Breaking The 4th Wall? Netflix Smashes It With Bandersnatch

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*There are very few spoilers to the story in this article so you can read it if you have not seen Bandersnatch yet.

The concept of “breaking the fourth wall” is nothing new to students of staged or on-screen performances. The term originated in the theater world and refers to actors engaging the audience directly and providing narrative to the “fourth wall” of the set in a manner that is atypical to the course of acting in a traditional dramatic performance. I recently watched the classic 80s movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off with my 11-year old son and much of that movie, particularly in the first hour, revolves around Ferris Bueller breaking the fourth wall to talk to the viewer directly, detailing his intentions, emotional states, and reasoning in ways that are normally left unspoken on the screen.

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More recently, movies such as Deadpool have brought the concept of breaking the fourth wall back to the forefront of popular culture with Ryan Reynolds’s character following the model of his comic book namesake and cracking jokes and delivering narratives directly to the audience. This manner of breaking the fourth wall has typically been the format in a movie setting but, with the rise of online streaming services and home-based movie watching, new possibilities are bound to be developed for a more engaging interactive viewer experience.. Netflix has opportunistically taken full advantage of their streaming media-based platform with Bandersnatch, their newest installation of the popular UK series Black Mirror. They have set a new precedent for the levels of audience interactivity provided by not only breaking the fourth wall, but completely removing it in places and putting the viewer in control.

When the first hints of a third season of the award-winning series were released, there was mention of a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure type element that was going to be included with at least one of the episodes. Most adults are familiar with the young adult CYOA titles that allow the reader to make decisions at certain points, but Netflix and the Black Mirror crew take it a step or two beyond the traditional format and brings a number of new twists to the concept. Some of the added elements that make Bandersnatch such a wild psychological journey are only possible because of the advent of streaming video and could never be done in a book or on the big screen in a movie house.

The story itself is set in 1984 and is compelling as a flashback to the early days of computer game programming while offering an inside look into the stresses and potential pitfalls that can sometimes still plague obsessive game developers in the 21st century. There are many layers to this story and I still need to go back and try some of the different options but, without offering too much in the area of spoilers, Netflix and Black Mirror have put together a piece of streaming video that will undoubtedly open the door for a wave of similar interactive media experiences in 2019 and beyond.

Have you seen Bandersnatch? What did you think of the CYOA concept as applied to digital media? Is this the setting of a precedent or a one-off gimmick that will fizzle out like so many other web trends? Drop a comment or thoughts below…