ethnological study of such films alone would no doubt provide valuable insights into the nature of the European psyche. But unfortunately all “mad scientists” are not as bizarre as these films depict them. There are those who have had deep cultural/philosophical commitments. There is a certain “madness” even in the fanaticism and unidirection of men like Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas. All of the most ideologically influential people in European development had this fanatical dedication either to total systematization or to visions of what the world should be and to a determination to make it that way–monolithic and consistently European. This appears to be the only aspect of the European self-image that may be perceived as negative-undesirable. They want to be rational, critical, objective, universal, and scientific; but they are not certain that they want to be “the scientist.” They sense somehow that in this cold rationalism they will lose control. The nightmare of the self they envision, therefore, is that they have completely lost their humanity and have become monstrous (for it is the mad scientist who is the “monster” in these monster movies). The reality of the nightmare is that the nature of European culture is such that this monster can and does gain the power to endanger the lives of those only in his culture but throughout the world.’
I do not consider Black Mirror Bandersnatch a “video game” as much as I consider it a Black Mirror vignette discussing video games. It does, however, borrow aspects of both choose-your-own-adventure books and video games. One aspect of video games that Bandersnatch employs is what are know in video game design as “fail states”.
In his article, “Solving the Problem of Fail States”, Josh Snyder writers:
“Fail states are scenarios where the player fails, and the game responds to that failure. The most common fail state occurs when the player loses all of their health or loses a life, and a “Game Over” screen appears before restarting the player at the last checkpoint, or the beginning of the level.”
David Cage, founder of Quantic Dream(known for games like “Detroit: Become Human), stated in an interview with Engadget:
“I’ve always felt that ‘game over’ is a state of failure more for the game designer than from the player. It’s like creating an artificial loop saying, ‘You didn’t play the game the way I wanted you to play, so now you’re punished and you’re going to come back and play it again until you do what I want you to do.’ In an action game, I can get that – why not? It’s all about skills. But in a story-driven experience it doesn’t make any sense.”
Writers of Bandersnatch use fail states as a means similar to what Cage is highlighting. As a critique of video games, and possibly media in general, they invite us experience a video game from an avatar or game character’s perspective. That is, they answer a question presented in ‘Gamers’, what would it feel like to be a video game character? We watch as Stefan forces “control” back over his hand from our choosing to have him bite his nails or scratch his ear. He tells his therapist that he does not feel like he is in control. During a psychedilic trip, Colin tells Stefan that they are controlled by “spirits” connected to their world and they should enjoy their journey.
Fail states are indicated by Stefan saying,”I am going to try again” or even Colin stating that Stefan should try again. Other Fail States are represented by a show entitled “MicroPlay” hosted by a character named, “Leslie”. In each of these fail states, Leslie introduces either Robin or Crispin. Robin is one of my favored fail states, because it is he who gives a score to our “game”. These scores are less a rating of a video game, but a critique of each story arc we have just completed.
Another fail state that informs us of Colin’s salience to these storylines happens after we choose for Stefan to take a nose dive plummeting to his death. After these fail states where Stefan dies or destroys his computer, Stefan and Colin are both written to self-referentially “remember” what occured in previous path. As Cage states, these fail states are used to “educate” players to perform how game writers wish, and part of Bandersnatch is following as many arcs of this episode as possible.
As a critique of video games, Bandersnatch employs a world where death is not death but a failstate where only Colin and Stefan persist through. This device allows for wrtiers of Bandersnatch to discuss another theme of critique found in this episode: perceptions of time as a unit of multidimensions and its possible subsequent influence on morality and decision making.
During an early story arc, we see Stefan, Colin, and “TuckerSoft” owner, Thakur, discussing “Bandersnatch”. A fail state occurs if we have Stefan work on site. However, if we elect to have Stefan work alone, a path where we are given more insight into Colin opens.
On this path, Thakur mistakenly refers to Colin’s lone craftsmen statements as being from Timothy Leary’s “Doors of Perception”. Colin is written to immediately correct Thakur by stating “Doors Of Perception” was written by Aldous Huxley. However, Timothy Leary’s career work and Aldous Huxley’s book share philosophy and topic.
Timothy Leary is most known for his Harvard psychedelic drug experiments with LSD and psilocybin mushrooms.Leary also encouraged young adults to “turn on, tune in, and drop out” during the 1960s. Leary is also figured prominently in Tom Wolfe’s classic, “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test”. Leary spent his life evangelizing spiritual and psychological benefits of psychedelic drugs. Aldous Huxley’s “Doors of Perception” is an account of his experience with mescaline a decade earlier. His book detailed his controlled and monitored usage with his wife and friend.
Both Leary and Huxley describe their perceptions of time to have been different during these induced alterations of consciousness. Huxley speaks of time in similar fashion that one might discuss a view of an ocean from a cruise ship. This aspect of their works influences one of Bandersnatch’s most vivid scenes, punctuated by one of media’s most graphic experiences.
Marimba Ani wrote that in film and literature, these “mad scientists” display characteristic focus and immersion in their scientific and engineering efforts. Colin believes in being totally immersed in game development flow. In order to help Stefan, he presents him with a psychedelic drug. If you choose to have Stefan take this drug, he takes that drug. If you choose to have Stefan refuse to take this drug, Colin slips Stefan a mickey, and Stefan still gets high regardless. Just because Colin gives you a choice does not mean you actually have one.
Colin then enters into a spiel reflective of Diaz’s Double Contradiction of Mad Scientist. Colin is obviously a brilliant and accomplished engineer, but he also harbors a litany of conspiracy theories that prime us as viewers. Colin is written to tell Stefan that time is not real. In a self-referential statement, he explains that mirrors and flashbacks allow time travel. He compares life to a game of Pacman, a never ending maze one cannot escape from. Not even after death. Colin also states that “PAC” in Pacman stands for,”Program & Control”. To prove his theory, he presents us with a choice: either we have Stefan take a nose dive, or we have Colin take one.
Conclusion ::: Bandersnatch As Message
Without Colin mentioning that PAC in Pacman stands for Program and Control, I might not have Stefan type it in his dad’s safe keypad. It is Colin who presents us with these paths and arcs that ultimately turn out to be dead ends. It is Colin Ritmen that shows us just how little choice this interactive nightmare fantasy provides. As Colin states,”I chose for you”.
It is Colin who reminds us of another Black Mirror episode entitle MetalHead. Throughout this piece we are shown images of MetalHead’s robot dogs. In that episode, we witness these robotic killers efficiency with a number of weapons as they hunt down a woman. As an episode, I felt a sense of shared humanity, hoping she was able to either destroy her drone attackers, or at least find some refuge. As a game, my feelings for our avatar, Stefan, became distant. He was just another set of pixels constructed to offer me an escape as I choose to watch him commit suicide from a first person perspective. I even chuckled as he sighs,”oh gawd” after I selected to have him chop his father into pieces.
It is this sense of detachment and brutality experienced vicariously that Bandersnatch is attempting to discuss. Even with open world games like Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption, choice is an illusion. We are confined like Pacman to a maze constructed of a few pre-selected story lines. There is no free will in gaming and our vicarious experiences with these more brutal titles leaves room to question our own humanity.