Bandersnatch and the Future of Interactive Television

When I first heard Netflix was collaborating with the creators of Black Mirror to develop an interactive Choose Your Own Adventure episode, I had a lot of questions. How would the user-interface work? How would narrative choices fit together with continuous video playback? Would the branching storyline incorporate state tracking or qualities? Could the branches contain loops? And more broadly: what kinds of stories, settings and themes work best in this format; what will audiences and critics will make of it? And the much more niche concern of how this emerging format draws from and relates to the existing sphere of influences, methods and practices of narrative design and interactive fiction/choice fiction.

Now that Netflix has unveiled Bandersnatch as its surprise launch for December 2018, we can begin to address these questions and start to speculate on the mainstream potential of this format and where it is heading. Bandersnatch could have easily been framed as as a standalone entity, but since it’s been specifically promoted as an episode of Black Mirror, it’s interesting to look at it in the context of how the show functions overall.

Black Mirror has been heavily criticised for its sledgehammer approach to technology ethics, esschewing allegory and symbolism in favour of literal messages about the brutal and nihilistic consequences of unmediated exploitation of technology. This has led to a fairly polarised reaction to the show from both audiences and critics. While subtlety and blatancy both have their place in entertainment, science fiction, social satire and existential horror are surprisingly often seen as separate. Black Mirror treats such genre boundaries as a permeable membrane rather than walking the line; its stylised outrage making it easy to forget that it functions as a horror show at its core which informs and inflects every aspect of its storytelling.

The real problem with Black Mirror as a critique of technology, is its treatment of technology as a drug embodied in individual objects. Heavy-handed bad decisions and emotional blackmail by individual people allow these objects to function as a gateway to horror, eliding the broader cultural and societal embodiedness of technology and the systems of power and connectedness that make such abuses possible. This focus on individuals and objects makes for great entertainment, but undercuts the show being able to achieve a serious and effective commentary on our relationship to technology. Whether or not it needs this philosophical depth is another question.

Many people have pointed out the irony of Black Mirror broadcasting on Netflix—a show that problematises technology and surveillance as an unstoppable addiction on a platform that practically symbolises it. A fascinating consequence of Bandersnatch is a further shift into ironism to the point of meta-commentary on its own contradictions. People have been alarmed, horrified and titilated by early reports of the show’s playback triggering cameras on certain devices, taking photos of viewers at moments when they make key choices in the story, then playing those photos back by surprise when the story ends.

Black Mirror’s signature move is the narrative twist that corkscrews through nested layers of reality, and this makes it ideally suited to exploring interactive narratives with branching and repetition. The meta-commentary, circularity and contradiction is further reinforced by the subject and setting of Bandersnatch—a choice-based story about a young game designer adapting a choice-based novel into a choice-based computer game. It’s branches and choices all the way down, further extended into the visual language of the story which calls out to conspiracy wallboard memes and the repeating visual motif of a binary branch structure.

This show also marks the first time that Black Mirror leaps into the past, a retroactive take on the 1980s that is likely to feel much less disconcerting to people from Anglosphere countries more strongly tied to British culture than America. Bandersnatch plays on a markedly different 1980s sentimentality from that of Stranger Things and its ilk, evoking the grim concrete brutalism and grey skies of the Thatcher era, the rise of British-made computers and game development shifting from hobbyists to professional studios.

Because Black Mirror relies so heavily on near-future science fiction to build up its ‘people do horrible things with untested tech object’ scenarios, the dive into the 1980s setting requires a different way of constructing inception-like layers of reality and surveillance from that made possible by smartphones, internet and brain-computer interfaces.

Instead of technology-as-drug, we now have literal drugs—the Philip K. Dick poster misting and drifting in a haze of LSD is a spectacularly on-point visual reference—and instead of surveillance culture, we have counterculture, the fictional aesthetic of the author Jerome F. Davies and the book that broke him evoking sprawling reality-questioning postmodern novels like The Illuminatus Trilogy and of course Philip K. Dick himself. This grounding does a surprising amount of narrative heavy lifting, as it provides a coherent background mythos that allows the story to make sense as it branches out in multiple paranoid directions where a mind-control conspiracy and a multiverse hidden from conventional social reality make just as much sense as smashing through the fourth wall into meta-circular absurdity (lest you think this might be an opportunity for subtlety or ambiguity, at one such point, viewers are literally given the choice to jump through a wall).

Whether or not you think this works is probably mostly to do with whether or not you are amused or annoyed by these themes and whether you enjoy recursive, looping stories for their own sake. The reaction breaks down in a very similar way to films like Enter the Void which had pretty much the exact same innovative/purile or style/substance litmus test applied to it. Many reviewers questioning ‘the point’ of the interactivity in Bandersnatch seem to be stuck in this local maxima—they’re pretty much right in their interpretation of the narrative flaws, but unable or unwilling to acknowledge that they’ve got to their position largely via aesthetic distaste. The problems they’re butting up against seem to be less a result of poor execution or ignorance by the creators and more to do limitations of complexity and nuance that are intrinsic to branching narratives. It’s absolutely okay to prefer traditional dramatic structures over non-linear fiction, but maybe just admit this?

The choices will feel jarring at first to anyone who has spent huge amounts of time watching linear television and some of it feels sarcastic or cynical, further exploiting the contradiction of satirising the dark potential of technology-driven social engineering from a position of being embedded within it. The very first choice in the story of what breakfast cereal to eat—Sugar Puffs or Frosted Flakes—doesn’t hold back. As well as functioning as an expected early-game tutorial, familiarising viewers with the user interface and mechanics through a low-stakes decision, it evokes the sinister background of marketing and mass-surveillance, encouraging viewers to speculate on much creepier implications of what Netflix is doing with their collected data, adding to the intrigue of future choices in the story.

Technically, the creators have done an impressive job of balancing contemporary media expectations with a narrative experience that faithfully reflects the classic 1980s branching story format, complete with the expected bad endings that come up quickly and the choices which may or may not be genuine choices.

The Netflix platform does afford more than the most basic paperback CYOA structure which Bandersnatch takes advantage of. It utilises state tracking, where early choices remain in memory and affect elements of the narrative and available choices later on. It also incorporates loopbacks and recursion, and—breaking the standard streaming convention of linear frame-skipping—builds recovery of previous branches after an ending into the structure by rewinding to the most signficant choice, making it easy to explore the breadth of the story in one or two sittings, while also fitting into the contemporary internet modus operandi of autoplaying everything.

These capabilities aren’t just treated as a user interface to the story, but become part of the story, as characters question their existence in a multiverse of alternate possibilities and confuse each other by half-remembering when they meet that they might not be meeting for the first time.

The user interface is elegant and does only what it needs to. Reminiscent of narrative-driven games like Firewatch, choices appear below a progress bar while the action continues to flow with a limited time window to make a decision—the platform selects one by default if the viewer doesn’t actively choose, and the progress-bar always plays out to completion to keep the splicing seamless. This is a nice compromise to make interactivity work within the constraints of the linear format. The tradeoff is a vaugely ponderous and brooding flow, where faster-moving action and dialogue is punctuated by bundles of tense decision-making. The technology clearly affords more of a European style of cinematography than the relentless rapid-fire cuts of contemporary American action.

The divergent realities of each branching pathway are held together by the frame story of the titular game. Nearly all the endings zoom out to play coverage of a period-perfect BBC review show where a jaunty and cocky TV nerd discusses the game and gives it a star rating. Once you recognise this frame story, it can function as a pseudo-game mechanic, driving your future choices in the story by implying the goal of getting the elusive 5-star review. It will come as no surprise to Black Mirror’s core audience that the only way to reach this ending is by making the most disgusting and grisly choice in the narrative.

Unsurprisingly with such a high profile release, the interwebs are lighting up with incoherent and grasping takes which are pretty much certain to frustrate anyone with a background working on interactive narratives and choice fiction. Something new and shiny has appeared and the long history of this—admittedly niche, but still culturally significant and influential—form is being effaced. While I’d hardly blame mainstream TV writers for not knowing the exact historical details of interactive films, experimental multimedia storytelling and the nexus of branching choice fiction, parser-driven adventure games and narrative design in general, what’s striking to me is the gulf between discussions about what Bandersnatch means for film/TV and the actual mechanics of how choice fiction interfaces with cinematography and visual storytelling.

No. Bandersnatch does not herald the emergence of a pure form of ‘entertainment as possibility’ where viewers can make choices to shift stories between genres and reshape outcomes and character developments to match their own vision for the story. Film/TV is not newly transformed from a linear medium controlled by authors and directors into an open-world controlled by the viewer. Choice fiction—which is explicitly what Netflix is doing—is a well-established format with a set of conventions, structures and tropes, and no-less dependent on authorial control and direction than any other form of storytelling. It’s not that grandiose equivocation about players versus viewers, passive versus active storytelling, autonomy and interactivity and ludology versus narratology is nothing new, it’s that these same conversations and arguments have been happening over and over again for 20+ years.

What’s genuinely new is the budget and scale of this production and the audience that Netflix commands. As referenced within Bandersnatch, Netflix doesn’t describe itself as ‘television’ or ‘film’, but as a ‘streaming entertainment platform’, which leaves the question of interactivity completely open.

Not only is Netflix investing in interactive content productions, but they’re also investing in tools for building and orchestrating this content. Charlie Brooker wrote and developed the Bandersnatch story through a chaotic process—no doubt mirroring the conspiracy pinboard meme itself—bouncing between Twine, text editors, and screenwriting software. In response, Netflix has developed their own in-house interactive fiction editor, a smart move which allows them to ensure content creators work within the technical constraints and structure of their interactive platform, and prevents time wasted on ‘can we do this?’ discussions flying back and forth.

It’s entirely understandable that Netflix would go after the creators of Black Mirror for the first major adult feature built on this platform. Though it might seem inherently risky, the self-referential, self-aware, technologistic focus of Black Mirror is a more certain bet than most of their other flagship shows, though it’s already clear that these strong thematic linkages between form and content are leading a lot of people to misinterpret and underestimate the true potential of this format.

The obvious next step for Netflix is to expand this experience to more light-hearted but equally reality-bending shows like The Good Place, a move that will go a long way to allay concerns and frustrations of Bandersnatch viewers who wanted a ‘good ending’ for the main characters or a dramatic resolution with more meaning and purpose than a high-concept ‘medium is the message’ thinkpiece—outcomes that Black Mirror is never going to provide.

But there’s far more potential in this platform than just repackaging CYOA and adventure game conventions for linear television and I really hope both that Netflix and major content creators can see it and that critics and viewers can appreciate it. With interactive CD-ROM and DVD films having been around for nearly 30 years, we are already further along the pathway towards interactive television than many people have realised.

It’s not uncommon for productions to film the same scenes with different outcomes and variations. Some productions play around with divergent endings with producers and directors making their mind up in the editing suite; other times, showrunners use red herrings and script trickery to avoid leaking plot details to the wider cast and crew. All of this suggests that at a basic level, film and television production already contains the raw ingredients for creating interactive narratives, and all that’s really needed to establish this is a redrawing of standards and conventions to embrace the technological possibilities of new distribution platforms.

We should not see interactive TV/film as reliant on conventions drawn from gamebooks and videogames, but an emerging continuum of possibility that complements other technological innovations in filmmaking, cinematography and VFX.

With a ridiculous glut of multi-season 8-12 episode serial TV shows pushing audiences towards burnout and fatigue, the era of binge-watching may not be sustainable for too much longer. There’s great unexplored potential in 3-5 hour non-linear pieces that can be consumed in one sitting or across repeated sittings, and are inherently designed for rewatching, rather than binge and forget. If this works, I am definitely here for it.