Black Mirror: Bandersnatch

Yesterday, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, an interactive movie, was released on Netflix, and my entire Twitter feed immediately became very annoyed. Apparently it was accompanied by a suite of breathless articles about how daringly innovative it is, a claim that ignored decades of prior experimentation, including four earlier interactive releases by Netflix itself. Oh, but those were aimed at children! Black Mirror is serious grown-up drama, and high-profile at that.

But also, it’s Black Mirror, which means the whole thing was constructed around the constraint of making CYOA dismal. It does this by going meta. Most of the meta is is reasonably restrained, almost even subtle, but a couple of branches take a dive into the crassly meta. The story is of a game developer named Stefan Butler in 1980s Britain — a distinct branch and era of gaming history, presented here condescendingly but, based on what I’ve read about that scene over at The Digital Antiquarian, fairly accurately — descending into madness as he works on a game with CYOA-style branching narrative, based on a CYOA-style book whose author also went mad in a similar way. Part of his madness is a sense that he has no free will, that someone else is controlling his actions. There’s a sense that he’s coming to be aware of the metafictional truth because he has some memory of the failed branches you’ve put him through; in some cases, he “wakes up” from a branch as if it’s a dream, and one early choice seems to change how multiple characters behave in its replay (something that I find myself thinking of as an “Undertale choice”).

It’s all very thematically tight on paper, but it all hinges on the idea that Stefan lacks agency because he’s under the viewer’s control, and it undercuts this idea by not giving the player a whole lot of agency either. It feels like most of the off-trunk choices just result in immediate failure and rewind, or maybe one other choice before failure and rewind. Some of the choices even deny player agency by using a choice to assert authorial control. At one point, you’re given the choice of “shout at dad” or “pour tea over computer”. The story needed Stefan to behave irrationally as a result of his lack of control, so it put the irrational behavior into viewer choice. But neither of the choices reflected my desires, so I was just as powerless as Stefan. The writer either expected an audience of sadists, who would relish such a choice, or wasn’t thinking about the the experience of the interactivity at all there. At another point, the player is given a meaningless choice between two ways for Stefan to fidget just so he can be shown successfully resisting your command. Well, good for you, kid. You sure showed me. How about we stop fighting and team up against the writer?

A lot of this is the result of treating the format as a gimmick rather than a medium, but some of it, particularly the shallow structure and inconsequential choices, can be blamed on technical limitations. The fact is, streaming video makes it hard to do the sort of narrative interactivity we’re used to seeing in games, as I learned while working on the Netflix adaptation of Minecraft: Story Mode. 1My involvement was slight, but it mostly involved removing things: pruning branches, getting rid of conditional logic, simplifying it into a form that Netflix could handle. And the result was still far and away the biggest, most complicated interactive video they’ve got. People who say that Telltale games are just barely-interactive movies have no idea what they’re talking about. Throwaway callbacks are suddenly expensive, because they require an entirely separate video stream. Choices have to be spaced out — you have to give about two minutes between choices because it has to buffer both branches in advance to keep playing smoothly. This also means that the video clip that plays in the background of a choice has to complete playing in full, which I found particularly irksome. You could make your choice in the first second, but Stefan would just sit there indecisively while his dad repeats “Well? Which do you want?” and similar filler. Streaming video just isn’t the ideal medium for this sort of thing.

But it may be the most accessible. If this is what it takes to get interactive narrative deeper into the mainstream than it already is, should I really complain? And, as gimmicky as it seems to those of us steeped in the stuff, it probably at the very least serves as a good showcase of the platform’s capabilities. One of the first choices you get, of which of two music tapes to listen to, has a very obvious callback after the story has trunked, as if just to tell us that it’s capable of keeping state. (This isn’t the only piece of state-tracking, but it’s the only really obvious one.) At another point, there’s something that’s almost a puzzle: you use a special UI to enter a telephone number that was clued in a subtle and cryptic way earlier. The solution is thrown in your face while the UI is up, so it isn’t actually relying on the viewer to solve anything. Maybe it did in an earlier draft. Regardless, what it’s communicating is “We could have made this a puzzle if we wanted to. That’s something we can do.”

Ultimately, it’s a first-released work of IF by a new writer — not new to writing, but new to IF specifically. It may have a larger budget than your typical Comp entry, but it’s about the same length. It should be welcomed as such, but also criticized as such.

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1. My involvement was slight, but it mostly involved removing things: pruning branches, getting rid of conditional logic, simplifying it into a form that Netflix could handle. And the result was still far and away the biggest, most complicated interactive video they’ve got. People who say that Telltale games are just barely-interactive movies have no idea what they’re talking about.

2 Comments so far

  1. Erik Hermansen on 30 Mar 2019

    As you say, it was treated as a gimmick instead of a medium. But I think that was the correct approach given the limitations, and I’m glad they gave this to Charlie Booker to exploit instead of somebody else. There’s not much more you can do with this choose-your-own-adventure-stream format that is worthwhile.

    -Erik

  2. Bandersnatch enthusiasts and otherwise: – HYPERTEXT LINK LABYRINTH BACK END SUPPORT BLOG on 5 Aug 2019

    […] annoyed that people were treating this as massively innovative when there are tens of thousands of works, produced over the past fifty plus years, exploring the possibilities of interactive story, including quite a lot specifically of interactive film if we’re narrowing the gaze to just that […]

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