The violent implications of choose-your-own shows
The internet has been booming since the release of Bandersnatch, the debut film in the hugely popular futuristic sci-fi television series Black mirror. The first of its kind for Netflix, Bandersnatch offers an interactive experience that falls somewhere between a choose-your-own story and a less inspired attempt at a cult classic Donnie Darko. What that film remains, however, is the perfect publicity stunt: marketed as an event in entertainment innovation with support from its namesake series and a slew of social media excitement, Netflix finds itself high in the headlines.
Within that excitement and lost in praise is the actual plot of the film, which is set in 1984 and follows young game developer Stefan as he tries to shoot the book Choose Your Own Adventure. Bandersnatch in an eponymous game. From this arises a cheeky, often fanciful display of a mediocre, “self-aware” film comprising a series of murders, deaths, potential suicides and body hacking, most of them chosen at the viewer’s discretion. High-quality production and the global Netflix platform are far too bright to call Bandersnatch an experimental project, but the flat plot itself feels recycled, like something you’d expect from the work of a film student still trying to find inspiration.
Despite the superficial gimmick of the film’s interactive style, Bandersnatch raises for me a number of pressing social and political questions. It’s important in the analysis of any film to pay close attention to how violence is framed – how the director and writers choose to deliver, manage, contextualize, and rationalize the violence in the short universes they create. Given the interactive capacity imposed on viewers during Bandersnatch, the look of violence in this film becomes a pivotal moment in defining, or – anticipating the potential popularity of this new interactive film style – redefining the ways in which violence is bidirectionally manifested in the film and how it spills over into the film. all of society.
Of the choices available to viewers, many are seemingly disposable – what cereal Stefan eats for breakfast, what song to play, etc. – while other more important choices push the plot forward, with indefinite impact. These more important choices, just from observation alone, almost always end in violence or harm in some sense.
My black, Muslim, and gay self shuddered at the many outcomes of digital and racialized violence that could become the future of entertainment excitement.
In one of the opening scenes, the mentally ill and increasingly paranoid Stefan glares at his meds, small pills in a dark brown bottle, and the viewer must decide whether to empty them or throw them away. In another scene, as Stefan and acclaimed game developer Colin Ritman gaze over a high balcony after a night of drug use (viewer chooses), we’re forced to pick which one will jump to their deaths. We also have the ability to make choices in each of Stefan’s therapy sessions, playing on his paranoia, past trauma, and answers to the therapist’s questions about such things.
Perhaps the most obvious problem is that mental illness is thus again being used as a destructive or inevitably obscure force to drive the plot of the film. In addition, it plays on the very real anxieties of those who go to therapy: that their words are not kept confidential and other fears that can manifest themselves in paranoia. These choices are shocking to say the least, but they are only outlines that frame the internal drive for the violence of the plot. As the film continues and the choices available to viewers unfold, we begin to realize that the most crucial decisions, the ones that are supposed to trigger the adrenaline rush of the viewer, depend on the violence exerted on the characters. In some scenes, we are asked to choose between fighting the therapist, whether or not Stefan (us) should bury or cut up the bodies, and whether to kill individuals (including Stefan’s father).
This kind of action is typical of sci-fi thrillers, but what is not typical is that the viewer eagerly decides what to do – get involved and engage in them. acts. This understanding of the role of the spectator was at the heart of many public debates in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when sociologists, worried parents and politicians argued for the influence of violent video games. First person shooters like James bond and Call of Duty have been carefully scrutinized, as have the Grand Theft Auto game series, some insisting that the gratuitous violence found in these games – guns, stabs, theft, crushing people with stolen cars, ‘headshots‘and the murder of sex workers – makes impressionable gamers more violent in real life.
While many argue that violent video games desensitize people to violence and / or make people easier to pull the trigger in real-life situations, the counter-argument has remained that the characters the violence occurs to are animations. computer generated, and thus can be deciphered from the reality of real harm real people. It’s widely believed that a game like Mortal Kombat, which as a kid was my favorite in all its puddles of thick blood and fatal glory, won’t make young people act more aggressively because it’s supposed to be in the game. fictional world – a simple cartoon, even. But what now? In Bandersnatch, the characters are played by real people and therefore are seen as real people who are in pain as real people. Does this seeming separation between the video game universe and reality remain intact, or does it fade and weaken when placed in worlds such as Bandersnatch because viewers are now making choices for “real” people?
Plus, while watching the movie, I found myself delighted that the cast was blatantly milky white. Do we want a world where white supremacists and “colorblind” white liberals can embrace and explore violence against the bodies of colonized peoples? My black, Muslim and queer self shuddered at the many outcomes of digital and racialized violence that could become the future of entertainment excitement, and how that digital violence could in turn embolden, elucidate or agitate those inclined to impress this violence.
And still after interacting with the film a few times now, I have more observations and questions left than this essay inevitably gives me the space to explore. Did the film’s creators understand the racist overtones that might have been present if the violent victims had been people of color, and did they decide to have a predominantly white (and male) cast because of it? And if so, if the answer to solving the problem of racial violence in this interactive style is exclusion, does that mean that a new genre of film has now been created in which the exclusion of people from? color and other marginalized people is the best option?
If video games like James Bond 007: he golden and Call of Duty already function as a sort of imperialist playground, placing players in hyper-realistic contexts of war, praising headshots and high murder rates of victims from countries that just so happen being enemies of the US military-industrial complex, then will this new “interactive” entertainment be the next frontier to be exploited for war propaganda?
Finally, with mediocre acting skills and a plot weakened by a litany of clichés, I have to wonder what is actually sold with Bandersnatch. Like I have argued before, under capitalism, violence itself can be commodified and sold, where the line between “entertainment” and the fetishization of violence becomes completely blurred. For Bandersnatch, it seems interactive entertainment itself is not the product we sell, but rather the opportunity to engage in violence and implement it on such newly realistic terms. It’s far more terrifying than any Netflix production with the virality of social media, and one can only hope that new public debates about the influences of entertainment are reignited.
Photo via Netflix