Game Design and Bandersnatch

What the Black Mirror experiment says about choice in game design

Last year might have been a crazy one, but one final — and rather significant — surprise hit us at the end of 2018: a new, and very ambitious episode of Netflix’s Black Mirror by the name of Bandersnatch crash-landed on us. It’s ambitious because it attempts to make good on the promise of truly interactive TV — that is, it’s a TV show where you, the viewer, gets to actively participate and make decisions (very much in the vein of a “choose your own adventure” style experience). Bandersnatch has been discussed extensively already, but given the interactive nature of the show, it seems natural to consider it from a game design point of view. The key questions in my mind are: how far does the show go in terms of capturing the feeling of a video game, and what game design lessons exist here?

Please note: this article spoils Bandersnatch’s plot as well as its general format. I recommend reading no further unless you’ve experienced the episode already.

Designer’s dilemma

Bandersnatch follows a programmer in the ’80s by the name of Stefan, who has grown up with depression and anxiety due to the loss of his mother. He is working on an adventure game based on a novel called Bandersnatch, and is going to work with a premier game studio to get it done with over the summer. Within just a few minutes, the show’s concept becomes clear, as we have to decide what cereal Stefan eats in the morning. From there, choices pop up every few minutes that lead to different outcomes for Stefan. Each time a choice comes up, the audience is forced to choose: “no choice” is not an option here.

The first major crossroad in the episode is to decide whether or not Stefan works directly with the studio on his dream game, or to work alone over the summer. If you choose to join the team, the story line ends and the viewer is given their first “redo.” From there, we’re introduced to the core group of characters that occupy Stefan’s life.

There is his father who he lives with, his therapist who he will see regularly throughout the episode, the head programmer/designer of the company, and the owner of said company who wants the game done as soon as possible.

The other major tidbit we learn is that the author of Bandersnatch (the novel) went insane and killed his wife thinking that he was being controlled by outside forces. As the episode progresses, we continue to make incidental choices for Stefan (including things like which record he buys at the store); but it doesn’t take long before deeper and more challenging decisions arise.

Shocking choices

Stefan continues to become more stressed out with working on the game, and as the audience, we’re able to decide how he reacts to certain events. There are several “dead-ends” written into the episode — such as having him destroy his computer instead of yelling at his dad.

As Stefan continues to feel helpless, he begins to realize that someone is controlling him (one of the funniest endings involves indirectly explaining to Stefan what Netflix is). While this is the funny ending, the rest are much darker.

Depending on your choices, Stefan could commit suicide, murder his father, or learn some disturbing truths about his life. That last point takes me to the deeper elements of the show from a design standpoint.

For viewers who pay attention, there are certain events that, once viewed initially, permanently change your options and what you see going forward.

In just one example, Stefan will occasionally remark on already having done something — when this happens, the relevant scene will move along faster. Several of the show’s endings require the audience to watch and interact with other events to then go back and alter things. Astute watchers can see endings where Stefan discovers a grand conspiracy surrounding his life, goes back in time, and more. Each time you do reach an ending, the show will let you go back to a previous point, but the show picks what the rewind points are, not the viewer.

The show’s major philosophical question is about the concept of choice: are we really masters of our own fate, or is there some unseen guide that pushes us? Are we able to do anything we want, or are we just acting out roles given to us? In one of the endings, Stefan finished his game by adopting the concept of not giving the player free will, but instead giving them the illusion of choice.

This is perhaps the most interesting concept that the show, and by extension, game designers face when it comes to crafting video games.

Illusion of choice

My main interest is writing about game design, and the question of choice in video games is a topic I’m well-versed in; it’s something I’ve discussed on numerous occasions in other contexts. Bandersnatch hits home at what choice means in video games and the “failure” of modern adventure games that try to convince the player that they’re in control.

I say this because video games are inherently a set of fixed elements: all aspects that exist in a game world are determined by the developer in the first place. Even procedurally-generated titles are built on an algorithm that governs world behaviour/structure based on a set of pre-defined rules. Story-driven titles will never give the player full choice over all events — but one of their goals is to trick the player into believing otherwise.

The challenge when it comes to choice in video games is that you need to figure out how much to give the player in your title.

For many action-based games, choice comes down to how you build your character, while largely leaving the narrative alone. If you give the player too many options, then you are going to have to work harder to keep the illusion going (this is something Telltale Games failed to do, in my opinion, and it’s one reason why I began to fall out of love with their games).

On the other hand, if there are too few options, then you are going to have to rely on your linear story keeping player invested to the very end. There is no wrong choice here, but you have to commit fully once you’ve decided.

One of the best examples of a game giving the illusion of choice would be Prey (2016). Without spoiling it, the game not only keeps track of what the player has done, but alters the story and conversations based on their actions. Regardless, the player always feels like they’re the ones in control, despite how the game guides them via the plot and circumstance.

Through the looking glass

To return to Black Mirror for just a moment, you might be wondering about my take on the series; I have to admit, I am not a huge fan of the show (and this is coming from someone who considers The Twilight Zone to be one of the greatest works of fiction ever made).

My problem with the episodes I’ve watched so far (going through seasons 3 and 4) is that the concept or trick never feels fully developed. There’s no greater story or insight into the topic than “let’s take X and make it stranger or more horrific”. The biggest distinction for me when watching Black Mirror — especially when compared to The Twilight Zone — is that although the latter is over 50 years old, I think it still holds up in a modern context.

This is due to the stories themselves going beyond the initial premise and saying something about the human condition. The surface layer exploration of Black Mirror feels entirely rooted to this point in time; at least with the episodes I’ve seen. Whereas episodes like The Howling Man, The Obsolete Man, and Number 12 Looks Just Like You, have deeper meanings to them that are still being explored to this day.

Bandersnatch is definitely on the low-end of the choose your own adventure formula. I don’t think there are enough choices or permutations here, especially compared with with many adventure games that have done more with this style — see The Infectious Madness of Doctor Dekker as an example.

I would have liked to have seen things go “full tilt” once the cards had been laid out on the table. The show hints at the prospects of alternate realities, but we really don’t see it.

I was hoping to see the show really push at the boundaries — for example, swapping the father for the mother as the parent who died, more things going on at the game studio, and much more.

If Bandersnatch is your first choose your own adventure experience, it’ll likely work for you — and to an extent, I think this probably does reflect the intended audience of the show. There is also, of course, the sheer novelty of interacting with a TV show in the ways described here.

Decisions, decisions

Choice in video games can be a very complicated topic. No matter how many choices you fold into the experience, players will always want more. In my opinion, it’s better to have fewer, but more meaningful choices, rather than trying to offer every possible option imaginable — if nothing else, it’ll help you avoid going insane in the process.

Original article courtesy of Game-Wisdom. Edited and re-published with permission.