Black Mirror released a special interactive science fiction film called Bandersnatch over the winter holiday. I was really excited to check it out for the following reasons: 1) Black Mirror is one of my favorite series 2) the film is about a young programmer who questions reality as he develops a video game 3) interactive film! Additionally, Bandersnatch is the closest attempt I’ve seen at a commercialized version of an interactive fiction, so I was eager to go through it as research for my LDT project.
I played/went through/watched? Bandersnatch on three different occasions. The first time was by myself, second time with one other person, and the third time was with two people. I also read a bunch of reviews online to figure out any endings I missed.
Here are a couple of thoughts I had on what worked and what didn’t work in Bandersnatch. (Note: There are spoilers ahead.)
- Aesthetics – As with all of the other Black Mirror episodes, I really enjoyed the consistency in aesthetics and painstaking detail to recreate the 1980’s.
- Linear Narrative – As a linear narrative, I thought the storyline worked really well. It was a compelling story which pulled you in. However, depending on the ending you landed on you can feel jilted, as if the story isn’t finished yet.
- Inception – There are layers to the plotline that feel very much like inception. Most obviously, the protagonist is creating an interactive fiction video game while the viewer is participating in an interactive film. I thought the most interesting points in the film were when the lines between the in-film world and the viewer world were blurred. This also led to some humorous parts, like when the protagonist asks what Netflix is.
- Video Stitching – The way they slowed down the video at points where the viewer could make a choice was really smooth. I was impressed how the next scene was seamlessly stitched into the current one.
What didn’t work:
- Mix of Choice Quality – While some of the choices seemed meaningful, such as inputting a certain password to unlock a safe, other choices seemed arbitrary. For instance, there are choices like what cereal to eat or what music to listen to. Although at first it seems cool to have the choice of what cereal, the consequences of the choice are never explained. Furthermore, I did not personally identify with the choices, so they seemed less compelling for me. I ended up just randomly picking a choice without knowing if it was supposed to mean something. For other choices, sometimes the options were repetitive. I have chosen to do this before as an artistic choice in a game. However, in this instance it seemed like there wasn’t a point of having a choice if there was not actually any choice. I would have preferred the film to continue on without having it slow down so I could click on a meaningless choice.
- Revisiting Critical Points – If the viewer lands at a less than ideal ending or ends the storyline too early, the film gives the viewer an opportunity to go back to the last critical point to choose differently. For instance, I was allowed the option to go back after the protagonist threw himself off the building preemptively. At first, I enjoyed this mechanic. It made it easier for me to go back and “fix” my choices. However, sometimes I wanted to go even further back, somewhere between the first and last critical point. There would be no easy way to do that aside from starting completely over.
- Viewing Things Over and Over Again – In all three sessions (including by myself) all of the viewers eventually got tired of rewatching the same scenes over and over again. The film has 5 main endings with some variations. So, multiple series of choices led to the same ending. Furthermore, it was hard to understand how the choices led to their endings. Eventually, I think we all started to feel a lack of agency which resulted in us feeling frustrated.
My biggest takeaway from Bandersnatch is to carefully consider the choices and feedback I deliver to players. Interactive fiction is compelling only if players feel agency and that their choices actually matter. Additionally, I will have to come up with a way to make it easier for players to revisit critical branching points without having them rewatch scenes multiple times if they don’t want to.