Black Mirror: Bandersnatch starts out like any other episode from the popular British science fiction anthology series on Netflix – with a dystopian setting, rapid turns and shifting realities – until viewers finds themselves at a crossroads and realise that this time, they get a say in how the story turns out.
The interactive feature is a standalone film in the Black Mirror universe and was released on Netflix on December 28. The 1984-set movie follows 19-year-old programmer Stefan (Fionn Whitehead) as he develops a video game based on the choose-your-own-adventure novel Bandersnatch, by one Jerome F Davies, who had gone on to kill his wife. Soon, Stefan’s life starts mirroring that of Davies and he starts losing a grip on reality.
The choices offered to viewers in Bandersnatch start from the basic – sugar puff or frosties for breakfast, for instance – and become increasingly momentous and sinister. Over time, multiple probabilities and twists are thrown in and numerous climaxes unfurl (the film has at least five endings and multiple variables within each, according the Hollywood Reporter). Depending on a viewer’s choices, the runtime can range from 40 minutes to a few hours.
Same idea, evolving methods
Interactive storytelling has been common in the world of novels since the 1970s, in the form of gamebooks. An early example is the Choose Your Own Adventure stories of the late 1970s by Edward Packard, a lawyer who pioneered the second-person fiction format. The books were published by American author RA Montgomery and his wife Constance Cappel’s Vermont Cross Roads. Later, Montgomery himself started writing thriller and adventure novels in the same genre and published more than 180 interactive books till the late ‘90s.
Many Indian children would have grown up on American horror-fiction novelist RL Stine’s Goosebumps series, which included a subset, called Give Yourself Goosebumps, which gave readers the option of turning to different pages for different results.
The 1967 Czech film Kinoautomat is considered the world’s first interactive movie. At various junctures in the film, the action would pause and a performer would appear on the stage asking the audience to choose between two options for the next scene, which would be determined by popular vote. A similar system was followed for the 1992 American short film I’m Your Man.
The interactive format has been adapted extensively in video games, starting from the analogue era. One of the most popular such games was Dragon’s Lair, an interactive plot-based laser disc video game, whose first edition was released in 1983. With the evolution of high-definition gaming in the play station era, the scope and range of such choices developed, with players having the power to influence the plot and direction of the game. Given the complex premises and high-quality graphics of such games, several media analysts are of the opinion that interactive films are a subset of video games.
Interactivity in television programmes started in simple forms, where viewers could vote on what they want to see next through phone calls and messages. A recent high-technology example is the murder mystery Mosaic, which was released as an interactive smart phone application in 2017 where users could choose which perspective they would see the plot from and also review case documents and other information. Mosaic was released as a non-interactive HBO series in 2018, starring Sharon Stone.
Netflix too experimented with interactive storytelling in 2017 with the children’s cartoon Puss in Book: Trapped in an Epic Tale, which had branching plots to choose between. The success of this experiment encouraged the streaming platform to develop Bandersnatch as its first interactive film for adults.
With Bandersnatch and subsequent offerings, Netflix hopes to develop this concept to its full potential, New York Times noted. “The idea behind the interactive push is simple: Viewers will care more if they are complicit,” the article said.
The buzz over Bandersnatch can partly be explained by the secrecy over the project. Netflix announced the film just a day before its release and did not reveal its interactive format. The film also offers a more complex version of the choose-your-own style than seen before on mainstream television and cinema, with multiple choices and at least some degree of real control over the narrative. And, viewers have to respond promptly when faced with a choice, within a 10-second window, else Netflix decides where the plot will go. So, even as most interactive storytelling pauses for the user to make a choice, Bandersnatch always goes on.