Narrascope 2019 - Panel Discussion - Dissecting the BanderSnatch With a Vorpal Blade
A panel discussion from the Narrascope Conference, Boston, June 15+16 2019 - Celebrating Narrative Games “Dissecting the Bandernatch With a Vorpal Blade: What Netflix’s Choose Your Own Adventure Got Right and Got Wrong” was Narrascope’s panel discussion. Heather Albano, Mary Duffy, Jason Stevan Hill, Emily Short, and Ian Thomas discuss Netflix’s first venture into the world of interactive television with Bandersnatch, the Black Mirror episode that let viewers influence the story in a choose-your-path adventure kind of way. What was good, where did it fall flat, how would experienced game designers have tackled this kind of project? But beware, there will be spoilers!
DIFFERENT AUDIENCE REACTIONS
Reactions different wildly from those familiar with the format, and the many audience members who had never previously been introduced to it.
Familiarity was again seen to be an important design tool.
CONTROVERSIAL CHOICE DESIGN
Not all choices made sense, or appeared to have purpose
THE IMPORTANCE OF ENDINGS
Viewing experiences were very different according to the endings reached
Too often the reality of a context was undermined, when a more interesting solution could have been found.
THE IMPORTANCE OF INTENTIONALITY
The writers could have done more to explore intentional participation through choices
GIVE PLAYERS TIME TO CONSIDER CHOICES
The decision to freeze action and give players time to make choices was generally received well.
The option to step back in time was innovative, handled well
Whilst branching narratives are complicated, production load can be minimised by techniques to group potential responses thematically
UNCOMFORTABLE SOCIAL MESSAGES
A number of panel members questioned social assumptions within the game
DETAILED DISCUSSION TRANSCRIPT
As a gamer, what did you learn? And what did you hate?
DIFFERENT AUDIENCE REACTIONS
By the time `I watched it there were already a whole lot of game designers who had seen it and panned it. Where's the innovation they asked? … and yet at the same time there was a whole bunch of consumers saying, Wow, this is exciting. We've never seen anything like this before… is a really interesting disjunction, I think. And so my first real reaction to it was that it introduced a lot of new people to interactivity, and that's a pretty major plus.
They clearly built this to feel familiar for television viewers, the way it handles recaps, the way it handles changing audio and those kinds of elements. There was a lot of television craft that went into it. And that's part of what makes it accessible to those kinds of people. As a result I found myself a little bit more sort of forgiving of some of those elements.
CONTROVERSIAL CHOICE DESIGN
But also, I got very frustrated really early on with the first few choices that just didn't seem to do anything very much, with no immediate consequences that just railroaded you straight back in to the narrative.
I felt sympathetic to the possible design reasons for those choices because it felt like …We've got a TV audience, we need to get them used to the idea, they might even need to pick something. And if they miss and they fail to make a choice early on, we don't want their first experience with this style to be …oh, I missed out on doing something interesting because I didn't really understand the controls.
It’s interesting to think about it in terms of a product that has to teach its players how to play. It reminds me of something I encountered when I did customer support for Choice of Games. When I first started working for them, I would get emails from people basically saying “Please put a back button to your games, I picked the wrong choice, and I have to do the whole thing over again”. And I would diligently respond that there was no wrong options. But there are arguably many points during Bandersnatch where viewers can make the wrong choice. In fact audiences proceed directly into what seems to be the most important choice right off the bat in Bandersnatch, namely… Should I work in the Office of Tucker soft games? Or should I work on this at home? And everything about the way the scene is constructed, says, work at the office, you're going to have all this support that you don't have as an independent game designer, and that's the wrong choice. So I'm so frustrated by that particular moment. It seems to be teaching audiences that their choices don't matter. Because what seems obvious to you is wrong. And so, you know, in a game that's trying to do all this layered metaphorical stuff about control…That's the first real choice. And it's tricking the audience. And that was such a turn off to me.
I agree 100% . When I hit that first choice, and went into the office and died, it's like…really? So I recognize the cultural impact that it has. Introducing lay people to interactivity is cool, but in many ways they’re replicating what I consider to be bad habits that I want to move away from as a design culture. So, as a designer and as a player, I myself did not care for it.
Okay, that's fair, but I actually had a different reaction to that first choice and the shortness of the path. I thought it was an interesting design choice because if you have players who have never seen anything like this before it teaches them right up front that this genre involves replaying the same scenes and making different choices. In that context I thought the confronting delivery of the need to reply choices was forgivable.
THE IMPORTANCE OF ENDINGS
I also found that personally, I had a different reaction to the experience as a whole depending on what ending I got. And I feel like that's something that might be interesting to delve into.
Me too. I enjoyed the piece more than a number of my friends because the ending that I got was the one in which he winds up being reunited with his mother and sharing in her death on the train. And that, to me was much more thematically resonant than many of the other options because I was much less interested in sort of gotcha endings where, you know, he fails to make a good game for some silly reason, or, you know, the whole thing devolves into this weird murder plot. I felt like the business about what has happened to him in the past and how he can revisit that trauma was a story that was less obvious to tell based on the form.
So what I mean by that is, I felt like a number of the paths through Bandersnatch were basically things where Rooker was asking questions about freewill or about you know, what does it mean if you have somebody, a player controlling the protagonist, which basically have been asked and re-asked by one interactive narrative designer after another. It’s almost the first thing that people do when they realize that this form exists. So, what I found most interesting was the case where the story it actually kind of gone beyond that set of probes into something different.
I agree. I got the same ending and I think it was an extremely poignant ending… choosing to go and die with your mom on the train. That was like a good Black Mirror episode to me. But when I was looking at the different endings that ending did not appear to be common.
Each ending almost catapults you into a different universe. In some endings you are definitely controlled by a person. You’re making a movie. Actually, you step out of it, and you're the actor or the Stefan that you are controlling is an actor on set, which is a totally different universe from the other universes where you die, or you're the mother. So there's Something really strange about different roles stepping out beyond the original fictional frame and ending the story outside of itself. Great for the cognition of the player, because the player has built an idea of the world that they're in, and then suddenly you shift that from under them.
That kind of universe switching approach can be something where you're kind of asking the player, what kind of story do they even want out of this? What are they interested in? But the trick I feel in the case of Bandersnatch, is that it's, it's hard to actually articulate that agency As a player, although I had ideas about what I wanted to explore, there are only a few points where I really felt like I had the agency to articulate that to the system.
THE IMPORTANCE OF INTENTIONALITY
Not me, one of the things with choice games that we really tried to focus on is the idea of intentionality, that you have some idea of the possible consequences of your decisions. And you're in there with the therapist and you get into the fight and then it's like, jump on your dad or jump out the window. But if it turns out that you're just an actor that's forgotten the fact that you're an actor… that complete lack of intentionality was frustrating for me.
Also, if you have X number of options, and the player is failing a number of hidden tests, so that only one option appears instead of all 10, there's something wrong. And I question what that's supposed to do for you as a player in Bandersnatch.
Yeah, there were a couple of choices that seemed to duplicate each other. I mean, throw the jewels at the computer or destroy the computer. I don't want to do either of those.
And there are some that are explicitly the wrong choice where if you decide to throw the towel on the computer, it immediately brings you to try this again or go back or something like that, which I hated. I thought that was a cop out if you're going to give the player choice, it should be a choice that goes somewhere.
GIVE PLAYERS TIME TO CONSIDER CHOICES
That said, there are some interesting things in those choices just from an execution point of view. We've all seen all the FMV games where you hit a choice and everything stops while you make a decision. So it was quite nice that they had the kind of live feed happening in the background and that during that the character you were responding to would generally prompt you and put a bit more pressure on which is interesting. But there's also a flaw in that which is, it's like the choices out of walking dead where you have three choices actually left to right or fail to act. Bandersnatch had that as well but didn't really seem to do anything with the fail to act option, other than auto-choose on your behalf, which was just a bit strange because it meant that you could just sit through it and sit back and watch the whole thing and it kind of loses the point a little to me because then you're not in control of anything.
I think there is a different emotional effect since you have as much time as you want to sit there and think about what you want. And so it's, you know, fail to act means something different than if you've been able to think about being inactive, and that's my choice, right? Whereas if, you know, you're sort of sitting there and and you're troubled by the question, and you're having a hard time making up your mind, or you somehow don't really want to commit and your time is running out that feels different. Yeah. So I'm a little bit more patient with it in a timed context, and I think it's more expressive actually. So it wasn't so much that I wanted a third option to press. Yeah, it was more. I want there to be a consequence of failure, like an unexpected ending, or something….
And I guess we should talk about flashbacks as well, because they were effective. Going back through the loop, and shortcutting all the sequences and seeing the results of some of your choices worked really well, brought it into a TV form really well. But, but there was never any attempt to explain in the fiction how that happened. I mean, you can look at something I like that the strange reversal of going back through choices is very explicitly laid out in the world. How are we repeating this however? Do the things I did last time apply to this loop? That's cool, but it lost me as a player. What is the friction? What's the infectious reason for this strangeness?
I'm struck by how differently I reacted to this emotionally depending on which of the endings I happened to strike. I didn't get death first, although it's my favourite because I agree with the emotionally resonant. I got, history repeats itself, where pearl ends up finishing the game, which I actually thought also worked as a black mirror episode in a very different way that it was very intellectually clever rather than emotionally resonant. I'm good with either ending, the one that annoyed me to death was the Netflix one that just struck me as the kind of thing you write at three o'clock in the morning when you're a bit blocked and it seems funny at the time.
I was listening to Charlie Brooker the other night talking about that, and that wasn't supposed to be a main choice, it was supposed to be a bit of an Easter egg. And they went through testing and decided to put it in.
And then I found the government control paths, which Stefan mentioned and the whole thing If that path felt to me, like they'd hacked it in that weekend, and that was when I started to wonder how deliberately the creators were commenting on different types of interactive fiction. I suspect that they haven't read that too deeply enough into the various types of interactive fiction to be that explicit about it. I think a lot of the impression I got was they wrote a huge tree in twine and then chopped lots of bits off when they realized it wouldn't fit into production.
When I was replaying it this week, I wanted to follow through all the leaves have an individual branch, if you will, and I was frustrated to that degree where it would take me farther back than I wanted to go and not let me explore all of those leaves. That said, I thought that the recap in particular was the best part. Like that was a really an innovation. It's not something that I'd seen before that I think will probably become a gold standard for this type of format in the future.
THINK ABOUT WHAT CHOICES MEAN
One choice context that I found particularly effective was the kind of locked, safe situation where the story presents you with the protagonist’s father's safe. And there are different storylines that could lead you to think that different things might be inside. You might think that it's about this government control program. You might think that it contains something that's quite personal. And you're offered options about what combination to use to unlock the safe. And it presents the task as though it's a puzzle and as though you're supposed to solve it by knowing what the combination ought to be based on what's happened previously. But actually, all of the combinations are words that connect somehow to what's been going on in the story. So the choice that you're really making is what do I think is important enough to be the thing that might be in the safe at this moment? And so, although it disguises itself as a puzzle, it's actually asking what do you as a player care about, and that I thought was quite cool.
It actually works better than it would have done if there was a parser type answer, because it's making it really clear there are potentially multiple right answers. And if you revisit that choice point, having come through different avenues in the store, you're actually offered different combinations solutions, which lead then on to different discoveries in the safe.
I think that's what the fight sequence is about as well…what type of game are we playing?
Yeah. I managed to miss enter that code through clumsiness and get it wrong in playtesting. Just not enough people were getting the number. I also had to be much more explicit about it and retire that as the main puzzle from what I gathered from the script,
Okay. But the question I got about the whole thing, actually, in the podcast. They interviewed Charlie Brooker about Black Mirror in general. And the impression I get from that was that Netflix said, Would you like to do this interactive fiction? They went, No, we don't want to. That's really nice. But we want to leave that. And then came up with an idea about a Black Mirror episode involving control and agency, and then did it the other way around, and went, Oh, no, this has to be interactive. Which at first involved trying to build this massive, massive branching tree narrative, and then production reality hit that massive tree. And so, what we've got left is really a very sparse impression of what the original structure was supposed to be. Because, as we all know, having again been through this loop over 30 years or whatever, the combinatorial explosion just doesn't work for filmed content really well.
And it made me wonder, like, why didn't they structurally do more with what we call failing forward (trial and error)? For example, you might have a choice with three options. Each option is testing a certain stat or maybe a certain Boolean for the past thing that you've already chosen, and it tests it, and then you have six different possible outcomes that involve either success, or failure. Why not just make two films for six different outcomes? Sure, it's expensive as hell to shoot a bunch of different outcomes. But if you can write something that either fails forward, or succeeds forward, and just elaborate on little moments here and there, then you could you could have something that feels a little more meaningful,
The production team were also saying that they tried to record a scene, and then a bunch of different lines to plug into that scene, and found that they just completely lost the emotion of the scene because they didn't know where it was going. So they actually had to record the scene six times, with six different line deliveries. An experienced game actor, will know how to do that and to be able to authenticate themselves, but they're not using game actors for filming.
I think they were banking on the fact that 90% of the players are not going to turn it down for a variety of reasons. It's the most interesting choice in the scene. Let's do it and see what happens right again, that's the problem with their intentionality. And their design strategy is to make one much more attractive than the other. And then they either reward you or punish you for picking the most attractive one and I'm not interested in being punished and I'm not even really that interested in being rewarded.
The first time I got the take your meds or don't take your meds I got to it from the path where Colin has ranted about people controlling you by putting stuff in your food in the context of the government control path, which is not well executed and is not believable. But in that context, deciding to throw your pills away makes a lot of sense. It's a story
The second time I got to it. I did not have the context of the common explanation. It was just I'd come from my psychiatrist office. And so I took the meds and then I failed to finish the game and the game that Stefan created was not well received. And so explicitly connecting antidepressants to creativity is incredibly irresponsible. So yeah, I was pretty disappointed by that.
What are the social messages of this piece?
I found the mental illness aspects troubling. I also think there was a missed opportunity to go as far as they could have done with the friendship with Collin because it felt like he was a really interesting character and the possibility of comradeship in a difficult emotional space and different creative space is really important. And it is a possible resolution for a lot of the things that are afflicting the character. And the fact that they take you partway down that road and then they say, Oh, he drugs you, or you accept his drugs and then things go haywire. And there's this weird force jumping off a balcony scene. I felt like that was there was something false about that. It felt like we got to this point because they thought it would be shocking or because they felt like they had to show you having a bad result for taking drugs. It feels like it's an opening to emotional intimacy and connection and you want to say yes to that, and it really bothered me that the story was like a hard no, and not for a good reason.
I was genuinely emotionally affected by the death ending. There's a bit at the very beginning where, where you're talking about your mother's death, and the psychiatrist says he didn't know. And so being back there and picking …No, I'm not getting on the train, knowing what's going to happen is also a very interesting emotional moment. I would have liked to have seen them do more of that.
Heather Albano, Mary Duffy, Jason Stevan Hill, Emily Short, and Ian Thomas. 2019. Narrascope 2019 - Panel Discussion - Dissecting the Bandernatch With a Vorpal Blade. In Narrascope 2019: YouTube.
The Illusive Ludonarrativity and the Problem with Emergent Interactive Storytelling Models in Interactive Movies
Whilst cinematic games are increasingly popular, interactive movies remain niche and often struggle to combine narrative and interactivity. Some theorists argue that this is because interaction obstructs the movie watching experience.
"The problem is that too much interactivity will weaken the narrative and too little will weaken the gameplay" (p. 22 citing Crogan, 2002).
For this reason, even though internet TV platforms have the capacity to include interactivity, most don't, or if they do, they offer only very limited interactivity. The few examples of successful integration of more extensive interaction such as Her Story (2015) and Roundabout (2015) are either regarded as niche, or classified as games. Indeed, due to the historically poor reputation of "basic narrative with minimal branching and predictable endings... (Edmond, 2015; Edwards, 2003)" in interactive movies, the gaming classification has been a notable preference. The researchers quote a print advertisement for the interactive movie Psychic Detective, which self-describes as a full motion video game, adding 'Yeah, we know full-motion video games in the past sucked' (Interactive Movie, n.d.).
The researcher defines interactive movies as those which include interactions that navigate the narrative and create alternate stories, albeit within the overall structure of the script, so that the audience is also in some sense the co-creator of the interactive movie (Kromhout & Forceville, 2013).
Using a combination of surveys, interviews and observations of 150 university students who were asked to play the interactive movie, The Outbreak, a branching tree narrative movie. Branching tree narratives allow for pauses so the user can choose a path, and based on their choice the narrative continues with multiple possible endings.
"Looking at our chosen interactive movie for this study, the interactivity only serves to branch the narrative and actually pauses the play until the user chooses a path. For that matter, most interactive movies seem to only use interactivity as an add on and not at all embedded as part of the narrative" (p. 27).
"While some of the participants enjoyed the novelty of trying a new concept, most found the interactivity distracting and even frustrating, with the most common key words used being – boring, distracting, frustrating, unique.." (p. 26).
The researcher concludes that gamers are interested in complex interactivity and do not find interactive movies challenging enough, while non-gamers find the interactivity distracting. Thus, interactive movies as they are seem to be lost between two distinct genres, but the in between approach satisfies neither audience.
The researcher recommends non-obstructive interactive mechanisms that are complex enough to create an immersive gaming experience, while fully integrated in the narrative.
"For interactivity to be fully embedded, the gamer needs to let go of the role of story author and be a willing participant in the narrative, immersed in the story by the act of interacting with the narrative in a semiotic manner" (p. 23).
A notable example of early interactive cinema in 1967, the interactive movie Kinoautomat (Weiberg, 2002) and its use of pre-determinism and making fun of democracy. In this movie the audience voted on each choice but that always lead to the same conclusion. The interactivity is very simple with a branching narrative structure that leads to the next section; the interactivity preserves the narrative and the narrative structure, but at the same time, the interactivity itself is actually part of the narrative in that it tells the story of democracy, no matter what you vote.
Work is under way to explore whether focusing upon character interaction, rather than narrative interaction might also enable more interactive movie engagement, but early efforts like the Façade Interactive Drama produced in 2005 (Mateas & Stern, 2005; Rettberg, 2015) are still experimental.
The market is not yet developed, and the researcher concludes that it will require considerable investment in talented writers and interactive designers to produce a few hit interactive movies before audiences are willing to consume such movies regularly. e.g. Netflix recently added interactivity to Black Mirror Bandersnatch interactive episode (discussed in another research summary) which was met with fanfare and positive audience engagement (Chua, 2019). As yet these efforts are still experimental.
Dahdal, S., 2020. The Illusive Ludonarrativity and the Problem with Emergent Interactive Storytelling Models in Interactive Movies. Journal of Digital Media & Interaction, 3(6), pp.17-33
Embracing the Combinatorial Explosion: A Brief Prescription for Interactive Story R&D
The USW Audience of the Future research team is compiling a summary collection of recent research in the field of immersive, and enhanced reality media