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How ‘Black Mirror: Bandersnatch’ Succeeds and Fails as a Game

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch,” the new “Black Mirror” choose your own adventure-style or interactive fiction game episode has been the subject of many articles in the past week. It took social media by storm with both the gaming community and TV fans exchanging thoughts and theories, sparking the hunt for all possible pathways and endings, including wild claims of over one trillion pathways surfacing.

But what does Bandersnatch actually deliver within the genre from the perspective of a game designer?

The episode attracted a lot of deserved praise among the game developer community for bringing a genre almost as old as our medium into the mainstream. Game designers lived through a fairly successful wave of interactive movie experiences throughout the 90s with titles such as “Phantasmagoria” (Roberta Williams, Sierra On-Line) and “Night Trap” (Digital Pictures, SEGA). There is an endless amount of wonderful choose your own adventure books that many of us grew up with, which is something Bandersnatch references by literally making the game within the episode about one of those books – the first clue as to how meta it is. In the branching narrative, we follow Stefan, the protagonist on his journey of releasing his first video game.

In structure, Bandersnatch seems to build its narrative around five definitive endings that involve an actual conclusion with a number of soft endings that ask players to go back to story points and make different decisions. The backtracking nature here is what probably separates it most from the classic structure to the genre and only finds a similar approach in games with “The Stanley Parable.”

As a game designer, looking at Bandersnatch is as meta as it gets: We’re watching the story of a young game designer and the journey of his first game release in the wild video game times of the 80s. We witness the strange sub-culture rockstar phenomenon of the early times of video games where the handful of people actually making successful titles were both worshipped by their peers while also yearning for recognition from the companies and publishers for which they worked.

From a mechanical perspective, what stands out the most is the heavy-handed amount of backtracking implemented in the player experience. Among game designers, this is a known issue and all branches that are tucked away further down the track within the structure become exponentially less likely to be experienced by players. Bandersnatch combats this issue by including the hunt for different branches in its core experience. Usually, backtracking is one of the main game design no-go’s cross-genre: Making players experience the same content again needs good reasoning to back up the gameplay decision, to give purpose to recycling something that tends to not give new information to players.

However, the approach seems to be a necessity for the Netflix platform, exposing players to as much of the content as possible to ensure a viewing experience that seems to average around 120 minutes. The approach breaks away from the idea of players experiencing their own pathway and instead makes the game feel more like a hunt for multiple routes. It also results in an experience that is unlikely to deliver a feeling of having finished.

However, it equally borrows highly appreciated game design best practices from common theory applied in classic video games: It tutorializes its interaction diegetically by making players engage in a non-consequential choice of cereal for breakfast. It also does a decent job at masking which decisions are supposed to be right or wrong – a practice that has become quite important, especially in morality interactive fiction games. The philosophy behind the latter is that most players tend to not enjoy being seen as the bad person.

The game appears to organize its true endings around Stefan, the protagonist, releasing his game Bandersnatch and getting a review score, which also seems to serve as a meta-vehicle for how desirable the story outcome is supposed to be with review scores ranging from 0/5 to 5/5. The structure seems to funnel players towards at least one of these endings and rewards them with the credit sequence at the most desirable pathway.

It would be interesting to see how much further Netflix’s interactive experiences can be pushed. Bandersnatch is clearly trying to be as accessible as possible for a mainstream audience, especially for one that is not familiar with interactive fiction games, which is why it seems to keep its interactions mostly passive. The game passes on the potential for more in-depth problem solving as well as puzzles. Instead, the most complex interaction in the game requires players to memorize simple passcodes from memory or context. If game designers are truly curious about television IF games in the future, there is potential in including challenge levels with more complex interactions requiring players to take notes and use them for choices later down the track or for deliberately collaborative modes for party viewing experiences.

Even in this more passive sort of experience, Bandersnatch does get across just how complex a truly interesting branching narrative is, both in writing and execution. The decision to nudge viewers into multiple replays seems to draw from the eventual inclusion in old interactive fiction books of choice maps. These maps showed how exponentially wild branches can get, giving players a sense of the full extent of what they could potentially experience without forcing them into a hunt for all kinds of endings.

Those maps also highlight the secret to great branching narratives: Designers need to make sure they don’t end up tangled in too many choices while being smart about how to surface branches to players. Games that do poorly on the latter tend to be seen as shallow in their available choices, even though they are not on paper. In that regard, Bandersnatch found a suitable solution for the platform and audience alike by making it about the hunt for endings.

Bandersnatch has plenty to offer if you’re someone who cares about metanarrative and easter eggs – the more you are part of the subculture familiar with interactive fiction games, the better. From the episode being called Bandersnatch, which is the game created within the game, which is also the choose your own adventure book within the story, right up to the dedicated pathway of hyper-meta Netflix madness in which our protagonist seems to be losing his mind as we, the player try to explain Netflix streaming service to him: the charm of the metatextual nature of the game is hard to miss. It’s a clever way of approaching the experience with a hint of playfulness, a wink to both experienced gamers and mainstream audiences alike that serves as a vehicle to both the way the narrative intertwines as well as helping to blur the lines between the game and the real audience.

As a Black Mirror episode itself, it seemed to fall a little short in the delivery of the previously well-established formula of chilling commentary on the technology of the present and future. Bandersnatch manages to touch on some topics relating to the interactive fiction game pretense such as the idea of an external entity controlling a person’s choices or technology-related time travel.

But the closest it gets to commentary on technology and art might only be visible to other game developers: the incredibly taxing and daunting creative journey of finishing and releasing a game.

Ultimately, Bandersnatch hit the sweet spot in creating a highly accessible piece of work within the genre that can be played without much previous knowledge or exposure on many different devices and without explicit hardware. Spreading the joy of video games and the magic of interactivity is a development in mainstream media all game developers should welcome, even when it might not live up to exactly the best practices we are used to among our own communities.

I for one would enjoy seeing Netflix establish interactivity as part of their platform, enabling both game developers and filmmakers to collaborate on meaningful art for the masses – whether that’s established players or new people to experience our medium.

Jennifer Scheurle is a multi-award-winning, world-traveling game designer who worked on the “Earthlight” franchise in collaboration with NASA.

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