Bandersnatch is a video game throwback in more ways than one

With 2018 drawing to a close, Netflix ignited wide-reaching social media buzz with its surprise announcement that it would be releasing a standalone episode of its sci-fi anthology series Black Mirror that would let viewers choose how the story unfolded.

The interactive film, Bandersnatch, has drawn both accolades and criticism over its story and presentation. Since Netflix guards their much-vaunted metrics so tightly, we can’t know how many eyeballs the special drew, but it certainly has driven a ton of social media engagement, which is almost more important than “real” viewership in modern entertainment.

Interactive films are nothing new – this isn’t even Netflix’s first foray into the form. But what’s first is a distant second in importance to what actually catches on in the public consciousness. The success of Bandersnatch will likely spur a new wave of interactive movies and shows, ones that will have a higher profile than any that have come before.

Netflix executive Todd Yellin told The Independent that interactivity could be a key for torqueing viewer investment in the platform’s movies and shows: “If bad things happen, you’ll feel even more crestfallen, because you were responsible … If the character is victorious, you’ll feel even more uplifted because you made that choice.” And of course, this kind of user engagement will also provide reams of precious, precious data for the company to collect and exploit.

Full motion video

Anyone familiar with the history of FMV games and other forms of interactive movies has likely been caught off-balance by this sudden explosion in attention toward the format. The most immediate, obvious question some may now be asking is whether Bandersnatch “counts” as a movie or a video game.

In this Independent article, Black Mirror executive producer Annabel Jones insists that the special was “designed as a cinematic experience,” whereas show creator and Bandersnatch writer Charlie Brooker (a onetime game critic) concedes that it’s more up to viewers to decide, though he is adamant that it at least has “game-y elements.”

This question stems from the very essence of gaming as an art form. The most basic way to distinguish a game from a movie or show or whatever else is the interactive element. But like all aspects of art, the definition of “interactivity” is something that seems basic until you keep asking questions. Jones’ choice of words is interesting, since “cinematic experience” is a term that describes nearly all video games anyway, given that they are works incorporating moving pictures. That Brooker is hesitant to fully categorize it one way or the other despite the presence of “game-y elements” speaks to the ambiguity around the level of engagement between viewer and content.

When it comes to definitions of art, it can be tempting to eschew Brooker’s ambivalence and stick to rigid categories. A work either is one thing or another, it can’t have “degrees” of being a thing. Either it’s a game or it isn’t; it can’t be “game-y.” Right? Well, that largely depends on a subjective, person-to-person interpretation of these definitions.

As the Timber Owls post points out, when you examine the relationship between movies and viewers more closely, you find more of a “conversation” between them than the initial assumption of a one-way, “passive” experience. Streaming services like Netflix and YouTube have all but melted old distinctions between movies, TV shows, home videos, shorts, experimental video art, and the like.

Interactive art

If one approaches the question from the most basic idea of “interactivity,” then Bandersnatch is indeed a video game. The input of the user determines the route the story takes. It doesn’t matter that it’s “played” on a streaming platform. The digital revolution has already destroyed once and for all the idea that art can be cleanly defined by its medium. Movies, TV series, and other content coexist freely across all manner of devices today – along with games. It is a game with a relatively low level of interactivity and player agency, but a game nonetheless.

Each episode of Black Mirror addresses some aspect of contemporary technology or the culture around technology, extrapolating modern concerns to a more extreme vision of it. (In various stories, characters can endlessly review recorded life events, “block” others in real life, see every single thing that happens to their children, etc.) That’s a premise with self-awareness built in, and Bandersnatch is no different. It is an interactive story about a 1984 programmer attempting to make his own interactive story. Eventually he becomes aware that his actions are being controlled by someone else, leading to an increasingly frantic struggle to determine the nature of his reality.

Bandersnatch leans heavily on this self-referential approach. While it’s too soon to know all its possibilities in full, any plotting out of the story’s decision tree shows that its path is actually mostly straight. Most major decisions deviating from this thread will soon result in an ending (usually a gag one), whereupon the user is given the ability to loop back around to the choice that led them there and instead pick the other option.

Freedom of choice

But this is all part of the plan, as characters repeatedly muse on how the “freedom” presented by video games is actually an illusion, that everything nothing a player does can alter their fate. One ending makes this even more explicit – the only scenario in which the protagonist creates a satisfactory game is the one in which he realizes that maintaining this illusion of choice is more important than truly allowing players to do whatever they want. This is, of course, exactly what Bandersnatch is doing, offering myriad choices while sticking to an inescapable plot.

The difference is that Bandersnatch, in allowing users to continually loop through choices, lets them know exactly what it is doing. The message is built not just into the text but also into its ludonarrative – the experience of interacting with it. In one clever moment, a flashback scene presents a “choice,” except because it is set in the past instead of the present, there is only one option available. This makes a stronger case for it as a game than the mere incorporation of the choices. Whether it’s a good game is an entirely different question. (I found the writing obvious, the character work shallow, and the actual experience of getting through the story arduous, but mileage will vary.)

More than anything else, Bandersnatch reminds me of Kinoautomat, the very first interactive film. Made in 1967 by Czech director Radúz Činčera and some collaborators, it offered an audience the ability to vote on choices the protagonist should make. Except every possibility would result in the same next available choice, and the conclusion was the same regardless of the votes (the main character’s house would burn down). Činčera’s intention was to satirize democracy, just as Black Mirror now satirizes the idea that our myriad media options give us any real control over the world around us.

Interactivity and immersion are two big driving forces in the new entertainment landscape. As new works in this vein are produced, just what they are will be less important than what they say, and how people choose to interact with them.