In early 2017, Netflix approached “Black Mirror” creators Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones with an unusual idea. The streaming service had been experimenting with interactive content for kids, giving young viewers the ability to choose their own path through a story with a series of multiple-choice questions that could be easily answered with the help of a smartphone remote. television.
Now, Netflix was ready to bring the same format to an adult audience, and “Black Mirror” seemed like a perfect fit. except that the two creators had none of it. During a recent interview with Variety, Brooker recalled his initial response: “No way!”
Jones agreed, in part because he had never liked previous examples of interactive storytelling. “To me, they always felt a bit far-fetched,” he said. But when they started discussing ideas for future episodes of the show a few weeks later, they came up with a plot that really only worked as an interactive movie. “At the time, it was pretty simple,” Brooker recalled.
The result is “Black Mirror: Bandersnatch,” Netflix’s first-ever interactive movie for adults, which debuted on the service Friday. Set in 1984, “Bandersnatch” is the story of geeky teenager Stefan (played by Fionn Whitehead of “Dunkirk” fame) who sets out to turn a multiple-choice science-fiction book by the same title into a pioneering computer game that also presents the player with a series of choices.
Early on, we learned that the eccentric author of the original “bandersnatch” book went berserk while writing the multiple choice adventure, eventually killing his wife. And it’s not too much of a spoiler to say that Stefan is struggling with his own inner demons, and turning a madman’s book into a highly complex multiple-choice computer game doesn’t seem to improve his mental health.
brooker said he could empathize with those feelings. “What we were trying to do was what Stefan was trying to do,” she said. “There were a lot of points where we felt like it was driving us crazy.”
luckily brooker and jones had the netflix product team to keep them sane. After producing interactive children’s titles like “Puss in Boots: Trapped in an Epic Story” and “Buddy Thunderstruck: The Maybe Pile,” Netflix’s Director of Product Innovation Carla Engelbrecht realized that the company was right. “There’s a lot more we can do than just linear TV,” she said.
but while younger viewers may agree to relatively simple options, adult audiences clearly require more complexity, which can be a huge logistical challenge. That’s why Netflix engineers created the company’s own scriptwriting tool for branching narratives, dubbed Branch Manager.
The tool allows creatives to create complex narratives that include loops, guiding viewers back to the main story when they strayed too far, giving them the opportunity to repeat, so to speak, something that Jones and Brooker cleverly incorporated into the film. history. At one point, one of the key characters even tells Stefan that he chose the wrong path, leading him to realize, “I should try again!”
“bandersnatch” comes with five possible endings. viewers who choose the fastest path and decide not to repeat can finish the film in around 40 minutes. average viewing time is around 90 minutes.
In total, there are over a trillion unique permutations of the story. however, this also includes relatively simple iterations that don’t necessarily alter the story itself. For example, one of the first decisions is to help Stefan choose which cereal to eat in the morning. “We want [viewers] to have a successful election from the start,” Engelbrecht said.
engelbrecht’s interactive content team received a lot of help from across the company in developing the “bandersnatch” technology, which also included modifying the way netflix streams content. “fast-forward jumps in a non-linear story,” she explained. instead, netflix started testing simplified playback controls with “bandersnatch”.
Another setting affects the Netflix stream itself: the service’s apps typically pre-cache some content to keep the streaming experience smooth, even when the viewer’s internet connection temporarily slows down. for “bandersnatch”, the app now has to cache two possible paths, something previous versions of the netflix app can’t do.
This is why the movie is not available on the Netflix app for some older smart TVs. The company is also excluding “Bandersnatch” from playback on Google Chromecast and Apple TV for technical reasons, but Netflix VP of Product Todd Yellin didn’t seem too concerned about leaving anyone behind. “Almost every Netflix household has a device that can play ‘Bandersnatch,'” he said.
Other design decisions that went into making “bandersnatch” are more subtle and sit somewhere between product design and storytelling. for example, the team had to find the right pace for an interactive story like this. Give viewers too many options and they might get tired of all those decisions. let the plot go on too long with no choice, and half the audience may have misplaced their remotes. “We talk a lot about cadence,” Engelbrecht said.
jones and brooker also recalled pushing netflix’s tools to the limit with “bandersnatch”. “It kept expanding, even when we were in pre-production,” said Brooker. “We deliberately pushed what was going to be possible.” Until one day, they hit the wall, or rather the limits of Netflix’s branch management tool. “The storyline collapsed,” he recalled, a first for the seasoned TV writer.
Interestingly, the same thing happens to Stefan during the final sprint to complete his interactive computer game. And the similarities don’t end there. Brooker and Jones deftly play with the motifs of branching stories, repeatedly throwing their viewers off just when they think they’ve mastered the whole multiple-choice thing.
The duo also incorporates the viewers themselves into the story and even gives the Netflix brand a cameo. Along the way, viewers will begin to wonder who’s really in charge and if their choices really matter. In the words of Colin Ritman (played by Will Poulter), the genius video game programmer/high-tech shaman who becomes Stefan’s co-worker and mentor: “How a road ends is irrelevant.”
Ultimately, this ability of the creators of “Black Mirror” to play with the minds of their audience fits perfectly with Netflix’s first adult interactive story. it also seems to set the bar incredibly high, leading one to wonder: how can anyone re-create a story so perfectly suited for this nascent format?
yellin said the company had plans to test interactives for other story types as well, such as comedies, romances and possibly even horror movies. “Turns out this is a huge audience for the former,” she admitted.
which begs the question: what does netflix intend to do with this new format? there were some rumors that the streaming service was trying to expand into video games, which was fueled by the company’s partnership with the now-defunct game studio.
“We don’t think of this as a game,” he yelled back. “We’re telling stories,” Engelbrecht added. Ultimately, the goal was to advance storytelling, give creatives new ways to express themselves, and give viewers so much more to talk about. he said yelling, “we think we’re onto something that could be really exciting.”