Choose: Bandersnatch or Immersive Theater (you have 10 seconds…)

Kat Hinkel
Jan 4 · 5 min read
Black Mirror: Bandersnatch — choice screen

It’s been a week since Netflix’s Black Mirror: Bandersnatch dropped, bringing a mainstream update to the choose-your-own-adventure stories we all love. Last Friday, I sat down to watch with my boyfriend, excited to finally experience something I’d been eagerly anticipating. We played through, taking turns making the choices, until we hit a credits scene. I think we saw about 3 endings.

In the ensuing week, I’ve read numerous think-pieces about it, watched Netflix’s behind-the-scenes videos, and dreamed about where this could go. I especially love/fear this Westworld-esque take on how Netflix can use people’s choices to start marketing more directly to them. (I fully expect a future Black Mirror episode to delve more deeply into this idea. How meta.)

But as an immersive theater creator, I saw even more possibility. My first immersive theater show, SPIES!, used a chat bot to allow the audience to vote between two choices for the main characters to make at several points within the show, ultimately leading to one of three endings.

I’d love to say “I did it first, Netflix!” (Narrator: She did not, in fact, do it first.) but really, immersive theater at its best has been and IS the embodiment of audience choice determining story experience. Even when the ending doesn’t change, many shows have simultaneous scenes, and no one in the audience sees the same thing. The difference in experience for each person is one of the elements that makes immersive theater (and Bandersnatch) so great to talk about. Your experience and my experience were different, and only together can we reconstruct the whole picture of the story.

I’d like to present what I see as the challenges, advantages, and personal preferences in audience-driven storytelling for both live theater and filmed TV or movies.

Challenges: Live vs. Filmed

As audience choice becomes more incorporated into both live theater and filmed works, writers cannot ignore the third rail. The challenge for both is the same: don’t get distracted and let choice be a gimmick.

Advantages: Live vs. Filmed

Personal Preference: Live vs. filmed

So which do I prefer? I think that Bandersnatch was a huge step forward in terms of showing people what is possible. (I also really liked it! )I look forward to the future of audience choice in filmed works, and I’d like to see more choices that feel natural and are emotionally driven.

A real immersive theater “sandbox” has tons of choice within a set of parameters. You can see different rooms, follow different characters, choose different paths. I like the options, but I like some guidance. (I was one of those who missed every important scene in Sleep No More and spent too much time wandering around alone in the dark…still loved it, though!)

For now I prefer immersive theater, surprising no one who knows me. Experiencing something unique happen in real time is magical, even moreso than having Stefan talk about his mother or not. (Or eat Frosted Flakes over Sugar Puffs.)

Should all immersive theater shows incorporate audience choice in terms of voting between options? No, nor should all TV shows. Really. Don’t do that. Please.

Do you agree?

Kat Hinkel

Written by

Author and playwright. (SPIES!, a tech-immersive comedy, Sept. 2018, Philadelphia Fringe Festival)