Anyone who knows me has messaged me recently and asked me about what I thought of the new interactive episode of Black Mirror. It has all the things I love — the 80s, non-linear storytelling, sci-fi, 80s music. I have a tattoo of a cassette tape that has “1984” written on it. After “playing” it last night, I have had a lot of thoughts bouncing around in my head, so I decided to write a few of them down.
WARNING: Below is a bunch of mumbling about non-linear storytelling, then a completely SPOILER filled review.
First off, I grew up with choose-your-own-adventure books. The idea of having choices within a typical linear narrative was mindblowing at a young age. I collected every book I could get my hands on and would plot the decision trees on graph paper. I was 8. Fast forward to me on stage, giving a lecture about being an innovative storyteller and showing a slide of my decision trees from my childhood. Non-linear entertainment shaped the storyteller I became.
The idea of interactive video and interactive narrative storytelling is far from new. In the 80’s we had laserdisc video games like Dragon’s Lair, Space Ace and Bega’s Battle, which introduce branching storylines or “paths”. I can’t even count the number of quarters I poured into Space Ace to see all the different branches. In the 90’s we had CD-ROMs and the beginning of interactive television that was later renamed to “enhanced television”. Once the web was able to support proper full-motion streaming video in the mid-2000s, we saw more innovation with non-linear, interactive storytelling. In short, we’ve been experimenting with interactive, non-linear storytelling for quite some time.
I am a huge gamer and have been playing video games since the ’70s. Over the last 5 or so years, indie games have been tackling unique storylines that feature characters we wouldn’t normally see in bigger productions. They have also been creatively peeling away at new and innovative ways of telling interactive stories. I would have to say that the title that made the biggest impact on me was the Life Is Strange series from 2015. There is a scene in which you have to make a decision that changes the entire course of the game. It’s emotional and powerful and leaves you unsettled at the end. It proves that decision-based interactive storytelling, if done right, emotionally gets under your skin in ways that traditional narratives usually can’t. Hell, I cried at the end of Red Dead Redemption 2. I had a very strong emotional attachment to my character that I spent 80–90 hours with and when he dies, it was an emotional gut punch.
For the most part, branching storylines give us the illusion of making choices. It would be impossible to create a narrative that resulted in an infinite amount of endings, so most branching stories have funnels that give you the illusion of having much more choice than you really do. Which is why I think Black Mirror’s first foray into non-linear storytelling was brilliant. But more on that later. Sometimes, this type of experience is called “on rails”. Basically, you can’t control where you are going and you can only go where the rails have been laid. Let’s check out a decision tree from one of the original choose-your-own-adventure books, The Mystery of Chimney Rock.
The book was written in 1979 and had a total of 36 endings. Some of them happened within a short period of time, while others had you reading for hours. 36 endings and 44 choice moments was something that was daunting to write, but not impossible. When you move into filmed entertainment, the more choices, the more filmed content, the more time and cost it takes to develop. Having worked with Eko a bunch of years back on a Trey Songz and Nicki Minaj interactive music video, I will tell you that getting the record label to pay for all the choices and craziness I wanted to do was impossible. The number of choices and final outcomes were pretty simple, yet it took significantly longer to shoot, edit and develop than a normal music video.
In order to provide as many choices, outcomes, and final endings, you really have to commit to the concept. There have been many attempts at non-linear interactive films in the past, but most seemed short and lacked the depth you needed for true exploration in the story. When I saw that someone put Bandersnatch into a “work-in-progress” decision tree, I was really impressed with the amount of content that was created. (Alternatively, there is another decision tree floating around here)
There are quite a lot of options that will ultimately give the viewer the illusion of choice, so it’s obvious that the creators really committed to the format. Black Mirror’s usual running time is under an hour, so with around three hours of content, an additional two hours of content had to be filmed in order for the story to lack depth. I heard that there were some people that were “upset” by the lack of real choice for the final ending. On the surface this might makes sense, but if you dig deeper, you would see the real Black Mirror story, and that’s the brilliance of the episode.
There are many surprising and fun moments that make you realize that when done right, the experience feels nothing short of magical. The first moment you make a decision (CEREAL) and your choice seamlessly continues the story, you smile. Seamlessness is something that has long been a speed bump in the evolution of non-linear interactive storytelling. One thing that Netflix nailed was the choice system being transparent and seamless. If I wanted I didn’t want to respond, I could let the system decide. If I did want to interact, such as picking which music to play, my choice would carry over to the next few scenes. It’s the simple things in the upfront of the story that feel like magic. It’s small, almost meaningless choices start the episode fun and energetic.
There are a few other moments that begin to plot out the larger narrative that feel special as well. One of my favorites moments is when you accept the job at Tuckersoft and quickly reach a dead end. You restart back making the choice again, but the narrative dialog has changed. It’s a bit of a Déjà vu moment for the characters. This is where you realize that the entire episode is more self-aware of what is happening than you originally realized. Another moment that was fun and unique was when you have the choice to tell the lead character that you are controlling him via a futuristic platform called “Netflix”. It’s very Black Mirror and slightly chilling.
So, after all of this, what did I think of Netflix’s first foray into interactive storytelling? Well, the technology was seamless, the production was top notch and the content was fun. Was it perfect? Not at all, but I think it’s the perfect first step into something that could really grow into something sustainable. The episode was leaning very heavily into the story concept of being very self-aware of the choose-your-own-adventure format, so it would be interesting to see how this would work in a different genre where the choices are more transparent. We are at a point where technology, audience interest, and financial backing will make it more feasible for high-quality interactive film to be created.
Interactive choose-your-own-adventure content is something I am very passionate about, and seeing how fans have spent the better half of three hours trying to “play all the endings” and soak up every piece of content, I am hoping that this is only the beginning. Not every type of story is right for this platform but with an engaging story, a competent filmmaker and some magic we haven’t seen before, I bet you this will something that only grows from here. I’ve said it many times in the past but will say it one more time…. this is the most exciting time in history to be a storyteller.