3 key interactive decisions Netflix got right in the making of Bandersnatch

Note: there are no major spoilers in this article. It focuses on what made this episode of Black Mirror a great interactive experience from a storytelling and technology perspective. But it’s best if you’ve watched / played with Bandersnatch first.

As an advocate for interactive video storytelling, seeing Netflix bring interactive video to a mainstream audience for the first time, makes me extremely happy. As a fan of Black Mirror, doubly so. Having worked with talented professional storytellers on interactive video experiences for just shy of 10 years, here are three main reasons I think Bandersnatch is a triumph for Netflix.

1. Audience. Black Mirror is absolutely the right show to showcase Netflix interactive.

Let’s face it, Black Mirror is weird, unconventional, sometimes dark, and skews geek. This is the right audience and expectation on which to launch a fun new tech tool. Viewers are expecting high production values, and challenging storytelling. Most of them are likely to have played some kind of choose your own adventure style game before, whether in book form, or video game. Possibly both. And possibly also on Spectrum computers.

This episode centres around the adaptation of a CYOA book into a video game, and is set in the 1980s. So lots of geek nostalgia here for tech and TV journalists to reminisce over, and share on Twitter, building a joyful excitement of PR that will trickle out to the mainstream. (As I type, lots of Reddit users have teamed up to map out all the story branches, and discover all the Easter Eggs in the episode. The Internet, being its best self.)

2. Story. Interactive is part of the story, not an afterthought.

Where many interactive shows have fallen short of wow, is the timing of the decision to make the show interactive (typically after production wraps). This show was planned to be interactive at its core, and the story makes complete sense for it to be so. A lot of thought and care has been put into the use of interactivity, including all the various story outcomes, and the reaction of the characters to the viewer’s decisions.

The pace of the show, especially in the interactive scenes, is very well considered. The interactive features never take away from, or interfere with the viewing experience. They merely support the storytelling. When the viewer finds themselves back near the start of the story, they are repositioned within the story with a carefully edited catch up sequence. This must have been a painstaking editing job, but it’s seamless and painless for the viewer, and makes the decision to continue watching / playing a very easy one.

3. Simplicity of user interface with which to select and make decisions.

For me this is the icing on the cake. Yes, great story is the backbone of all excellent interactive experiences, but simplicity of use is key, otherwise technology gets in the way of story, rather than supporting it. I just love what Netflix has done here. The user interface below is a very clear, subtle and unobtrusive overlay in the the lower third of the screen. And it remains that simple any time it appears during the episode. After a brief tutorial, it’s very easy for the viewer to choose one of two decisions at points during the story, when they are prompted to do so. The video continues to play throughout gameplay, so at no point does the viewing experience pause to wait for the user to do anything. Importantly, a default decision is pre-selected, so that if the viewer doesn’t select an option before the time runs out, the story keeps moving.

Image copyright Netflix. Simple, clear decision making user interface.

Significantly, this all works very well in a co-viewing environment at home, in front of a big screen. Myself and my husband took turns to make decisions. And if we weren’t sure, we let the scene play out with the pre-highlighted decision.

One major eyebrow raise for me, was that Apple TV, and Chromecast weren’t supported as launch devices. This appears to be due to limitations of the authoring tool used to create the interactive story. To me, these are great devices for this type of interactivity, so I’m hoping that Netflix supports these devices soon, so that all their viewers can enjoy Bandersnatch.

Verdict 5/5 for showing the world what a decent viewing experience an interactive story can be, when thought through properly. More please Netflix Technology Blog.

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