If Die Hard counts as a Christmas movie, then so must Bandersnatch, the interactive Black Mirror movie that premiered on Netflix o 28th December. Sure, Bandersnatch grapples with some lofty ideas about fate, free will, and multiple realities. But the movie’s actual plot is fairly simple: In the year 1984, amateur game designer Stefan (Fionn Whitehead) strives to complete his choose-your-own-adventure computer game in time for a software company’s Christmas push. Most of the show’s five endings conclude on Christmas day, with Stefan watching how his game fared under a TV reviewer’s critical gaze.
Much of the Black Mirror episode is pure fiction. For example, Stefan bases his game, Bandersnatch, on a novel of the same name by Jerome F. Davies. Just as Stefan struggles to maintain sanity while programming the game, Jerome goes mad while writing the many realities of his book (and ultimately decapitates his wife). Jerome and his book Bandersnatch aren’t real – but the game Bandersnatch almost was. Ready to add another level of meta to the Bandersnatch experience?
When designing the plot of Bandersnatch, Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker is likely to have looked to an incident in 1983, when British company Imagine Software was gearing up for its Christmas season. Like Black Mirror’s Tuckersoft, Imagine Software was staffed by a group of young programmers made wealthy by their creations. While it had released some hit games previously, it was crucial that Imagine Software continue to dazzle in an increasingly competitive landscape.
At the time, gaming had become more crowded, with multiple companies making similar games. “With so much competition, they recognised the need to create something completely different,” the narrator in a BBC documentary about Imagine Software’s ambitious venture said.
Imagine Software’s answer to vanquishing competition? An adventure game called Bandersnatch, of course. Bandersnatch promised an extremely immersive playing experience. The game derived its name from a 1872 Lewis Carroll poem called “The Hunting of the Snark,” which mentioned a ferocious creature called the Bandersnatch.
Bandersnatch was one of Imagine Software’s six Megagames, poised to be unrolled during the festive season. Megagames required a hardware add-on to the home computer, which increased the computer’s power. But a venture this ambitions and expensive was risky. Still, despite not having a finished product, Imagine Software hyped up Bandersnatch significantly in the media.
Ultimately, the pursuit of Bandersnatch sent Imagine Software into bankruptcy. The BBC documentary's public capture of the company's demise didn't help Imagine Software's reputation much, either. The company shut down on 9th July, 1984. Perhaps in an homage to the source material, Stefan in Bandersnatch wakes up on 9th July, 1984.
Bandersnatch was never released, but its legend as a visionary game persisted. Traces of Bandersnatch are out there. One of the former Imagine programmers, Ian Hetherington, went on to form a game company called Psygnosis. Hetherington incorporated parts of Bandersnatch into Psygnosis' first game, Brataccas. Brataccas followed a genetic engineer able to create super-soldiers, giving us a hint as to Bandersnatch's plot.
Ultimately, we'll never know. The Black Mirror episode is a fitting ode to the game that never was.