Last December Netflix released ‘Bandersnatch’, an interactive choice-based narrative where you systematically destroyed the life of videogame programmer, Stefan Butler.
In a bold move, Netflix redefines once again the consumption of fiction for a new audience. Which leads me to ask myself:
Is Netflix going to do games now? Will this change the way we consume movies online from now on? Let’s dive in.
‘Bandersnatch’ is a ground-breaking experiment which exposed interactive fiction to a broad and mainstream audience, but even though this experience might feel extraordinarily new and modern, it might not be. Interactive Fiction (or IF) has been a part of entertainment since the early ’70s when computers first entered the world of storytelling. According to the always faithful Wikipedia, some form of text-based interactive storytelling has been around since at least 1975, when programmer and visionary Will Crowther, made a “text adventure” game for his children called “Advent.” Later the ‘interactive fiction’ genre would pick up steam and some popular notoriety with the “Choose your own adventure” books. I owned one about a Castle when I was young; it was pretty cool, not gonna lie.
Interactive Fiction is a fascinating world, after all, gaining control over a character’s actions gives consumers a rush of excitement which few other narrative techniques can accomplish. A strange sense of omnipotence washes over the audience, now turned players, as they get to pick where the story is going to go. And this is where things get tricky, really, really tricky.
Control is a zero-sum game. If the audience is gaining some, it means the creators are losing some. Which begs the question: Is giving the audience control over the story beneficial to the final product? In a great film, the story often feels unpredictable yet unavoidable. The creators carefully craft narratives that tie everything together. The needs and wants of the main character echo in the obstacles he — or she — will have to overcome, which then turn into lessons that connect with earlier missing pieces of himself. And all of it wrapped under a unifying theme which gives a central meaning to the story.
Good stories reverberate within us because they speak larger truths that only drama can convey.
By giving audiences control over the story, creators are putting the drama at risk. Let’s imagine for a second that The Matrix was an interactive fiction experience. What would happen if Neo (now the player) decides against taking the red pill? Will the movie then turned into a boring office drama following the life of a depressed hacker turned salary-man? Or would the story force us into eventually taking the red pill?
Maybe some of the choices these types of narratives have aren’t choices at all. They might be merely an illusion designed to give the audience a feeling of control.
Spoilers for BANDERSNATCH ahead.
u/scrixie, a user on reddit, posted the following image on the website. It follows the branching paths the story can take depending on what choices the player makes.
The first thing that glares at me is that some choices don’t really influence the story, and others lead to dead ends that force you to go back and choose a different path. After analyzing this graph, one can conclude that only a handful of choices affect the… game? Movie? Interactive episode?
This is by no means a dig at the latest Black Mirror episode, creating meaningful drama with interactive fiction is a task next to impossible. Especially if you strive to tell a story similar to a movie.
It’s evident that if you only had two options per choice — but each choice led to a distinct story — then you soon enough you’d be facing an almost infinite amount of stories. 2 paths turn into 4, which quickly turn to 8. If a story has three moments of choice, with only two options, but every single one of them leads to an original path, then the creator would have created eight different satisfying stories.
3 choices. 2 different options. 8 completely different stories.
The exponential growth of branching paths makes Interactive Fiction an almost impossible workload for the writers and creators involved. No wonder Stefan went mad.
The truth is that for most writers interactive fiction seems like a fun experiment that quickly turns into a nightmarish world of endless possibilities. I once tried to program a TWINE game and almost ended the same way Stefan did.
That’s why many video games, which are the leaders in the world of IF, disguise their choices. It is often the case that the choices the player makes will change something mundane, rather than the path the story is taking. Understandably, creators don’t want to give out complete control of their carefully crafted plot.
Games like Mass Effect suffered a massive backlash because a lot of payers felt like all the choices they made through a three-game series with over 65 hours of combined play-time, only led them to three possible endings. How many of the choices the player made mattered then?
So, will interactive fiction take over film? Will Netflix do games from now on?
Probably not. Film is a passive medium, to follow the story you just have to open your eyes and pay attention to what is happening on the screen, the montage will do the rest. Interactive Fiction is an active medium; you have to take your character from one side to the other and overcome obstacles to consume the rest of the story. This means that movies have almost total control over the narrative before the viewer. To summarize, Movies tell stories which are easier to make and easier to consume. I don’t see the market of fiction taking the path of most resistance any time soon.
Interactive Fiction will probably keep growing. Video games are not going anywhere, but it seems that more and more they are moving into massive multiplayer experiences, rather than convoluted or experimental narratives.
Should writers be worried? On the contrary! If Interactive Fiction catches on, they’ll need armies of writers to keep each branch of the story exciting, meaningful and fun!