Let’s face it – there’s nothing more entertaining than choosing the options you know you shouldn’t in a Choose Your Own Adventure game. From keeping Batman completely mute in a press conference to making Bear Grylls jump in a pit of snakes and tying up the maid in Late Shift, we just can’t resist opting for the wrong choice on purpose just to see what will happen.
Or maybe that’s just me.
In any case, interactive gaming that puts the viewer in the driver’s seat of the protagonist’s destiny has been on the rise in recent years with Telltale’s episodic adventures and Minecraft Story Mode to name but a few. But the release of Black Mirror: Bandersnatch in 2018 on Netflix signposted the start of a new way in which we consume entertainment.
The episode champions Interactive Narrative, a format based on the concept of branching narrative – a story that resembles a tree of decisions. Just like in a classic Choose Your Own Adventure book, the decisions you choose will guide how the following events unfold and move your story in a different direction.
However, unlike the aforementioned book or any previous example of this format, Bandersnatch integrates storytelling and technology to create seamless action with no loading screens or disruptions to the story. When the options are presented on screen, the acting does not stop – the timer simply runs for a few moments allowing time for you to make your choice, whether it’s karate chopping your dad in the balls, opening up to your therapist or spilling tea on your computer.
Once you’ve made your choices (My choices: yes, no, yes), the live action continues – there’s no jarring cut, no sand timer twiddling and rerouting your adventure – just the next events and relevant reactions. The plot of Bandersnatch is fairly meta as they go. At the heart of the story and the mercy of the viewer is a video-game designer whose life goal is to adapt his own choose your own adventure book, also called Bandersnatch. The more involved he becomes in the project, the more he becomes possessed by the idea of branching narrative and loses the sense of control of his own life.
Eager to capture the attention of audiences and explore new dimensions in entertainment, Bandersnatch creator Charlie Brooker brought the interactive narrative format out of its niche and into the mainstream – and Netflix couldn’t have been happier to host it. In a webcast to investors, chief content officer at Netflix Ted Sarandos said that storytellers are “salivating” about the possibilities of the format.
Of course, Brooker wasn’t the first to bring branching narrative to the general public. In 2015, Sam Barlow moved away from his work on games such as Silent Hill: Homecoming to release a live-action whodunnit called Her Story. It was released on 24 June 2015 for Microsoft Windows, Mac OS X and iOS, and the following year for Android after becoming an instant hit.
As well as being a superb detective game, Her Story broke grounds with a format that combined the drama, intrigue and cinematic qualities of a true crime show with the challenge and reward of a video-game. In this search-based game-play that requires you to watch footage and reach your own conclusions, your success in uncovering the full story depends on your intuition and attention to detail.
Four years later, Barlow is back with the spiritual successor to Her Story titled Telling Lies. While the game-play is virtually the same, the budget is considerably larger – whereas his first mobile game offering featured one actor, Telling Lies has nearly 100 cast members. An investigative thriller game with non-linear storytelling, Telling Lies is intimate and intense – okay, so perhaps not on the same scale as Heavy Rain (did everyone else have to cut off their own finger or, again, was that just my bad decisions?) but it’s certainly a unique experience that has players hooked on the hunt for their own version of the truth.
Until recently, Choose Your Own Adventure was a format reserved for two demographics: children and video-game enthusiasts. Despite partnerships with major franchises such as Marvel, DC, The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones, even Telltale Games didn’t manage to bring branching narrative into the mainstream.
Why? Perhaps it was repetitive storytelling; maybe it was the length of time we had to wait between seasons. But perhaps it’s because each of their offerings were still just games – games with strikingly impressive (but sometimes glitchy) graphics, games with highly fantastical environments, characters and adventures.
What Bandersnatch and Her Story/Telling Lies give the viewer is something that feels real. With live actors living out the choices we made for them, the viewer can empathise on a whole other level; we can truly immerse ourselves in the story and feel invested in the characters as we would in a film.
This transcends the traditional video game format just as much as it takes passive media consumption to the next level. If you’ve ever watched a film and shouted at the TV because you desperately felt the character was making a bad decision (“Don’t run upstairs!”), this live-action non-linear narrative format is effectively giving you the power to do exactly that. You don’t have to try to relate to the main character because you are the main character.
With this in mind, it’s understandable that Netflix are excited. By fusing together cinematic storytelling with decision-based gaming, they have tapped into a new trend that has the potential to reach not just one or two demographics, but a vast and diverse audience that comprises not only of gamers but the wider public.
Of course, it does make a lot more work for creators. Imagine if Marvel were to rerelease Infinity War and End Game as a Choose Your Own Adventure game: they would have to shoot the outcome of the thousands of potential timelines as prophesised by Dr Strange. (Would be kinda cool though)
That said, it could lead to people spending a lot more time watching the same piece of content on Netflix multiple times for different outcomes. After all, if you could watch all the different outcomes of your day based on the hundreds of micro-choices, you absolutely would.
Or maybe that’s just me.
[POUTIQ] Wendy Loraine is a freelance copywriter and founder of The Bristol Content Shop, and a regular contributor of creative social commentary for Poutiq. She is also a talented social media influencer, and Poutiq’s very own Tik Tok influencer!
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