DOES BLACK MIRROR'S 'BANDERSNATCH' HERALD A NEW ERA IN INTERACTIVE STORYTELLING?
Have you see it yet? Have you? HAVE YOU? When a new must-see TV show is released these days there’s always people who go around testing their family and friends to see how on top of the zeitgeist they are, like there is some virtue in having vegged out in front of the telly whilst everyone else was working or spending time with their family or, y’know, having a life. I’m not one of those people, honestly, it’s 2018 and I still haven’t seen Breaking Bad (I know!), but when Charlie Brooker releases a new show, well, it’s like Bowie releasing a new album - my kid can find her own way from school, I gotta see this!
Brooker began his career writing video game reviews for PC Zone in the mid-90s and satirical TV listings on his own blog TVGoHome. This brought him to the attention of The Guardian, which employed him as a TV critic writing the column Screen Burn. His acerbic commentary and angry persona gained a cult following and he was invited to adapt Screen Burn into the TV show Screenwipe in the mid-2000’s. Like a wet Gremlin, Screenwipe spawned other shows including Newswipe and Gameswipe that took a satirical swipe at popular culture but Brooker, being an aficionado of surrealist comedy and cult sci-fi, was not to be confined to non-fiction. In 2005 he co-wrote the cult comedy Nathan Barley with satirical genius Chris Morris, which predicted the next ten years of the media and almost everyone I have met in it (I’d include a link but its very NSFW). This was followed by the even more surreal Dead Set, a satirical zombie series set in the Big Brother house.
The reason I am telling you this is because, despite appearances, Brooker did not come out of nowhere and nor did Bandersnatch, the new interactive episode of Black Mirror that was released by Netflix on Friday. It came from the mind of man who began in video games, critiqued television shows professionally and has honed his craft for 25 years, all of which uniquely qualifies him to create this groundbreaking show. But what is Bandersnatch?
In a nutshell, Bandersnatch is an interactive, choose-your-own-adventure show about a man who writes interactive, choose-your-own-adventure games and suspects he may in fact be living in an interactive choose-your-own-adventure game. It is, as the kids say, very “meta".
The show is purported to have five possible endings. Viewers who choose the quickest path and decide against any do-overs, can make it through the film in around 40 minutes but the average viewing time is around 90 minutes. Apparently, there are over a trillion unique permutations of the story although not every decision affects the final outcome. For instance the first decision you, the viewer, get to make is which cereal the main character will eat for breakfast, Frosties or Sugar Puffs? As the story moves on the decisions have higher and higher stakes but the time you get to make them stays rigid at 10 seconds, which quickens the pulse. Netflix had to create a whole new screenwriting software called Branch Manager just to cope with the all the storylines, which will annoy anyone who just invested in a new copy of Final Draft.
I must confess I was skeptical at first, I’m the type of person who puts the TV on to relax and sit back, I don’t like the concept of having to make more choices at the end of a day of decision-making. I’m not a gamer, never have been, and I admire the skill of writers who are able to take me on a unique and surprising journey, which this does, it’s just that there’s more than one journey.
The decision-making itself is thrilling. There is a genuine sense of power or accomplishment in making decisions that affect the lead character's life. When I accepted a job offer his behalf I felt like I had received the offer myself. When I had to make a fight-or-flight decision for him in the heat of the moment I felt my heart beating faster. It was engaging on a whole different level (not better, just different), but there's also a palpable sense of FOMO; what would have happened if I had taken a different path? Thankfully, the makers have considered this and provide closed loops and do-overs to enable you to try those paths without having to watch the entire episode again from scratch (kudos to the editors who have created lightning fast recaps that make total sense).
I was worried the decision-making might take me out of the story by interrupting it in the manner of an advert or breaking news flash but rather than stopping the action choices arise from the bottom of the screen whilst the drama continues underneath, meaning there is never a break. This must have taken some serious technical chops but now the UI exists there’s no going back.
So, apart from the UI, what else makes this work? First, novelty. Like VR, AR and other experimental technology, the first draw is the fact that it’s new and interesting and different. This is great for early adopters but if you are not part of the first wave it’s not going to help you. Second is the name. Charlie Brooker is a television heavyweight whose reputation assures an audience because, love him or hate him, he’s going to deliver an experience. Third is the main character. Like any film or TV show, if you don’t care about the characters you aren’t going to go on any kind of journey with them and if that journey requires the effort of decision-making, even less so. Stefan is a complex and compelling character and I want to know more about him. Next its the story, or stories, each of which explores a different facet of a Matrix-style conspiracy around the nature of reality, destiny and control. Finally, it’s about the interactivity. The choices don’t make or break the show, what they do is make for a deeper, more engaging experience, but the show has to justify the effort.
At best this signals the start of a new genre of television (not the death of all current television as some talking head will no doubt profess in the coming days). At worst, we’ll see a raft of copycat content from platforms, networks and, yes, brands who credit the technology with the success of the show rather than the writer, director and performers who created something so deep and unique and compelling that it justifies the engagement. Let's hope for the former…