Like many of you, I checked out Black Mirror’s fifth season last week … and like many of you I felt somewhat confused and underwhelmed.
It was rare that an entire season didn’t gave me a spine-chilling, thought-provoking fright. Instead, it was more comedic than anything – I mean, when you have an episode with Miley Cyrus playing a singer with a double life, and two girls comedically trying to rescue her with a robot buddy … in a mouse car … yeah, it wasn’t exactly USS Callister. Not bad, but not Black Mirror.
Sure enough, as I was in a Black Mirror mood, I went back to Play/Watch Bandersnatch – Black Mirror’s “choose your own adventure” meta-narrative.
I guess I chose to watch Bandersnatch.
FOR THOSE WHO HAVEN’T BANDERSNATCHED …
Bandersnatch follows the character of Stefan Butler – a young games developer whose life choices are dictated by other forces (namely, you). It is a breakthrough in interactive storytelling, and the first designed for the Netflix platform.
It is a great play/watch with your actions resulting in different endings, outcomes, deaths, and all whilst adopting a philosophy of “try again”.
That said, it is very meta. The game Stefan is programming (the titular Bandersnatch) is itself based on a fictional “Choose your own adventure” story of the same name – written by a man obsessed with the illusion of free will.
As for the split-paths aspect of it, it really worked in this story. Storytelling devices need to fit the narrative. I often ask myself if there needs to be a reason something’s in a certain format. Why VR? Why not just film?
Bandersnatch makes full use of this feature, and it complements the plot excellently.
That said, I feel like this is more a proof-of-concept than anything. It shows what is possible with the current technology we have and compels you to try again to get a different ending.
However, I think it’s important to distinguish between “Choose your own adventure” and real Interactive Storytelling. The fact is, you don’t have control over the story. There are only so many different scenes you can film, and only so many different outcomes you can get. You are limited by the medium in that sense.
I wrote a while back on Virtual Reality – the dream of a virtual holodeck and being able to interact with the people and places in a simulated environment. I think that’s what the ultimate goal of these experimental stories, and similar to Interactive Storytelling, the fixation comes in the form of control. But with that, comes the question of how we consume stories.
Namely, if this is a story … then who are you?
Bandersnatch makes it clear – you are the force guiding Stefan Butler; whether he likes it or not.
But in terms of more interactive storytelling, where you are a character in that world, that’s another matter altogether – and something where it would make more sense looking to Role Playing Games for inspiration, as opposed to your traditional non-interactive character arcs.
CHOOSE YOUR OWN HERO’S JOURNEY
Many often turn to the Hero’s Journey for looking at the definitive rulebook on crafting a compelling story, and one of the key takeaways is the promise of transformation – you don’t end up the same character you start as, and their choices define them.
Ask yourself what makes a hero compelling? It’s seeing their struggle. It’s seeing Harry Potter go from an orphan boy to defeating the Dark Lord Voldemort. It’s seeing Walter White transform from a dorky Chemistry teacher into running a drug empire. It’s seeing Luke Skywalker turn from a farm boy into a Jedi master.
Now imagine if this was an interactive story where you’re Luke. Would you make the same choices to so neatly tie-into a character arc? Or worse, what if you just wanted to stay on Tatooine? Your entire story is interacting with Uncle Ben and Aunt Beru – thrilling Sci-Fi indeed.
Compare this to video games where the task is to meet a goal – getting Mario to the end of a level, beating your opponent in Street Fighter or completing the Pokédex. These are simple goal-driven ways to keep the player engaged, with limited agency in how they play the story.
Interactive storytelling falls somewhere in between these two narrative models: Movie and Video Game.
Stefan Butler absolutely has a character transformation throughout all the possible endings of Bandersnatch – starting off as a young programmer and becoming a paranoid murderer/suicide victim/actor by the end of it.
But you don’t go through a character arc – the choice-selecting force is just there. Whether you’re watching him from “the future” on something called Netflix, or a secret government conspirator in charge of P.A.C.S., you don’t change – he changes.
I maintain my belief in cracking the “Hero’s Journey Code” for modern storytelling. The fact is that the viewer/player needs to go through their own struggle and change in order to better immerse themselves with their story. The question is how you juggle an interactive environment with an element of freedom.
After all, how can you have a Hero’s Journey when you have a choice?
I think there is potential going forward, especially when taking genres into account. Looking at how franchises function, there is always a greater goal in immersing oneself in the world.
Perhaps a good way to view it is establishing the world with a story first, and then introducing yourself as a character in a greater narrative.
One of my criticisms of certain VR films was that they didn’t make full use of the medium they were in – they could have simply been done in a film format, been less expensive to make, and reached a wider audience as a result.
But then you have artificial intelligence (AI): “learning” stories. In these scenarios, you interact with the world, and the world responds. Characters may remember how you acted, choices you made, and so on.
Putting interaction at the forefront looks like the best way to make the most of this medium.
To go back to Bandersnatch, I feel that it was a proof of concept for a much larger premise. Instead of playing a “force” guiding the character, there’s potential to create a more immersive genre-driven experience.
But that’s somewhat contradicts the very idea of narrative and character arcs.
As it stands, we’re at a turning point. Technology is ever-improving, and AI can make it so that we can truly interact with fictional characters and better immerse ourselves in the world.
Whether the Hero’s Journey will exist in the same way has yet to be seen. Perhaps the most successful stories will fall somewhere in between complete freedom and a set path.