by Rajalakshmi M

Does it matter if Stefan chooses Sugar Puffs over Frosties? Does it matter if Stefan chooses Tangerine Dream’s Phaedra or Isao Tomita’s The Bermuda Triangle? Well to know more the reader needs to go watch Netflix’s “choose-your-own-adventure” interactive drama called “Bandersnatch”.

For the uninitiated – “Black Mirror: Bandersnatch” is the story of Stefan Butler, a young man building a computer game in the year 1984. His game is based on a “choose-your-own-adventure” book, also called Bandersnatch. The game design is supposed to allow the player to make binary choices at various points in the game and then see the consequences of the choices as the game’s plot moves forward. And this is the summary of what happens to the viewer as well, where we as viewers can decide what happens with Stefan’s life, where we get to choose something as trivial as a cereal and to something as consequential as … Well I don’t want to spoil it for the innocent reader.

If the movie were to be considered linearly the acting is subtle, story engaging and the retro setting perfect. In a game we always know the end game is winning, but in a plot what should we expect? A happy ending? And the interactivity of the game lets the viewer decide what is this happiness!  The choices are emotionally engaging for the script writer gives the huge responsibility of what happens to the character with the viewer? And all a viewer gets is 10s to decide. In a movie the viewer gets sucked into characters with feelings of amazement and wonder as to what follows next in a very passive way. The viewers might want a million other possibilities for their favourite character. But all they get is what the scriptwriter wrote. But Bandersnatch sucks in the viewers in to its plot as we think we can change what happens with our favourite character.

This format is not easy to make. The movie needed to develop a branching narrative and film all the branches.  And can all branches have a definite end? And how to take care of some probable infinite loops? So, some branches lead to dead-end and the viewers have to choose differently to get to a definite end. But will I have to start all over again? The creators of “Bandersnatch” instead use a narrative device of recapping the action up and make a relevant choice that can help to move the movie forward. This would definitely have meant a longer script a longer shoot and a technological preparedness to organize stories to have endless permutations. And above all a level headedness to ensure that every branch had an end or going back. There were times as a viewer I felt let down by the end that came with one choice. But credit must go to the fact that here comes a format that makes the user go back and watch to see if there could be another ending and thus understand more about the show and its premise. It is early days for interactive entertainment unlike its cousin interactive gaming.

But what does Bandersnatch provide to the entertainment industry?

  1. User involvement: Bandersnatch has been an experiment on the viewer. “If bad things happen, you’ll feel even more crestfallen, because you were responsible,” said Todd Yellin, Netflix’s vice president for product. “If the character is victorious, you’ll feel even more uplifted because you made that choice.” Thus, interactive content can take a passive laid back experience of switching on the TV remote and watching to an active lean forward, wait, participate and watch experience.
  2. User selections: Every user selection in the show helps build the data gold mine. With every choice of its 137 million subscribers, Netflix gets to understand the personality of its viewer.  The choice of cereal could help it understand consumer choices of its viewers. The emotional choices can help Netflix understand the content leanings thereby helping it curate more personalized content for its viewers.
  3. Content Piracy protection – Interactive content could make piracy difficult for interactivity needs a platform.
  4. Dynamic Content- A new branch can be added in between, and a new outcome shown. This keeps the viewers on their toes helps the show marketing team to get more views.
  5. Technological Future: The format of the content throws the possibility of using VR-enabled technology for movie viewing to take movie watching experience to the next level.

But what are the repercussions of the format? The setting in 1984 could be an ode to the George Orwell’s classic Nineteen Eighty Four that touches on the theme of omnipresent government surveillance and propaganda. But if a platform can track users’ fantasies intricately then isn’t it easier to spread propaganda and track people?  But like Bob Bejan who runs experiential marketing in Microsoft says about interactive movies   “There’s a finite amount of media the filmmaker creates, which he slices and dices to give the illusion of control while at the same time guiding the viewer through the underlying blueprint” , then does the viewer really choose? If watching TV is a way to just switch off, does the need to make choices for a show to move forward serve the purpose at all? And, only time will tell if more shows come and viewers like it.  And whether users love this illusion of control with more work needing to be done to watch the show and by giving away the psyche?

Dear viewer the choice is yours!