The Evolution of Storytelling 1 - Is interactivity breaking out of the gaming “ghetto”?
People have been predicting for years that interactive experiences and narrative would soon move beyond the gaming sector and invading the cultural space occupied by television and movies.
Did that day officially arrive on December 28, 2018 with the release of Bandersnatch on Netflix? For those who haven’t seen it, Bandersnatch is an interactive episode of the series Black Mirror in which the viewer/user can make decisions for the protagonist that drive the plot in one direction or another. The plot revolves around a game designer in the 80’s who is trying to write a multi-path narrative game, something that had never been done at the time.
Clearly a convergence between gaming and narrative has been going on for many years: with hugely popular narrative based gaming titles such as Bioshock, The Walking Dead and Her Story, incorporating very strong storylines to the interactive experience. Arguably, the online game streaming service Twitch could also be seen as part of the same trend. And, of course, role playing games (RPGs), whether it be Dungeons and Dragons in the pre-Internet days, or a multitude of RPGs nowadays are, in fact, almost pure narrative.
Those are examples of gaming incorporating strong narratives, but the same/opposite trend is occurring, but where movies or television are becoming interactive. In 2016, Late Shift was released; billed as the world’s first cinematic interactive movie. In the cinema, movie goers could, via a smartphone app in real time, vote on decisions the protagonist needed to make, thus steering the plot. Bandersnatch fits in this mold, but with decision making at a personal level for each viewer rather than collectively in the cinema. Multiple narrative paths were filmed, and a viewer’s decisions would lead to different paths being taken, including loops back to previous points in the storyline.
Bandersnatch, in narrative, technical and interactive terms is probably not any more advanced than Late Shift. The difference here is audience reach! While Late Shift and other previous interactive efforts have been niche experiences for a small audience, Bandersnatch is mainstream and will reach an audience orders of magnitude above Late Shift to the point where some mass market newspapers have published articles expressing outrage about certain aspects of it.
The reactions to Bandersnatch that can be seen online and in speaking to people, have been relatively polarized, with raging Twitter debates. Both of what we might call “cinema purists”, as well as hard core gamers, have often sneered at it from opposite ends of the spectrum – “bad game play”, “games have been doing this for years!”, “the interactive elements were intrusive”, “but it kept sending me back to the same spot!”, “the interactivity interfered with the story”, … On the other hand, most of the rest seemed to like it, some even saying “there will be a before and after Bandersnatch!”.
But whether Bandersnatch is in fact, the moment when interactivity has really gone beyond the (admittedly huge) gaming niche depends on a number of factors. The 2 main ones are cost and popularity. Obviously, the extra costs will need to be factored in. Will the industry be willing to accept the extra cost of filming several times more scenes as required for multiple paths? And Black Mirror fans are not necessarily representative or a large enough demographic. Would this be popular amongst other groups?
And just how replicable is this in terms of plot? Bandersnatch is a multiple path narrative about a multiple path narrative and as such, it works well. But in this kind of story, the work of the script writer changes dramatically and requires a whole new mindset with which it is hard to see most traditional script writers feeling comfortable. This is especially true as it requires relinquishing control over the storyline.
When we look at creating interactive narrative, there are a number of basic concepts we need to decide:
- Are we creating mostly a story or an experience?
- Is it script based, or intention based - i.e. more or less hard-coded plotlines as in multi-threaded narrative or storylines created based on the situation and conditions of the protagonist(s) as in most games?
- Is the interactivity mostly explicit or implicit (i.e. based on context, profile, etc.)?
With Bandersnatch, it is the first of each of those options. But going forward, a more basic question is whether personalized branching narrative with explicit decisions is in fact the future of interactive storytelling. Or are other alternatives possible such as:
- Personalized narratives based on profile, context and general decisions already made by the viewer before the story begins? Less interactive but also less intrusive.
- Cumulative choices, taking into account audience behavior and context? Less personal.
- Decisions based on the biometrics of viewers such as eye tracking or pulse? Will viewers allow their biometrics to be used (and potentially stored)?
- Short episodes with choices at the end to be incorporated for the next episode? Not really different than some current short form content.
- Live improvization for some scenes based on real time context? Is live feasible for most shows?
- Have a main storyline with interactive activities around it on social media such as in the various SKAM series? Is this really interactivity or just transmedia?
- Combine live or video with AR for personalization? But personalization for what?
- Can ways be found to, on the fly, combine many short scenes that allows for the creation of longer sequences thus reducing the number of overall scenes to be shot? Is this possible? Can narrative and visual coherence be achieved?
And of course, the big question in the longer term is whether breakthroughs will occur that allow for merging live actors and CGI, thus achieving far more lifelike effects and the ability to generate new scenes in real time as is done in normal gaming. In the meantime, for the short and maybe medium term, it seems multipath narrative may have to be the way forward despite its limitations.
In future blogs, I’ll address a wider view of how storytelling and narrative are evolving and what that may mean beyond the media industry.
 For example, see Atos Journey 2018, where, in 2014, we predicted this for 2018