Warning: spoilers ahead for some of the endings of Black Mirror: Bandersnatch
Careers in game design are widely considered dream jobs — one of the ultimate versions of getting paid to do what you love. Black Mirror’s new interactive episode Bandersnatch lets you experience one — and then concludes that a career in the arts is a nightmare dystopia with no escape. The new Netflix project is a painful parable about how creating commercial art leads to misery, despair, and the destruction of everyone and everything you love.
And yet as dark as Bandersnatch is, its picture of the creative life still isn’t bleak enough. For actual working artists, Black Mirror often looks too optimistic — not least because it oddly never presents art as work. Bandersnatch focuses on a dream job where no one gets paid, and practically no one even mentions money. It’s an often evocative story about artistic stress which unaccountably removes worries about that main source of artistic stress — making a living.
In Bandersnatch, protagonist Stefan Butler (Fionn Whitehead) is a young programmer working in the early 1980s on an innovative new graphic-based computer game called Bandersnatch, which lets players follow numerous narrative branching paths. Bandersnatch, the film, is similarly interactive. The Black Mirror creative team spent 18 months generating the tangled storyline and developing the technology that would let viewers enter their story choices into Netflix. Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker says Bandersnatch took about as much effort to put together as four normal episodes of the science fiction anthology series.
Stefan’s struggles to pioneer a new form of choose-your-own-adventure entertainment parallel and comment on the efforts the Black Mirror crew put into assembling Stefan’s story. Bandersnatch is, then, a film about its own creative process. Stefan’s descent into a nightmare of debugging and narrative confusion is intentionally acknowledging how hard it was for Black Mirror to get Stefan himself out of bed and to the breakfast table, where the interactive technology allows him to choose between two kinds of sugared cereals as a prelude to making progressively more consequential decisions.
A lot of those decisions involve his career. The story starts with Stefan going to a business meeting at Tuckersoft, a game company he hopes will buy his Bandersnatch concept. The film has multiple endings, but almost all of them involve Stefan’s game receiving some sort of critical rating, from zero to five stars, upon its Christmas release. Winning or losing at Black Mirror: Bandersnatch is winning or losing at Stefan’s career. Mostly losing.
Bandersnatch is never meant as a realistic story. It draws on outsized, hyperbolic elements from action films, fantasy, science fiction, and horror. But when it comes to portraying the frustrations and downsides of a life in the arts, it’s actually a lot more accurate than Hollywood rags-to-riches stories like A Star Is Born. Stefan’s talent, ambition, innovation, and drive don’t guarantee him a straightforward path from obscurity to fame. The assets don’t even guarantee him allies or recognition. At best, he winds up at the mercy of a glad-handing tyrant who’s willing to exploit him for all he’s worth. And at worst, he loses his mind trying to live up to his own impossible expectations. Like a real artistic career path, Bandersnatch’s plot is an obscure jumble with no clear way forward, and a variety of abrupt dead ends.
As one example, early on, Stefan is given the option of working on his video game at Tuckersoft’s offices, with a collaborative team. Alternately, he can work on the game alone, at his house. One of those paths leads to abject failure. The other… also leads to abject failure. Stefan is an artist trying to pursue a vision, and he’s given choices that appear to matter. But those choices are (as characters pointedly inform Stefan from time to time) simply illusions. There isn’t a way forward. That star is never going to be born.
Even successful game designer Colin Ritman (Will Poulter), who has achieved fame and fortune, is still trapped in the same tangle, experiencing the same eternal déjà vu of humiliation and failure. Colin comes to a bloody end in some game pathways, but the real knife in the gut is the way his boss, Mohan Thakur (Asim Chaudhry), casually bullies him. Colin has created numerous successful games and is the primary force behind Tuckersoft’s success, but Thakur still snaps at him to take his feet off the office furniture and sends him out like an errand boy to check up on Stefan’s progress. Bandersnatch offers paths where you kill Mohan or wreck his company. But the boss’ demands always end up destroying Stefan, too. Mohan’s arbitrary Christmas deadline is the blank wall into which all of Stefan’s paths crash, in one way or the other.
Bandersnatch’s vision of the artist’s way is appropriately pessimistic, but it does have its own unproductive dead ends. Stefan avoids the cliché of the Hollywood success story, but he’s mired in a different Hollywood cliché that connects art and madness. One Bandersnatch path is even built on the unfortunate, dangerous assumption that artists who take medicine for mental illness can only create shallow, empty art. In other paths, Stefan flushes his meds and spirals into paranoia, delusion, and murderous violence. His therapist claims that Stefan’s life is too boring to be a video game. But the truth is that Bandersnatch uses overly dramatic, disturbingly outdated clichés about artists to generate action and narrative oomph.
That’s probably inevitable; entertainment is virtually always more eventful and entertaining than real life. But since Bandersnatch is in part trying to capture the nightmare of a creative career, it’s worth pointing out that the big, messy drama obscures some of the more relatable, meaningful miseries of being a creator. Stefan’s life is distinct from the everyday slog of most artistic careers, which rarely involve anything as exciting as hallucinations, murder, or time travel. In an unfilmed, alternate, truer (and unwatchable) Bandersnatch timeline, no one dies or goes to prison. Stefan just grinds out his game, which drops with so little fanfare that it isn’t even reviewed, and then he goes on to working on the next, and the next, and the next. Mohan pays him less and less for each one, until he finally quits and takes a job programming HR databases. The end, roll credits.
The reason Stefan would eventually take that HR job is money — a concern Bandersnatch utterly glosses over, which seems like a strange thing to neglect, given how often money is the source of drama and excitement in other stories about fame and creation. The one exception proves the rule; Mohan notes in passing that even though Colin is hugely successful and rich, he still lives in much the same way, and rolls his own cigarettes rather than purchasing a commercial brand. With that, the film dismisses the entire subject of money as irrelevant. No matter how successful your game is in Bandersnatch, you still live in exactly the same way.
The most unbelievable part of Bandersnatch isn’t the time travel, the government conspiracy, or the humanoid lion-monster. It’s the fact that Stefan, an unknown 19-year-old with no connections and no track record of success, wanders into the offices of a leading game company and not only sells them his concept, but is able to set his own terms with a controlling, petty boss. Even more, it’s the fact that those terms don’t involve any discussion of salary, let alone completion bonuses or profit-sharing.
Even Stefan’s father doesn’t have to worry about money. His job is never clear, outside of one dream sequence where he works for some shadowy conspiratorial government agency. But the family doesn’t seem to have any money worries at all, and they never talk to Stefan about the benefits of landing a big contract, or the downsides if he messes up and isn’t able to deliver. No one worries about paying the mortgage on the family’s spacious house. No one talks about spending the windfall if the game is successful, or about Stefan possibly moving out instead of living at home. He lives in a world where money doesn’t seem to exist.
There’s a stark contrast there with the accounts of actual working artists — like say, Blair Tindall, the oboist whose memoir formed the basis for the Amazon series Mozart in the Jungle. In her book, Tindall is constantly desperate for money. She lives in a low-rent dump, scampers from gig to gig, and worries that she’ll never retire. She has to take tedious, repetitive gigs in Broadway pits to make ends meet. Stefan has bad choices, but he never has to choose between financial security and artistic fulfillment. Nor does he face the reality of ending up, in most of his available timelines, with neither. From the perspective of almost any working artist, his casual security means he’s won his game before he even starts. His vision takes him to the brink of madness, but he can still focus on that vision without any concern about making rent. His work threatens his sanity, but he never has to take a job he hates just to pay the bills.
Bandersnatch gets at one form of the desperation and despair that can be the lot of the working artist. But divorcing those emotions from their root in trying to earn a living makes the narrative seem strangely distanced from familiar human emotions and motivations. What does really terrifying failure in the arts look like? In spite of all his options and opportunities, Stefan never manages to quite capture it on film.