In the final days of 2018, Netflix premiered Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, an interactive film released as part of Charlie Brooker’s sci-fi anthology series. The film is the platform’s first major venture into interactive content for adults, after a short run of children’s interactives such as Puss in Book: Trapped in an Epic Tale and Buddy Thunderstruck: The Maybe Pile, which had been met with limited critical acclaim.
Bandersnatch is the latest example of a ‘branching narrative’ style interactive video. The premise is simple: the user watches video content through the streaming platform, and at various points is prompted to make a decision (usually multiple choice) that bears an effect on the narrative. In previous examples of this form, we’ve seen the novelty of interactive elements take time and attention away from story writing. Instead of a piece of content that takes the best parts of video content and interactive/game content, splicing them together, we’re left with something that fails to do either of the things it set out to: a really boring game, or a lacklustre story.
Attempting to resist this tradition, Bandersnatch (no spoilers) weaves interactivity into the story itself through the theme of ‘free will’, so that the interactive elements of the film become vital to the ideas that it explores. In classic Brooker fashion, the format is used to deliver the same lurching dystopian unease that the show is known for.
Despite being a noticeable step forwards within the realm of interactive longform video, Bandersnatch is a great focal point for both where the form is headed, and symptomatic issues that are yet to be addressed. Although the piece is challenging to judge (and I’m not convinced that it’s fair to pit it against regular, non-interactive video), here are a few of the things that it’s made us consider about interactive video, and the future of the form.
While Bandersnatch seemed to edge away from the novelty of interactive video, several critics noted its inability to complete detach itself from the gimmick of the form. The film is arguably interesting and harrowing enough to sit comfortably beside others in the anthology, but for many viewers the interactive elements still shone through as fruitless experimentation. Some critics even commented that the interactivity caused the story itself to suffer. Although the film is certainly a step forward when compared with previous interactive shows, we might wonder whether (as with 3D films) the novelty will wear off, and this content will settle as a superfluous form of entertainment
This ‘branching narrative’ style form relies heavily on smoke and mirrors in order to:
At one end of the spectrum, interactive films and television shows attempt to disguise a linear A-B storyline as an effort of free will, making the user feel as though their input has a true weight on the narrative. At the other end – as we might see in Bandersnatch – the challenge is in masking a multitude of possible endings so that the content can be experienced as a single, coherent piece.
Although the interactive opportunities in Bandersnatch generally avoid a clear stop and start in video playback, seamless interactions continue to be a challenge that the form will have to overcome. An average viewer would expect minimal disruption to their visual experience, especially if these shows and films are to compete with traditional linear and non-interactive content. But it’s a fine line to walk – for cognitive accessibility, some viewers (especially children) might well benefit from a more stuttered approach to interaction.
If nothing else, Bandersnatch works because of its meta-engagement with interactivity and choice; the nature of the story means that it could only work as an interactive film. In some ways, the film is less about the specific decisions you make and more about the fact that you’re making decisions at all. By implicating the viewer, it achieves its characteristic technological dystopia by taking the technology out of the film itself, and planting it in the home of the viewer.
However, this turns the film into a very specific case study. If interactive films are to have any major longevity, they need to find a way to work outside of an overly meta narrative, so that they can be employed for a variety of stories and audiences.
The future of interactive film and television rests on our ability to find a way for it to work without the gimmick, and to pair it with the ‘right’ kinds of stories. For children’s content, we might move away from passive-interactive experiences (where the user watches any old show with a few branching narrative opportunities) and instead move towards those in which they become an active part of the narrative, recognising themselves as integral to the media they consume.
We’ll also need to address the potential tedium of multiple watches. Part of this might go hand in hand with moving past the gimmick: if we’re using the form for stories that have their own merit, in theory a second or third viewing should work the same as regular films and television shows. The issue is that interactivity gives us the impression that we can make a piece of content whatever we want it to be, which is both a symptom and product of the smoke and mirrors of production. Even if we end up somewhere different, we don’t always want to watch the same video loops over and over (Groundhog Day style) to reach a new ending.
Of course, branching narratives are only one way that an interactive video can manifest – especially when considering content for children. The viewer might push a linear story forwards by engaging with on-screen hotspots or take control of the point of view on their screen. Steven Soderbergh’s Mosaic, for example, allows the viewer to shift their viewpoint in the show to enhance their experience, but refrains from the ‘branching narrative’ style interactions that would cause the creators to relinquish control. Interactive opportunities are scaled back in order to preserve the flow of the story and keep the focus on the characters and narrative. Plus, this year Sky will premiere Night Zookeeper, an animated series inspired by the educational website of the same name that demonstrates a different approach to interactive content. The show gives children the opportunity to participate in the show through its website, where they can get involved with everything from character design to dialogue suggestions. While the interactivity here might sit off-screen, we’re seeing several entertainment distributors seek to develop video/game hybrid products for both well-loved and original IP, many of which are geared towards younger audiences. Netflix has confirmed that we can expect more interactive content on its SVOD platform, so we’re intrigued to see what they come forward with next.
Jollywise have been exploring the possibilities of hybrid content on non-linear platforms, and we will be pitching a TV/game hybrid at this year’s Kidscreen Summit. In partnership with LoveLove Films, we’ll be presenting an exciting new property via an original interactive animation that lets kids ‘play the show’.