In early 2017, Netflix approached “Black Mirror” creators Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones with an unusual idea. The streaming service had experimented with interactive children’s content, giving young viewers the ability to choose their own path through a story with a series of multiple-choice questions that could be easily answered using a TV remote control. .
Now Netflix was ready to bring the same format to adult audiences – and “Black Mirror” seemed to fit the bill perfectly. Except that the two creators had none. During a recent interview with Variety, Brooker recalled his initial response: “No way!”
Jones agreed, in part because she never really liked the earlier examples of interactive storytelling. “To me, they’ve always felt a little bit fancy,” she said. But when they started discussing ideas for future episodes of the series a few weeks later, they came up with a plot that really only worked as an interactive movie. “At that point, it was pretty straightforward,” Brooker recalls.
The result is “Black Mirror: Bandersnatch,” Netflix’s first-ever interactive adult film, which debuted on the service Friday. Set in 1984, “Bandersnatch” is the story of teenage geek Stefan (played by Fionn Whitehead of “Dunkirk” fame) who sets out to turn a multiple choice sci-fi book of the same title into a computer game. pioneer who also presents the player with a series of choices.
Early on, we learn that the eccentric author of the original book “Bandersnatch” fell into madness while writing the multiple choice adventure, ultimately killing his wife. And it’s not too much of a spoiler to say that Stefan grapples with his own inner demons – and turning Madman’s Book into a very complex multiple-choice computer game on his own doesn’t exactly seem to improve his sanity. .
Brooker said he could empathize with those feelings. “What we were trying to do was what Stefan was trying to do,” he said. “There were a lot of points where we felt it was driving us crazy.”
Fortunately, Brooker and Jones had the Netflix product team to keep them sane. After producing interactive children’s titles such as ‘Le Chat Botté: Trapped in an Epic Tale’ and ‘Buddy Thunderstruck: The Maybe Pile’, Netflix Director of Product Innovation Carla Engelbrecht realized that the company was on to something. “We can do so much more than linear television,” she said.
But while young viewers may be okay with relatively simple choices, adult audiences clearly require more complexity, which can be a huge logistical challenge. That’s why engineers at Netflix created the company’s own scripting tool for branching narratives, called Branch Manager.
The tool allows creatives to create intricate narratives that include loops, guiding viewers to the main story when they’ve strayed too far, giving them a chance to start over, if you will – something Jones and Brooker have artfully incorporated into the story. At one point, one of the key characters even tells Stefan that he chose the wrong path, which leads him to realize, “I should try again!”
“Bandersnatch” comes with five possible endings. Viewers who choose the faster path and decide not to start over can walk through the movie in about 40 minutes. The average viewing time is approximately 90 minutes.
In total, there are over a trillion unique permutations in history. However, this also includes relatively simple iterations that don’t necessarily change the story itself. For example, one of the first decisions is to help Stefan choose which cereal to eat in the morning. “We want [viewers] to have a successful choice from the start, “said Engelbrecht.
Engelbrecht’s interactive content team received a lot of help from across the company to develop the technology for “Bandersnatch”, which also included adjusting the way Netflix delivers content. “Quick pauses in a non-linear story,” she explained. Instead, Netflix began testing simplified playback controls with “Bandersnatch”.
Another tweak affects Netflix’s streaming itself: The service’s apps typically cache content for a smooth streaming experience, even when a viewer’s internet connection temporarily slows down. For “Bandersnatch”, the app now needs to cache two possible paths, which older versions of the Netflix app are unable to do.
This is why the movie is not available on the Netflix app for some older smart TVs. The company is also excluding “Bandersnatch” from playing on Google’s Chromecast and Apple TV for technical reasons, but Netflix vice president of product Todd Yellin didn’t seem too concerned about leaving someone behind. “Almost every Netflix household has a device that can play ‘Bandersnatch’,” he said.
Other design decisions that went into creating “Bandersnatch” are more subtle and fall somewhere between product design and storytelling. For example, the team had to find the right pace for an interactive story like this. Give viewers too many choices, and they might get bored of all these decisions. Let the plot go on too long without a choice, and maybe half the audience has misplaced their remotes. “We talk a lot about cadence,” said Engelbrecht.
Jones and Brooker also remember pushing Netflix’s tools to their limits with “Bandersnatch”. “It continued to develop, even when we were in pre-production,” Brooker said. “We deliberately pushed what was going to be possible.” Until the day they hit the wall, or rather the limits of Netflix’s Branch Manager tool. “The storyline of the story fell apart,” he recalls – a first for the veteran TV screenwriter.
Interestingly, the same thing happens to Stefan during the final sprint to complete his interactive computer game. And the similarities don’t end there. Brooker and Jones skillfully play with the branching story designs, repeatedly pushing their viewers away just when they think they’ve got the whole multiple-choice affair under control.
The duo also incorporates the viewers themselves into the story and even gives the Netflix brand an appearance. Along the way, viewers will begin to wonder who is really in charge and if their choices really matter. In the words of Colin Ritman (played by Will Poulter), the genius video game programmer / high-tech shaman who becomes Stefan’s colleague and mentor: “How a path ends is immaterial”.
Ultimately, this ability of the creators of “Black Mirror” to disturb the minds of their audiences suits Netflix’s first interactive adult story perfectly. It also seems to set the bar incredibly high, which begs the question: How can one again create a story so perfectly suited to this nascent format?
Yellin said the company plans to try interactive games for other types of stories, including comedies, romances, and maybe even horror movies. “It turns out that it’s a big audience for the first one,” he admitted.
Which begs the question: what does Netflix plan to do with this new format, anyway? There had been rumors that the streaming service was trying to expand into video games, which was fueled by the company’s partnership with now defunct game studio Telltale.
“We don’t see this as a game,” Yellin replied. “We tell stories,” Engelbrecht added. Ultimately, the goal was to take storytelling forward, give creatives new ways to express themselves, and give viewers a lot more to talk about. Yellin said, “We think we’re on to something that could be really exciting.”