THERE'S A RATHER amusing bit in the eighth episode of the second season of television show Futurama, titled Raging Bender, that depicts a version of what the cinema of the future may look like. The Planet Express crew is watching an interactive movie at the theatre, when the following storyline choices emerge:
Series creator Matt Groening’s vision of a film that allows its plot to be controlled by the viewing audience isn’t all that unique or new an idea. It certainly isn’t something from the future either, considering the concept had first been trialled around 33 years before the release of the episode.
The Czech black comedy Kinoautomat was presented before an audience at the 1967 edition of the World’s Fair (Expo 67) in Montreal and relied on a moderator to stop the action at key points and ask the audience for a vote on which of two options the protagonist should select. Accordingly, the next scene plays.
Flash-forward to the last few days of 2018 (We’ll revisit the intervening years in a little while) and the arrival of Charlie Brooker’s latest sneering, self-referential and satirical take on technology and its users.
Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, as its trailer amply warns, is neither an episode from a TV series, nor a standalone film. It is an event, a Black Mirror event, to be precise.
Introduction of interactivity
It was around the 1960s and 1970s that makers of motion pictures upped their efforts to embrace the idea of interactivity in their medium, and in a sense, catch up with books. After all, the world of literature had already been seen various examples of authors putting choice and agency in the hands of the reader.
From Consider the Consequences, a gamebook in the 1930s to the series of Choose Your Own Adventure books launched in the 1970s, books had a major head-start on cinema — the term is being used in this article to cover both films and television shows — as far as interactivity was concerned. In fact, it was the Choose Your Own Adventure series that even inspired similar sets of books belonging to RL Stine’s Goosebumps and FearStreet franchises and even Hasbro’s GI Joe, to name a few.
It was around the 1960s and 1970s that makers of motion pictures upped their efforts to embrace the idea of interactivity in their medium.
The concept was simple: Every so often in the story, you’d be offered a set of choices; to enter a room, for instance, turn to Page 18 and to run away, turn to Page 33. Each choice would lead the reader down a branch of a particular story tree — each complete with sometimes overlapping twists and turns, and different endings. A bunch of those trees lazily took you to the same bad ending, but therein lay the thrill of those Create-Your-Own-Adventure stories: Do what you can to avoid the bad ending, whether a death, an expulsion from a particular school or just Game Over.
Meanwhile, and staying in the 1970s, Computer Space, in 1971, would be the world’s first commercial video game, followed swiftly by 1972’s Pong. Space Invaders was still six years away and the concept of stories — never mind, choice — had yet to arrive on the video gaming scene.
In the non-electronic world, the tabletop game Dungeons and Dragons had taken the world by storm and thrown open the doors of role-playing gaming — a domain full of choices, paths and consequences.
Bridging the cinema-gaming divide
Over the last few decades of the past century, it had been the endeavour of a handful of people within cinema and gaming to bring their own artform closer to the other one — to make cinema more interactive and to make gaming more cinematic.
Theatrical forays into this crossover space came at a trickle — 1992’s I’m Your Man, 1995’s Mr Payback and a few other examples notwithstanding. However, the advent of the LaserDisc in the late 1970s and subsequent digitalisation of the format of film meant two things. First, choices and a host of divergent narrative pathways could now be incorporated seamlessly and second, interactive films could now be experienced in the comfort of one’s own home and second.
The success of trailblazer Dragon’s Lair meant that a number of such interactive films began popping up. Utilising either animation or Full-Motion Video (FMV) footage to tell the story based on the viewer’s choices, all manner of stories — from those based on murder mysteries, sci-fi adventures and fantasy to the likes of Goal to Go that was based on American football — got the interactive film treatment. Notably, however, interactive films/episodes of shows never really hit the mainstream, until Bandersnatch.
Note: Netflix did release interactive films based around Puss in Boots and Minecraft, but unlike the Black Mirror ‘event’, these were not very mainstream, nor nearly as high-profile.
During the 1980s, game developers would toy with the concept of minimalist FMV-driven games — minimalist in terms of gameplay, with choice and footage of consequences prioritised. However, these were less attractive to gamers than adventure games — with sufficient, if not significant, gameplay elements — laden with a generous dose of video footage.
As a result, games like Blade Runner, The X-Files Game and the Tex Murphy series of detective adventures fared better than bare-bones interactive adventures. But, as would become clearer in the decades to come, it wasn’t gameplay that served as the make-or-break criterion for games of this nature.
The auteur and the factory
While RPGs — immersive games replete with choices and consequences, such as those made by studios like Obsidian, BioWare and Bethesda — evolved and continued to do so over the years, their audience isn’t the crossover one to which allusion has been drawn, so we’ll disregard them… and risk losing some HP in the process.
Imagine, if you will, a Venn diagram with two intersecting circles. The first depicts cinephiles and the second, gamers. It is the audience sitting in the intersection of the two circles (the Cinephiles ∩ Gamers, if you prefer) that we are discussing at this time.
In other words, cinephiles who enjoy gaming and gamers who enjoy cinema.
And no discussion of that particular audience would be complete without a lengthy mention of David Cage and his studio, Quantic Dream. After striking something of a bum note with 1999’s Omikron: TheNomad Soul — a fairly traditional game with some non-traditional mechanics — David Cage went back to the drawing board, and re-emerged in 2005 with Fahrenheit (sold as Indigo Prophecy in some markets). The supernatural thriller was designed for the crossover audience, meshing fairly simple gameplay mechanics and controls with a cinematic presentation.
Cage, described as the writer and director of Quantic Dream offerings, makes an appearance as himself in the tutorial of the game interactive adventure, pulling back the curtain and explaining to the audience how his vision is to be experienced:
Thirteen years on, and following the release of noir mystery Heavy Rain and supernatural thriller Beyond: Two Souls, Quantic Dream would release its most ambitious interactive adventure yet — Detroit: Become Human.
A stirring tale of cyborgs, sentience, civil rights and so much more, Cage appeared to have cracked the formula of creating the sort of experience that would appeal to fans of great storytelling, excellent voice acting, high production values, adventure gaming and everyone in between. Certainly, this wasn’t going to find its way into the hearts of hardcore gamers or cinematic purists, but it was never meant to.
If Cage was the auteur who was spending years developing each title — Detroit’s sheer volume of motion capture, voice acting and a 2,000-page script is but one example — and telling stories in an innovative manner, the now-defunct TellTale Games emerged as a veritable factory for interactive adventures. Game of Thrones, Batman¸ The Walking Dead, Jurassic Park, Back to the Future and the Fables comic book series were just some of the franchises to get the treatment from the studio.
With a focus on minimal action and maximum choices, each series was released as a five- or six-parter, with each episode lasting between an hour and 90 minutes. TellTale faced some criticism that the ending didn’t necessarily reflect the myriad choices on offer over the course of the journey. However, there can be little denying the effectiveness of the format and its ability to immerse its audiences in a story. The two series based on the caped crusader were a standout in this regard.
In recent times, game developers have found new ways to reach out to that crossover audience, not least of which are apps like PlayLink. When installed on an Android or iOS device, the app allows said device to function as a controller for a select set of interactive adventures. Upto six ‘players’ can cast their votes at pivotal moments of adventures like Supermassive Games’ Hidden Agenda and decide by consensus how the story should progress.
To list every other such entry in this unique crossover realm would take forever (sorry, Rami Malek-starrer Until Dawn), so let’s move on.
Where Bandersnatch gets it wrong…
Before getting the brickbats — or in this case, snide turns of phrase — out against the latest installment of Black Mirror’s distorted view of the world, it would be remiss not to look at what it gets right. It’s been over 10 days since the Bandersnatch hit Netflix, so it’s assumed you’ve watched it already. If you haven’t, be warned. Spoilers follow:
For starters, it’s the threadbare tutorial and the manner in which the viewer is allowed to make mistakes and learn from them — something Cage’s interactive adventures do remarkably well — that Bandersnatch gets right.
Next up, it’s the level of detail that’s gone into the product, with all manner of twists, turns and multiple endings to boost replay value, albeit somewhat (more on this later), that makes Bandersnatch worth at least a cursory play through.
Further, it’s evident Brooker and team have paid attention to other interactive adventures and heed to the mantra that the mundane can be magical. The simple choice of what shoes to wear, whether to drink coffee or something significantly more alcoholic in nature and so on are tiny little touches that elicit a smile and help boost the overall memorability of the adventure in question. It was encouraging to see Bandersnatch employ this formula with its ‘choose a cereal’ option at the very start of proceedings.
Now, onto the negatives and the most glaring of these is that choice and interactivity are all wonderful elements, however, in the absence of a compelling story with well fleshed-out characters that actually make the audience care, everything falls flat.
Bandersnatch’s story — and that term is used charitably — is threadbare. Why would the viewer care about whether the onscreen character should throw tea all over a computer or hit the desk if there is almost nothing in the story or character to make one feel invested? One of the key reasons TellTale Games and Cage’s outings work is because care and effort has gone into fleshing out a rich tapestry of plot, sub-plot and character definition and development.
Every pillar, steeple, minaret and storey of the interactive adventure falls apart if the viewer isn’t given reason to care about what’s going on.
And this sense of disenchantment with the story isn’t helped when the storyteller attempts to be too clever by half. Too many options that result in sudden death can have a debilitating effect on story engagement, as can an overdose of smugness. Bandersnatch suffers from both of these pitfalls.
The first of these is self-evident if you’ve attempted to get hold of every single ending. The second requires some elaboration. The reference here is to the viewer’s choice to have ‘Netflix’ flash on protagonist Stefan’s (ably played by Fionn Whitehead) computer screen, eliciting a “What the fuck is Netflix?” response. Bear in mind, it’s set in the 1908s.
Self-reference and meta humour can be fun, but as you’ll see, turns into an exercise in cringe-o-mania when Stefan and his counsellor Dr Haynes (Alice Lowe) continue to discuss Netflix and what it could be and so on and so forth. If this little exchange hadn’t flung you out of the story, it’s likely the conclusion of that story arc will.
Every pillar, steeple, minaret and storey of the interactive adventure falls apart if the viewer isn’t given reason to care about what’s going on.
To ease off a bit on the criticism, it can be argued that 40-odd minutes isn’t long enough to establish a detailed story with three-dimensional characters. Perhaps that’s why interactive adventures shouldn’t be attempted as one-offs and instead as episodes, the way TellTale does. The production costs and efforts might be prohibitive, but if you’re not going to do it right, why bother?
Finally, a number of interactive adventures lack — for one reason or another — enough choices to satisfy some members of the audience. “What if instead of Choices A, B or C, I just want to scratch my nose?” is a question often asked (probably), but one that rarely has an answer. In the case of Bandersnatch, the options are extremely limited. Having only two choices is a limiting factor, but that problem could have been mitigated if the options were sufficiently different. In a number of scenarios, options are fairly similar, even if they eventually lead to different outcomes — which for a consumer in search of choice and agency is a terribly poor proposition.
And these are the principle reasons why, in my book, Bandersnatch starts off as an interesting enough idea, but fails miserably as a compelling interactive adventure.
…or does it?
Interactive adventures and alternate endings go together like Black Mirror and having a laugh at the viewer’s expense. And in keeping with the spirit, this article also has an alternate ending.
It has often been written and said that over the course of four seasons of the gripping anthology-style show, the aim of Brooker and his collaborators has been less to point out the flaws in their characters than to take shots at the viewers and their tech behaviour, albeit in a completely different context.
It is for that reason that it seems the purpose of this particular ’Black Mirror event’ was something similar: Give the unwashed masses a shiny new toy to play with, devoid although it may be of substance and finesse, and watch the monkeys dance — Bandar’s Naach anyone?
(Note: This writer has never heard of Lewis Caroll, never mind his writings. In case you were wondering.)
After all, what better way to satirise the trend of people buying inferior quality gadgets just because they contain a snazzy new gizmo or a five-camera setup? Think about it.
Whether or not you agree, one thing is clear: It’s going to take a fair while longer for Groening’s vision to fructify. Interactive adventure-makers from the cinematic fraternity would do well to learn a thing or two from their counterparts in the gaming world.