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Black Mirror‘s interactive sci-fi film Bandersnatch is a project literally decades in the making. Though the creative team has spoken about how the technology and narrative that brought the mind-bending experience to life has been in the works for around two years, the stories, projects and cultural touchstones that shaped it go back almost a century and a half. It’s these kind of influences, intricacies and references that have made Black Mirror: Bandersnatch as a whole such a dense and re-watchable experience, one that’s almost as exciting to pick apart and explore as it is to watch the show itself.
Bandersnatch takes its name from a terrifying creature first introduced in a nonsense rhyme from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. Alice finds herself in an inverted version of reality and discovers a mysterious poem called “The Jabberwocky” that can only be deciphered once she holds it up to a mirror: Beware the Jabberwock, my son! The jaws that bite, the claws that catch! Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun. The frumious Bandersnatch!
Of course, the core of Bandersnatch is focused on the burgeoning gaming industry of the 1980s. Although the title comes from a moment in a classic novel which seems to be cherry-picked by Brooker to tie into the conceptual drive of his series, Bandersnatch was actually the title of a real video game that, despite being highly anticipated, was never released by the company that made it.
In 1982, despite being only a few months old, Liverpool-based Imagine Software was riding high on the release of four popular games, including the massively successful Arcadia for the ZX Spectrum. The company’s next big play was focused on the idea of “Megagames,” which would retail for more than three times the price of an average game and focus on specialized packaging, an additional piece of hardware for your console, and around 30 extra gifts which were never really explained. (A post-credits Easter egg in Brooker’s Bandersnatch lets viewers download the “Nohzdyve” game with a ZX Spectrum emulator.)
Bandersnatch was one of the Megagame projects that quickly bankrupted the company and saw it go under in 1984, the year in which the Black Mirror special is set. That year is also synonymous with George Orwell’s classic novel about a draconian police state that allows its citizens no autonomy or control. This thread is reflected in Stefan’s (Fionn Whitehead) violent fear that he has no agency or power over his actions, which is completely right, as the viewer is controlling him.
Orwell isn’t the only literary influence on the surreal choose-your-own-adventure flick, as Stefan’s story centers on the mysterious sci-fi tome that gives the episode its name. Written by Jerome F. Davies, the sprawling book is the inspiration behind the game that the young programmer is working on, and the man behind it seems to reflect some of the genre’s most famed real-life creators. Though we don’t learn too much about Bandersnatch‘s author, early on, Colin Ritman (Will Poulter) mentions the fact that Davies “went bonkers and chopped his wife’s head off.” Stefan brushes off this gruesome fact, defending him as a genius. The trope of the tortured artist runs rife throughout pop culture, but this particular story seems reminiscent of writer William S. Burroughs, who shot his wife in the head at a party during a “game of William Tell.“
Bandersnatch director David Slade told The Hollywood Reporter that Jeff Minter, a video game designer from that period, helped inspire Colin’s character. Minter also plays Davies in a hard-to-reach scene when the Bandersnatch author visits Stefan in a dream.
Stefan’s descent into paranoia plays on the story of another iconic author who’s also clearly an influence on the character of Davies. Philip K. Dick wrote some of the most visionary science fiction stories of his generation, shaping the very idea of what speculative storytelling can be. But near the end of his life he became consumed with the themes that had played such a large part in his writing.
From 1974 to 1982, Dick wrote 8,000 pages that he titled The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick, containing his experience of religion, hallucinations, delusions, and his ever more paranoid thoughts about the lack of control he had over his life and society’s perception of him. Dick also spoke of the messages he was convinced he had been receiving from a spiritual entity, which obviously ties into Stefan’s growing fears as he begins to communicate with an otherworldly force while trying to hit his deadline and finish his game. Colin expounds some of this knowledge to Stefan when they embark on an acid trip, and a poster of Dick’s original book cover for his 1969 novel Ubik hangs in Colin’s apartment.
The video game industry has always been rife with exploitative business practices, including the unfair division of and compensation for labor. Even now there’s a huge movement to unionize the industry decades after the conception and creation of the first video games. Bandersnatch is set very firmly in the Atari era of the industry, which has been written about extensively, and was clearly a huge influence on Tuckersoft, the company at the center of the story. The unfeasibly short deadlines, lack of clear conversation about pay, and unconventional working environments all seem to come directly from the burgeoning days of video games becoming an accessible home entertainment medium.
Bandersnatch utilizes a very meta storytelling device as viewers control Stefan’s path while he tries to program a choose-your-own-adventure game. Though in the film his influence is clearly the notorious book that is his project’s namesake, in reality, the game he’s making is similar to a lot of the notable releases from a games company called Sierra Entertainment. In the early ’80s, the developer produced a swath of classic point-and-click adventure games like Wizard and the Princess, Mystery House, and Mission Asteroid. Just like the work culture of Tuckersoft, a lot of Sierra’s games were written in very short time periods, often under a month.
And of course, Edward Packard’s CYOA book series — massively popular in the 1980s — is an undeniable influence on Bandersnatch. These innovative novels allowed readers to influence the outcome of the story, just like the Netflix special. The purpose of Black Mirror has always been to reflect a twisted picture of society back at viewers, one that has been consumed by a nostalgia economy over the past two decades. That makes Bandersnatch a fitting amalgamation of reality, fiction and warped reflection for 2019.
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