This past week, Netflix rolled out the fourth season of “Black Mirror” which included a wonderful bonus in the form of an interactive choose-your-own-adventure episode titled “Bandersnatch.” It centers on a young game coder named Stefan Butler who attempts to adapt a fictional choose-your-own-adventure novel (“Bandersnatch,” natch) into an interactive game. From the get-go, the layers of the game-within-a-game and meta-fiction are set in place, and writer Charlie Brooker mines every delicious paradox and logical loophole. It’s not a perfect episode (and the bar for “Black Mirror” is pretty high) but the story explores issues of free will, volition, and mental health in some ingenious ways.
I’ve personally been fascinated by interactive stories going back to the sui generis “Choose Your Own Adventure” series created by Edward Packard in the late ‘70s. Bantam Books went on to sell over 250 million copies across 184 different titles in the series. The books were all written in second person — a POV I’d never experienced before — and they created a sense of narrative and emotional urgency that was addictive. (Side note: the covers of the CYOA books famously employed a recently-released font, ITC Benguiat, which paved the way for it to become iconic typeface on horror novels and more recently, in the title treatment of “Stranger Things.”)
In visual media, interactive storytelling has been explored in countless iterations, going back to the advent of CD-ROM titles like “Myst” and even beforehand with games like “Zork.” The era of RPG games brought D&D-style story conventions to gaming. In parallel, indie games like “Yume Nikki” and “To the Moon” and “Gone Home” combine impressionistic narratives with light game mechanics to create more digressive and exploratory game experiences. The Steam platform features an entire section devoted to “interactive fiction.” Rockstar Games dropped “Red Dead Redemption 2,” this past October, a game that has elevated the vast, open-world story experience to an entirely new level.
Amidst these experimentations and innovations, critical commentary has often marginalized the idea of interactive stories. The New York Times outdid itself with this recent comment in an article on the making of “Bandersnatch:” “Watching the episode, it is easy to see how interactivity could be the next step forward in entertainment. It is less easy to see how this could ever be art." Pardon my emoji, but 🙄.
“Bandersnatch” places itself at the inception of interactive storytelling, in the mid-‘80s when gaming moved from the arcade into living rooms and started toying with concepts beyond joystick-driven andrenaline-rush titles. Stefan, an emotionally unstable 20-something, successfully pitches “Bandersnatch” to a gaming company and then sets out to translate the maddening complexity of the source material to a ZX console game. Suffice it to say, it does not go well no matter which way you slice it.
At points throughout the story (spaced out at 3-5 minutes intervals), the video contracts and two choices are offered to the viewer at the bottom of the screen. The episode runs one hour and thirty minutes if you don’t click and let Netflix do the choosing for you; the cumulative running time of all the branching storylines comes to five hours and twelve minutes in total. Netflix has experimented with forking narrative shows in their kids section, and they’ve built an impressively seamless engine to stream segments of the show as viewers click around. The sound design is noteworthy too. Gaps or hiccups in the audio can make transitions between clips deadly, but the music segues smoothly throughout the episode.
Brooker and director David Slade pull off some clever tricks and embed countless Easter eggs into the story. My favorite bit is implanted into an acid-trip — which turns out to be a dream sequence — where Stefan’s game design idol philosophizes on the real message of Pac-Man, aka “Program And Control”-Man. “The whole thing’s a metaphor,” he rants, “He thinks he’s got free will, but really he’s trapped in a maze, in a system. All he can do is consume.”
There are a couple moments like these, where the entire question of viewer volition is challenged. Does the audience actually have any real sway over the events in the story? (Brooker answers that question for us in one “fork” where the only option to click on is “NO.”) Interactive stories assume the viewer is in the brain of the main character, but as “Bandersnatch” unfolds, Brooker starts messing with us. Stefan actively disobeys our choices and begins to question every decision we’ve made for him. It gets very meta in one version of the story when we are asked to explain what Netflix is to a protagonist who pre-dates the service by 20 years.
The viewer/clicker relies on the idea that their clicks matter — that our choices have real impact on the storyline. Brooker posits that you only have the illusion of control, and underlines that sense by setting up a progressively antagonistic relationship between the main character and the viewer. Stefan even reacts to one of the more gruesome choices late in the show, with an incredulous, “Really?”
Great stories are built and told by great storytellers; that’s the implicit message here. True, but Brooker’s many winks to the interactivity belie the idea that interactivity in a story can heighten the drama or suspense or emotion. Many of the best examples of interactive stories give us agency over our path to getting to a story’s conclusion — even though the outcome(s) and the emotional arc of the story are still very much under the creator’s control.
This is where “Bandersnatch” succeeds and then, ultimately, comes up short. The experience of clicking around in the episode is fun, peppered with light humor and neat tricks that nod to that fleeting sense of control. But Brooker overplays the meta-aspects of the story, and the thinly-conceived underpinnings of Stefan’s mental instability don’t pay off in a satisfying conclusion, no matter which one you choose. “Bandersnatch” offers five different endings, but none of them have any coherence with each other. So when we finally click off the TV and try to reconcile Stefan’s various fates, none of the outcomes end up carrying any emotional heft.
The interesting thing about interactive storytelling is that for millennia the entire basis of telling stories was done in ways that inherently involved the audience — and by its very nature twisted storylines and influenced the telling. The archetypal narrator sat with an inquiring audience around a campfire recounting a legend. Folk tales got passed along from town to town and from generation to generation, altering with each reciting. Shakespeare’s plays were performed in front of a vocal audiences who talked back to actors performing soliloquies. Charles Dickens published his major novels in serialized form, tweaking characters and plot lines based on reactions from readers along the way. Interactivity is an elemental part of the bedtime story. The stories I make up for my kids rarely follow a linear path, with unexpected twists and turns suggested — and insisted upon — by my kids in real time.
The set-in-stone narrative is a product of the printing press and more recently, of movies and TV. But as audience members, we instinctually want to question and go off on tangents and dig deeper into aspects of a story. To date, we haven’t fully succeeded in replicating the responsive and reactive oral storytelling form. The choices we have to make in “Bandersnatch” can be clunky at times, and rather than absorb us in the character’s inner conflicts, they end up tugging us out of the narrative.
So who’s doing it well? Eko.com premiered “WarGames” this year from British writer and game designer Sam Barlow, and it takes more subtle approach to narrative development. There’s less of transactional feel to the choices made in the game; multiple window grow and shrink based on mouse clicks and hovers, and the course of the story is altered in less literal, less traceable ways. Here, the viewer feels less in the mind of specific character and more in the role of an active voyeur.
Artist JR created a VR experience with The New York Times magazine that documents the creation of “Walking New York,” the enormous 150-foot tall photograph which he pasted on the sidewalk near the Flatiron building. The storyline isn’t interactive, but the sense of being a fly on the wall, actively manipulating the point of view, and inhabiting JR’s account of making his art lends an immediacy to it that a traditional documentary could never achieve.
The aforementioned “Gone Home,” creates an atmospheric ‘90s era story, allowing the player to scavenge around a giant, empty house packed with clues to the disappearance of the player-character’s sister. It’s like the inverse of an escape room, and the payoff at the end is emotionally potent.
All this brings to mind the “parlor wall” of Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” — a giant, addictive screen that beguiles the main character’s wife, Mildred. She refers to the characters she plays against as her “family,” spending untold hours acting out soap opera scenarios with them. The story describes Mildred’s interactive experience in a hypnotic thrall, her child-like play-acting impulses ultimately clouding her entire sense of reality. They don’t call it dystopia for nothing.
“Bandersnatch” will be seen as a milestone in the development of interactive storytelling, if for no other reason than that it introduced the idea to tens of millions of Netflix viewers. Its successes — and shortcomings — point the way to a new dynamic between the storyteller and the viewer. Some stories are meant to roll out sequentially and sweep us up in the wave of their narrative arc, yes. But in the next several years, a more discursive form of entertainment will emerge that immerses the viewer in a different kind of story — one that twists a layered narrative and participatory viewer to its dramatic advantage.
There are so many interesting directions and possibilities for the form to take as it matures. How about: Richard Linklater updating “Slacker” with all the sharp, observational qualities of the original, but also allowing us a new sense of intimacy and empathy for oddball characters that we get to know through our exchanges. That’s an interactive story I would want to experience.