choice design · Narrative Design · Reviews

Bandersnatch, or why Choosing Your Own Cereal is important

Bandersnatch, the first interactive episode of Black Mirror, was recently back in the news because of the lawsuit launched by the Choose Your Own Adventure publishing company has been settled, which has made me realize I didn’t get around to write about the episode yet. As anyone who works in narrative games / interactive narrative, of course I have opinions.

Hearing some of my colleagues in games and narrative design has been interesting, particularly those who made angry pushbacks and talked about it with derision. Much has been made of the first choice of the story, which lets the audience choose what kind of cereal they want to protagonist to have for breakfast, for instance. However, we should not dismiss the cultural impact that Bandersnatch has had on general audiences–thanks to Netflix, many people have learned the title of an actual unreleased game from the 1980s, plus it has made choice-based narratives accessible to others in ways that no other interactive television, let alone videogame, has before. Bandersnatch is very accessible–users do not have to install a new app or learn a new interface by making it available through one’s streaming subscription. Many videogame designers wish their work was as accessible and popular as this piece of interactive television.

The notorious “choose the cereal” moment is actually there for a very particular reason: while seasoned videogame players are used to making choices in games, much of the Netflix audience is not. Anyone who’s shown games at venues where you come across non-gamers knows how intimidating interacting with a game can be for them. Something as innocuous as choosing a cereal and seeing how it changes the advertisement on television helps putting users at ease, so they learn how the interaction of the story works. They make a choice, and soon after they see a consequence, and see that they have not broken anything. It makes them comfortable with interaction, which is good for a story that goes quite bonkers later on.

And before I go on explaining what I like about Bandersnatch, let me state that not every choice has to change the plot or not be trivial, because anyone who’s juggled branching narratives knows how much of our time is spent creating the illusion of choice or giving players small expressive choices so they feel they’re in control when they really not. Rant over.

The episode tells the story of a young man who is working on what he intends to be the ultimate choose-your-own-adventure game for the Spectrum 48k, one of the most popular computers in Europe in the mid-80s. The protagonist is marked by the trauma of losing his mother in a tragic accident, and is trying to gain control of his own life by working on this game.

Bandersnatch was made for me: I love Black Mirror and its frequently cynical approach to humanity (although current events make the show feel less science fiction and more speculative drama). The world of the episode is quite familiar–I work in videogames and mostly hang out with indie developers; on top of that, I have taught a class on European videogames of the 80s and got to learn a lot about the bedroom developers in the UK like the protagonist, as well as the story of the original Bandersnatch. Even without the interaction, the story resonated with me (yeah, indie game development is a challenge to one’s mental health), and I had a blast by figuring out all the easter eggs and references.

The interactive story is very meta: it’s a choice-based story about someone working on a choice-based story. The self-referential aspects help smooth over one of the main challenges of designing choice-based narratives–each choice creates an alternate timeline, which makes it easy to fall into inconsistencies and complicates writing a branching story (at least when branching is understood in an oversimplified way). The editing of the episode is really smart, reusing shots with different sounds or dialogue lines spoken off-camera, as a way to avoid having to shoot large segments of different content at the same time it shows how there are different timelines and realities. To some the episode seemed revolutionary–in the past, branching narratives have been either poorly designed because they are written by screenwriters with a poor understanding of interactivity, or by game designers who have a trite understanding of storytelling. Charlie Brooker is the rare person who seems to understand games, and also happens to be a pretty decent screenwriter, an unfortunately rare combination of skills.

The self-reflective nature of Bandersnatch turns the story into a gimmick–our decisions as an audience/user create alternative timelines that some of the characters seem to be aware of; in certain scenes, the protagonist behaves as if he’s aware that someone is forcing him to do things he doesn’t want to do, turning us into the incarnation of his mental problems. But this is only true in certain threads of the story, while others turn the story into a conspiracy, while some others tell us a more intimate and ultimately tragic story. But the triumph of the story is bringing all of them together–this is a story about ontological instability, about worlds that have multiple versions with characters that are somewhat aware of that multiplicity. The huge poster of Philip K. Dick’s Ubik in one of the character’s living rooms is a pretty big and unsubtle giveaway. On the other hand, the metafictional gimmick also makes it really difficult to reproduce the success of Bandersnatch–it’s a one-trick pony that can get old fast, and not all choice-based narratives need to comment on the unstable worlds that they create.

(Excuse me if I don’t deign to discuss the “breaking the fourth wall”, because I’m tired the belief that any narrative should make “immersion” prevail, as if there is only one way to tell stories. Only one rant per day.)

Thus, the choice design of Bandersnatch is not about branching nor about agency or control over the story, but exploring the possibilities of the world, focusing on the “what if” and surprising the audience rather than making us feel like the story is at our service. The point where you can tell the protagonist about Netflix, or choose to go on a rampage are part of the fun of the story, which goes in many different directions and story genres–from personal drama to horrible murder to action movie to nostalgia trip.

Yes, choice-based narrative videogames are way ahead of this–see the wonderfully sophisticated works that Failbetter Games or Inkle Studios have been producing over the years, for example. But even with the smartest narrative designers out there, their fantastic works are still intimidating to a large part of the audience because they’re perceived as “videogames”. These are players and users who would be head over heels playing these games, but they seem too complicated to them. For example, I had someone who loved playing Her Story at a film festival ask me if he could download it through the streaming service Kanopy. The technological barrier is overwhelming to many.

There are things that Bandersnatch could do better, certainly. The aspect of social commentary is not as solid or resonant as other episodes, for example, probably because it’s more of a trippy period piece than science fiction. Since the story is about itself and the choices, there’s little room for anything else. There are issues with gender representation–the women in the episode are mostly wives/mothers or helpers and have a supporting role, for example. Mental health issues created by trauma are associated with psychopathy and murder, which is something that we storytellers should be better at–although it is part of the storyline exploration of the episode, the murder storytline reproduces stereotypes that do not need reinforcement. Although my particular pet peeve of the story is how the protagonist is creating a game for the ZX Spectrum in BASIC, and there’s no way that a game of that scope, with graphics and all, would fit in the paltry 48K of RAM that computer had. But while there are issues of representation that could be better addressed, we also have a few lessons to learn about how to engage a wider audience that may recoil at the mention of videogames, while they may probably love playing choice-based narrative games. And at times all it takes is starting by letting them choose their own cereal.

Detectives · Reviews · Thoughts

Mysteries Stuck in a Loop

The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton is the latest example of how time-loops and detective stories are a compelling combination–I hope it becomes one of those “must read” novels for game designers and interactive storytellers soon. Evelyn Hardcastle brings together Agatha Christie and Groundhog Day drizzled with a bit of David Lynch. The protagonist of the novel relives the day a murder takes place in an English manor. He controls one person at a time, and the only way to break the loop is to solve the mystery; to do that, he has 8 days / lives to find the solution. If it sounds like a game, it’s because it is a wickedly complicated story puzzle, delightfully put together.

Coming from narrative games, I particularly enjoyed how the protagonist notices the friction with his hosts–what he wants to do may be at odds with their impulses, while the intelligence or insight of the person he’s controlling allows him to notice certain details or have specific realizations. This is not dissimilar to how the stats of a character in a role-playing game can determine what we can do and what we cannot. Although the author does not list videogames as one of the inspirations for the game (he mentions the TV show Quantum Leap in the Q&A at the end of the book), the storytelling takes advantage literacies that games and complex TV shows foster these days. Audiences can follow stories with multiple points of view, gaps that are steadily filled out (or not), so that as they read / watch / play they’re assembling the story puzzle.

A protagonist stuck in the same sequence of events until they get something right is a story structure recreates how we navigate digital storytelling, where the interactor explores the possibilities of a story until we get the “right” version, as Janet Murray breaks down in her analyses of Groundhog Day or Run Lola Run. The pervasiveness of videogames, which often involve trial and error, has turned this structure into a commonplace in other media. The manga All You Need is Kill, adapted to film as Edge of Tomorrow, both thrive on the tropes of combat videogames, so the journey of the main character depends on him remembering his mistakes and learning from them for the next loop, just like a videogame player would. The structure of the time loop has also been long embraced by videogames, starting with The Last Express (1997) and The Legend of Zelda: Marjora’s Mask (2000), neither of which have got the attention and recognition they deserve. Now there’s a whole slew of games recently released or coming up in the next few months: The Sexy Brutale (2017), Elsinore (2019), Outer Wilds (forthcoming), 12 Minutes (forthcoming). The metalevel of the knowledge of the player now becomes part of the game mechanics. And let’s not forget interactive fiction, where there’s already a sizable collection of examples in the last 20 years.

What interests me of the time loop as a narrative / game structure is how combines with mystery, which is what initially drove me to read Evelyn Hardcastle. In a mystery narrative, the initial goal of the detective is to reconstruct the story of the crime. One of the challenges to design a mystery videogame is figuring out how to let the computer evaluates whether the player got the solution right or not–something that is easier to do in non-digital games. Questionnaires are a common device, while letting the player fail can also be a productive approach–maybe players want to replay the game until they get it right, making the loop something that takes place at a meta-level, in the time and space of the player.

Time loop mysteries make the trial-and-error part and parcel of the world of the story / game. Thanks to Groundhog Day, many storytellers and game designers do not see the need to explain why that loop is happening–Evelyn Hardcastle does, in what seems to be a seed to tell further stories with a similar structure (I hope!). The time loop mystery structure is alluring because each loop allows the player / audience to get more information about what happened, and then use that information to solve the mystery or change the events. Some events take place simultaneously, so they require making choices and revisiting the story over and over in order to reveal each piece of the puzzle–where and when people are at each moment. While traditional media have used the loop as a way to structure the story and keep the audience intrigued until the end, the game player needs to actually solve the puzzle and use as many time loops as necessary to get to the end.

Bonus: If you’re into time loop mysteries and science fiction, you may want to listen to the Doctor Who audio story The Chimes of Midnight.