Despite all the innovative elements in Bandersnatch, from the decidedly Blackmirroresque turn the options presented to you take to the over-the-top metanarratives some of the pathways take, interactive storytelling is not something new. After all, the film is set in 1984 and no one is really shocked at the prospect of a video game where the player chooses their path through a series of decisions. That is not to say Bandersnatch is constructed as a video game, but that is the most direct influence, and the fact that brings that to the forefront of the narrative’s setup with Stefan being a programmer is just the first step in layering Bandersnatch.
Video games are inherently interactive, but not always in the same way. There’s the example of early hits such as Pac-Man or Donkey Kong, where the player has a set goal and has the tools to reach it. As more and more genres started to emerge in the video game landscape, the variety of interactivity started to increase. The first major change to occur is the introduction of storytelling in games. Early examples that come to mind – at least “early” in terms of my personal experience – include Mortal Kombat and Zelda. While Mortal Kombat incorporated the story of Liu Kang trying to save the world in between duels, games like Zelda threw the player in a world and allowed the protagonist some level of freedom in their path. The range of choices wasn’t great, and beyond choosing a few minor quests over others, it didn’t amount to much. Later RPG games developed the concept of freedom in a landscape and took it increasingly further away from any set sequence of events in the game’s narrative.Games like Minecraft, as well as older games like Age of Empires etc., offer modes of the game where there is no required action beyond world-building. All of these give varying levels of control to the player, but they’re still one degree removed from the kind of interactive storytelling Bandersnatch aimed for.
Role-playing games, usually in the adventure or survival subgenres that have been most successful in recent years, but also the likes of GTA, started incorporating levels of control that directly affect the storyline. In contrast with games like The Last of Us, where you as the player can choose some elements of gameplay but not your goal, and therefore endgame, are predetermined, the likes of 2018’s Vampyr give you options that determine aspects of your character, as well as the storyline of the game. It’s interesting to note that The Last of Us has been one of the most successful and critically acclaimed games of recent years, and most of its praise, beyond the technical aspects of it, regarded the storytelling. This has been a tendency of the last decade, where both developers and audiences are craving more emotionally complex and compelling storytelling in their games. And while this is very telling of the culture, the game doesn’t give you enough control over the narrative for you to be an active participant in your character’s arc and endpoint.
Vampyr, however, gives you your backstory: you are a doctor in 1918 London, trying to treat patients with Spanish flu, but have just been turned into a “vampyr” and struggle with the moral dilemma between the do-no-harm oath you live by and your newly-manifested thirst for blood. The choices you make determine who you are: hero, or villain. An aspect of the game that received much praise was the complexity of the people who populate the game, and their reactions to your choices. This complex network of people imitates life in that your destiny shifts depending on your actions, with not one set, predetermined, endgame that is to be reached.
Bandersnatch is not even Netflix’s first attempt at interactive storytelling. Past titles have included mostly animated shows like Puss in Boots, as well as the interesting case of Minecraft: Story Mode. The latter is inferior to Bandersnatch in its interactivity for a variety of reasons, the most important of which being that it doesn’t have any impact on the morality of the characters (beyond the point that the characters are initially too two-dimensional for this to be relevant because it’s meant for children). The developer of this show was Telltale Games, which unfortunately shut down in November. But before that, they had developed some of the most pioneering games in the choose-your-own-adventure genre. Highlights include their licenced Walking Dead games and The Wolf Among Us, based on Bill Willingham’s Fables comic book series. Both games warn you from the get-go that every choice you make will affect you, the characters around you and their perception of you, as well as the arc of the story. In The Wolf Among Us, you play a sheriff who is trying to keep fairy-tale creatures living in New York from being exposed to the public. His interactions with them present you with choices, with every choice forming your character and his moral stance. The game reminds you that “silence is also an option” and you will ultimately have enough control to become a hero or a villain. This is also the case in The Walking Dead games. In the first “season” you play a character named Lee, who encounters Clementine, an eight-year-old girl who is lost in the zombie apocalypse and you become a sort of father figure to her. Or you don’t. You can be her salvation or her doom. You are in control of this character and what happens around him. Choosing who he is as a person is the ultimate level of control in the narrative. The storyline of Bandersnatch is similarly controlled on the same basis, but as always, Black Mirror isn’t going to let you off the hook that easily.
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