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One step beyond Bandersnatch

After looking at Bandersnatch, the latest show of the Black Mirror franchise and the first interactive piece of fiction on Netflix, I was really divided. On the one hand, I was in awe… the show — which demands that viewers take decisions to determine small choices by the leading character as well as key turns in the plot — is absolutely amazing, a must-watch, and quite simply an incredible feat of interactive story-telling that stretches the boundary of its genre. And yet… another part of me was not fully convinced.

For a start, I had to wonder how novel this really is. If you were one of those reading the Lone wolf interactive gamebook series back in the 1980s and 1990s, you may be wondering why all the buzz, if the whole idea of choosing plot turns in fiction products is something we experienced three decades ago (can you believe that those old books are now available online for free?). People into gaming may also be saying “Hello!!!” to people discovering how fun it is to be a protagonist in an interactive adventure. I mean, there are around interactive audiobooks for children nowadays, and — good as they may be — nobody has really been saying that this marked the beginning of “a new era of storytelling”.

There is no denying that Bandersnatch is a new chapter in the long path that has granted to TV series the status of art. But on the other hand… are we really sure the whole interactive thing isn’t just a gimmick? Because, let’s face it, the show was absolutely enjoyable, but it did feel a bit gimmicky. Stopping every few minutes for making choices — sometimes silly, sometimes morally challenging — adds a new dimension to the experience, but it also ends up constantly breaking that very experience that’s ruining that something that makes cinema magic. Instead of being lost in the fiction you’re watching, you end up again and again fiddling with your tablet, and somehow being remembered that you’re actually at home on your couch, not really into the dystopian, batshit crazy world that is the trademark of Black Mirror.

Interactive OR immersive

As the experience becomes more interactive, it also becomes less immersive. Again, it’s great fun, and it feels new and fresh, and all the rest, but it does feel less immersive than your usual cinematic experience. You’re more into it, because you make active choices, but each time you make a choice, you are also reminded that you are not really into it.

When discussing on Wired why hypetext fiction never became a success, in spite of the early interest it attracted back in the days, Steven Johnson highlights that nonlinear fiction was difficult to write. But honestly, I don’t really buy this argument: if the experience was good, demand for it would have grown, and more authors and producers would have got behind the format. But this kind of things always ended up relegated to niche, or short-lived successes in specific sub-cultures (e.g. of fantasy-fiction fans).

I think the problem was more with the constant feeling of having your reading experience interrupted, much similarly to what happens with Bandersnatch just out on Netflix. It’s good, it feels like it’s the thing of the future, but it may well not be, because if a viewer has to choose between “immersive” and “interactive-but-gimmicky”, then the vast majority of people will probably end up choosing the first.

Must we really choose?

Interactive experiences such as Bandersnatch will definitely have a following. There’s thirst for new formats, and series producers are right now looking for all sorts of ideas that can make their work stand out from what is nowadays a pretty crowded market. Is there a way to square the circle, and have a new fiction format, that allows for nonlinear plots and is both interactive and immersive?

The concept of “adaptive media” media pushed by companies such as MorphCast may give an answer. The idea is basically to have video dynamically adapt to the viewer through face and emotion recognition technology. Is there a man or a woman in front of the screen? They will see a different take on the story. Is there an old person or a teen-ager? They will see a different perspective. Does the viewer laugh at a joke? There you go. Does the viewer look perplexed? Ok, you go the other way.

What is key with this approach, is that all would happen in the background: available technology makes it possible to take all these twists and turns without demanding any input from the viewer. This is the kind of experience that in other market segments would be called “frictionless”… no tapping, no conscious choices, no breaks from your viewing experience. Adaptive-media opens the way for a visual experience that is both immersive and interactive.

So… do watch and enjoy Bandersnatch. It’s highly recommended. But as you do, you can already look forward to new, exciting visual formats that we may well see very soon on our screens.