Photo Credit: Adam Rose/Netflix
“There's certainly an interesting thing, I guess, going on, that the fact that you're making the choices is part of the story,” Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker tells a group of journalists gathered at Netflix's headquarters in Los Gatos, California on a late November afternoon. “Specifically, in this, which I don't know how we'd pull that trick off again. So, in that respect, we've sort of spoiled things for everyone,” he adds to laughter from everyone.
Brooker is talking about their most ambitious project to date yet — Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, out now on Netflix — an interactive film, set in the 1980s, about a video game programmer named Stefan (Fionn Whitehead) trying to create an eponymous interactive video game based on a fictitious choose-your-own-adventure book of the same name. As the viewer, you get to control Stefan's actions. Bandersnatch is self-referential, and it even breaks the fourth wall in places.
“That's the central hook that made me laugh and that's usually my sort of litmus test for something I want to write is, 'Do I think that's inherently funny? And then, how can I make it not funny?” Brooker adds with a chuckle. He says it's the weirdest Black Mirror film they have done and terms it “very experimental” and “quite nuts”. The anthology series is known for its unsettling, incisive tales of techno-paranoia — it's been doing that since its start in 2011 — and Bandersnatch is even more out there.
“And then you realise while you're writing it, 'Oh actually, there's a bit of commentary here on storytelling, or on interactivity in general, or free-will, or control. But the central hook always comes first. When people pitch us ideas, they tend to be very earnest. We prefer to start with more of a hook and then you find stuff along the way that's going to comment on stuff without hopefully being too didactic or finger-wagging.”
In Bandersnatch, viewers will get to choose their own adventure, à la the popular series of similarly-titled books for kids from decades ago. But it's far from the first interactive movie. Most sources trace its origins back to Czech filmmaker Radúz Činčera's 1967 black comedy Kinoautomat. It was rudimentary in that the film was paused by a live moderator whenever audiences had to vote to choose, and moreover, their choices had no meaning as Kinoautomat had a single ending, which Činčera justified as being a satire of democracy and determinism.
Bega's Battle, an arcade video game that released in 1983 — the same year as the popular Dragon's Lair — was the first interactive movie experience to feature branching storylines, albeit relying on previously-shot footage for a Japanese anime film called Harmagedon. The format proved to be popular in the video game space, but the storytelling was restricted for decades by technological constraints of memory and disk space.
That might not be the case today, but interactive stories are still confined to a singular platform or certain platforms due to their very nature. That is and is not the case with Black Mirror: Bandersnatch — on one hand, it's only on Netflix but on the other, it's available on a thousand devices — be it your smartphone, tablet, laptop or TV — in 28 languages, with few exceptions in the Apple TV, Chromecast and older less-smart TVs, owing to technology limitations. If your device supports it, you will see a spark icon in the top-right corner of the title page (see above).
“This feels like a new thing because it's on such a mass platform that is gently easing its way into people's homes, rather than coming at you via a sort of dedicated gaming device. It's going to be on your TV,” says Brooker.
Bandersnatch is also not the first interactive project for Netflix, which has produced four children's animation specials in the past couple of years. But it is the first on this scale, in that it's the first live-action one and the first oriented for adults. That means there's pressure on the Black Mirror team to prove the interactive format is a viable storytelling tool, something more than a gimmick.
In May last year, Netflix invited Brooker and his co-showrunner Annabel Jones, who are based in London, to their California headquarters for the first pitch on doing something around interactive. The two nodded their way through the meeting — Jones recalls kicking Brooker under the chair, telling him to keep smiling — and left fully unconvinced.
“I think we did basically pretty much walk out of the room and go, ‘No.',” says Brooker. “That's not happening. But partly because at that point we didn't know what the story would be and we were like, ‘Well, wouldn't that just be a gimmick?' I used to review video games like years ago and in the ‘90s, there were a lot of sort of CD-ROM things that would come out and be very sort of slow and I thought, ‘Well, they're often really clunky and I can't see how that's going to translate into Black Mirror.'”
But their stance changed a few weeks later after they stumbled upon the concept of Bandersnatch during a regular ideas' meeting back home, which both Brooker and Jones felt would only work in an interactive medium and realised now they had to do it. For Jones though, the gimmick aspect wasn't the only concern.
“To have meaningful choice points, you will ultimately end up with lots of disparate, potentially meaningless endings and particularly if you're going for very dramatic, entertaining choice points, suddenly you could find your protagonist in so many different scenarios that you've lost sense of the whole,” she explains. “There's no cohesion to the universe and if the world doesn't make sense and you don't believe in the character and you don't think that he's got any consistency of character, then I don't care. And I have no emotional engagement.”
“It's about what we're limiting those choices to,” Brooker chimes in. “It's one of the trickiest challenges. If you do take a video game, one big difference between this and a video game — I was playing Red Dead Redemption 2 the other day because I'm an overgrown child. And there's a bit in it where I go for a cut-scene and the main character has an emotive conversation with a long-lost love of his. It's quite well done. It's quite emotive. And then you can turn around and just punch a farmer to death for no reason if you want. And that is not a consistent character. That's sort of random.”
“The job as the sort of storyteller is to try and present an experience that feels satisfying, but of course within this form, to a degree we can't be in control of all of that,” says Jones. “We can try and hope that we have thought through everything, that we've crafted it in a way that all of it should make sense, and all of it should earned, and all of this should feel consistent, but we have to step back. But, but, I think we have. When I view it now and I go back through all of the experiences, it all feels as if they're adding and building and that they all feel that they exist. They all feel that they should exist for Stefan as his experiences.”
The permutation and combination nature of a choose-your-own-adventure tale means there are countless potential pathways for viewers in Bandersnatch. It's entirely possible you won't see some many parts of the movie on your first playthrough. And there is an unagreed-upon number of endings since there are several ways to “end” Stefan's story. It's also possible to get stuck in Bandersnatch, whereupon you'll be greeted by an '80s-styled split-screen that guides you towards other choices.
“Sometimes, Stefan has to have certain experiences before he is able to open up different chapters of the story, and that's again about character and about things that he's learned and things that he's prepared to deal with, before he can be opened up to another branch,” says Jones.
When you do get to a proper end, the Netflix app will display an “Exit to credits” option in the top-right corner of your screen. You don't have to click on it, you could also choose to head back and take a different route suggested by the Black Mirror team, which will let you explore more of the Bandersnatch story.
“There is a point at which it will eventually take you to the credits when you've seen lots and lots and lots of stuff, not necessarily everything,” says Brooker. “But the order in which that happens is very malleable. It's all a bit like a bloody Rubik's Cube, isn't it?”
The interactive nature and twisted setup of Bandersnatch also means it changes how people talk about a shared experience. Instead of ‘What did you think?', the first question people will now have be, ‘Did you see that?'
But what if people don't make choices at all in Bandersnatch? “That was something Charlie was very keen on, [in that] the default's not going to give you your best viewing experience,” says Black Mirror producer Russell McLean. He has previously been the animation producer for Waldo on season two's “The Waldo Moment” and has worked as the visual effects producer on seasons three and four.
“If you don't do anything, you get a really crappy experience,” Bandersnatch director David Slade adds to laughter from everyone. Slade is known for his work on American Gods and Hannibal; he also directed season four's “Metalhead”. “And not in a really fun way either. We were like, ‘Well, let's make sure that people do interact.'”
“You'll be left with 30 seconds of split-screen,” says McLean, if you don't interact. “At some point, we really want people to kind of get involved. And in fact, that's the only way this story really makes sense.”
The job of getting viewers to make choices while still being immersed in the story naturally fell to Brooker & Co.'s collaborators at Netflix. In fact, to hear them tell it, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch is a more close-knit marriage of Netflix's technology and content divisions than anything it has done before.
“What they were able to do engineering wise — when we saw the version of the final build maybe a month ago — we were amazed at just how smooth it was,” says McLean. “I expected to see lots of buffering. That was always our fear.”
Sitting next to McLean, Slade mimics an actor's movements starting and stopping, the kind of broken experience that most Internet users have had at some point. “That was the fear and it didn't happen,” Slade adds.
Netflix's director of product innovation, Carla Engelbrecht, explains that the traditional setup of loading the next few seconds fails with interactive titles since there are multiple directions the viewer can go in. You could load a few seconds of every possible pathway, but that would just overwhelm the device's memory.
"And so, we built new technology that [is] more thoughtfully loading what are these pieces that we need to load,” Engelbrecht adds. “And in particular, we're only loading what is relevant to you. Or what we think is going to be relevant to you.”
The product team at Netflix has also had to rethink playback controls for interactive titles, she says, because the past can be changed, and the future is undetermined: “We're going to test a couple of versions because we actually don't know the answer yet. Some members will see a very simplified control set. And then there'll be some who get a version where there's previous choices available to help them jump back if they want to change a recent decision that they've made.”
The complex, winding nature of Bandersnatch required Netflix to also build a new internal tool from scratch called the “Branch Manager”. Brooker originally started with the open-source Twine that's made for interactive storytelling. “But we knew that tool would only get us through the early stages of the script because there was a point where you couldn't embed video into it,” notes Englebrecht. “You couldn't really continue to be flexible in the way we needed.”
“I'm fond of in all of our active projects — I use the metaphor we're building the airplane as we fly it,” she adds. “So even with Branch Manager, they were giving us not only deliveries of Bandersnatch, but they were also giving us notes on features that they'd like added to Branch Manager. And then we'd turn around be like ‘Great, we can do that in two weeks. We can do that in a week. We can't do that yet.' All of this was evolving as we were going.”
One important feature was ‘state-tracking', which Netflix hadn't needed for previous interactive projects but was essential here. “In Black Mirror's Bandersnatch, we will remember some of the actions that are taken,” says Netflix's VP of product, Todd Yellin. “We will remember 'Ah, you took that path before and now you're going wrapping around here and oh you just did that again,' and we'll remember what you did. And then, we'll be able to pay that off in different ways.” An example is the cereal or music you choose, which then shows up unexpectedly elsewhere later.
There were some localisation concerns as well, thanks to one interactive moment in Bandersnatch which requires viewers to input in a phone number. “We went back to Charlie and he had to puzzle out some other ways,” says Englebrecht. “And then at one point, as we started to play with it, we saw this is really hard, ‘I can't remember the numbers.' And then, he would kind of tweak again the versions of the script to make it where we felt like it would be not frustrating for a viewer but would be this kind of delightful moment when they encounter the phone.”
Bandersnatch necessitated a lot of additional work for the Black Mirror team as well. Though most viewers will spend an hour and a half watching it, the branching storylines meant there was two and a half hours of script in total. They couldn't track revisions as you normally would in a script and things would change as they were filming — the aspect ratio was one of those changes — which meant 2-3 hours of additional prep each day.
Moreover, they had to shoot in the order of the script, which isn't how film productions tend to work. “On the first day of shooting, it was three very similar scenes,” says McLean. “We thought we should shoot from this angle, shoot scene 1, scene 2, scene 3, and then move to this angle and shoot scene 1, scene 2, scene 3. But by the time we moved to the second angle, we realised that that's not going to work, because it's impossible for the actors to jump between the emotional acting.”
“What [one character] knows with regards to the universe in general is very different [from] what Stefan knows about the universe. And just for the actor to kind of make sense of it, you had to kind of do it in that way,” adds Slade. “We had to keep it dramatic, we had to do shoot it in script order. We had to complete one thing before we moved on to another.”
The production team also had to adapt and expand the cinematic language at the same time, Slade explains, “to get through the choice points smoothly, and essentially to reinforce the psychological breakdown that we're experiencing” as Stefan. Slade used different filmstock for different scenes, choosing between 16mm and 35mm.
When it's time to make a choice in Bandersnatch, there are noticeable changes in lighting and subtle changes in make-up, McLean notes, which “works with Stefan's character and his psychological place”. Bandersnatch wants you to feel like you're the protagonist, not just observing something happening to someone. But it had to be cinematic and not feel like a video game, too.
“A big thing was we never wanted to interrupt the experience of watching this as a film, basically, so we wanted it to feel like it flowed and so people carry on talking,” says Brooker. It's why the choices ease in from the bottom on Bandersnatch while characters continue to interact with each other. A visual countdown timer will inform you how much time you've left — you can't hit pause — and you will generally have about 10-15 seconds to make a choice. There's a tutorial in the beginning, don't worry.
“This being the first, it is fascinating this time, I think that — without being too pretentious — Netflix has this huge platform, has this tool, has this opportunity to take its films and to give a new layer to it and a new level of engagement,” Jones says. “And it's how you use that tool. You only use [interactive] if you need it, I suppose, if it's only adding something to the story rather than detracting. And I think that in the world we've created, certainly once you've had the whole experience, you'll understand the reason we've used it.”
"If it's a gimmick, then we won't do it,” Yellin says of the interactive medium. “Because we've been pitched things before that are very gimmicky. It really has to be organic for the story and improve the story, and that's when we're interested in doing interactive. And there are other stories that we're starting to hear — we're not announcing anything — where there is a rich vein, we're guessing that's out there, where stories that will lend themselves to interactivity.”
"We'd love to see an interactive wacky comedy. We'd love to see an interactive horror film. We'd love to see an interactive romance where you choose the prom date that you want to go there with. I mean, there's all kinds of great potential stories that are out there.”
Disclosure: Netflix sponsored the correspondent's flights and hotel for the event in Los Gatos.