netflix is hungry and has its eye on a juicy slice of interactivity.
The streaming service started its originals business with prestige dramas and comedies. But his appetite is running high, and now he also wants to be your source for holiday schlock, baking contests, home renovation shows, documentaries, animation, stand-up specials and romantic comedies. and it’s looking for new areas it can own, new ways it can become essential, new worlds it can dominate. a new film that can follow a variety of paths depending on the choices made by the viewer (a film that is almost a game) is the next direction he would like to stomp in.
black mirror, a science fiction anthology series focused on the horrors of technology, originally aired on British television. now, netflix does it directly for its streaming service. On Friday, Black Mirror released its latest installment, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch. Set in 1984, it is about a young programmer named Stefan who is working on an adaptation of a famous “Choose Your Own Adventure” book. for those unfamiliar, the cyoa books (that really existed) are books where at certain points, the story asks you to make a decision. something like “if you pick up the stick, go to page 49. if you put the stick down, go to page 51”. and you would follow the story from there. cyoa was an elementary, low-tech version of interactivity, long before today’s complex open-world games were available.
The innovation of bandersnatch itself is that it works in a similar way. While you’re watching the movie, on Netflix, on your TV, an option will appear on the screen and you’ll use your remote (or your computer or finger or whatever) to choose the option you want. the first choice, for example, is what stefan will have for breakfast from the two cereals that her father shows him. Whichever you choose, that’s what you see her father give her. as you can imagine, the choices become more significant later in the movie.
It would have been nice to see this technology demonstrated in a more robust story. while it obviously makes sense that stefan is developing a cyoa game within a netflix cyoa movie about him, that’s kind of a joke, you don’t really learn enough about who he is to care about him. Sure, he’s getting angry and wondering if he’s going crazy while working on his game, but that’s a pretty basic “isolated artist who might go crazy” thing, and it doesn’t really hold a narrative on its own. p>
But while the story sinks a bit, the execution is largely flawless. there’s a pause in the action as you make each choice (if you don’t choose, there’s always a default choice), but it usually doesn’t pause, pause, or hiccup before continuing. continues to roll, as instructed by you. Should Stefan say yes or no to a tempting offer? should I take medication or not? should i listen to the thompson twins or a compilation cassette?
the novelty is interesting and, in a couple of places, the story flirts with some great ideas about control and free will that have a connection to the very fact that, to some extent, you’re dictating the narrative you see . bandersnatch has a couple of classic black mirror jumping tricks, and on first viewing (which might take you an hour and a half or so), they’re a lot of fun.
but this is a long way from a fully fleshed out concept that netflix can implement for other forms like romances or comedies (as reps have suggested it could be). there is only a distance, not yet overcome, between what is a movie and what is a cyoa book, not to mention what is a game.
after the first time you follow bandersnatch to one of the five endings that netflix says it becomes tedious trying to find others. fast-forwarding and rewinding have limited use: you can jump 10 seconds forward or back, but only within the uninterrupted segment you’re watching, between the last choice you made and the next. that means you can’t, for example, make a choice and then jump back past the choice point and try the other, like you can with a cyoa book. the software behaves as if it remembers what it has already seen, but partly for technical reasons and partly because many segments look alike and occur in the same settings and involve the same elements, you can’t immediately say, “oh, I’ve seen this part” and go back. (again, this is crucial for cyoa navigation on paper).
As for comparisons with games, in games where people are willing to try again and again to get to the end of a long game, they are usually trying to solve puzzles or develop gaming skills. they have to figure out how to beat that monster, open that bridge, get past that door. but here, trying to find all the variations is just a matter of guessing, wandering through binary options until something happens that you haven’t seen yet. when the rubber hits the road, a movie is still linear in a way that a book is not. trying to see what other options might lead to, I ended up watching scenes six or seven times that weren’t interesting enough to watch six or seven times.
There are also some moments that I found deeply frustrating where there really aren’t two options – there’s only one, where the other creates a loop where it just shows the same story segment again to force you to choose. the one that will really move you forward. Likewise, Stefan wakes up with startles, and sometimes it’s clearly just a way of pushing you into a new situation.
More problematic is the fact that because many choices lead to the same results and many paths loop, the story can’t help but lose its narrative integrity as you experiment with it. when you’ve already seen it once to the end and keep exploring, you’ll still be thinking “did the event I’m remembering already happen in this version I’m watching now, or only in the first one?” there’s a bit of effort to make this a feature rather than a bug with a lot of chatter about time and a story that’s partly about losing control of reality. but that makes for a pretty flimsy explanation of what makes for a pretty tedious viewing experience.
it’s easy to dismiss all of this under “they intended to do that”. you could choose to believe that it is intentional that the story falls apart and that you become disoriented and can’t figure out what happened in this version and what didn’t. but you probably shouldn’t be bored, which eventually bored me. and you’re probably not supposed to realize that you don’t really care what happens to any of the people, which I ultimately did.
this is a piece of television that is especially eager to convince you to watch it more than once: seeing it several times with its obsessive companions is undoubtedly one of the advantages of interactivity. unfortunately, it is especially unsuitable for viewing more than once. after the first time, when you’ll see most of the things that are interesting about it (including some that are charmingly self-referential bordering on “pretty”), you’ll likely experience rapidly diminishing returns as you try to find things within the story. itself to pay attention to. in fact, you might even end up irritated, muttering to yourself, “stop showing me the same scene in the record store.” (just, you know, for example).
experimentation is good. just putting this on a streaming platform in a viable, untouched condition is quite an achievement. and parts of bandersnatch are undeniably clever. but this model is still the smart watch on TV, so to speak, kind of a cool device to play with and good for certain things. but it’s not something you particularly need, and it’s not ready to replace things it hopes to convince you may become obsolete.