In Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, the life of a video game developer is in your hands: He can regularly visit his therapist and take his meds, or he can drop acid and commit murder. It’s a choose-your-own-adventure movie that skillfully blends the classic storytelling technique with modern technology.
Netflix dropped it on December 28 — the company left it off the official list of titles for that month — choosing to promote it with tweets like these. In the weeks since, the movie has become something like a cult hit, even as previous attempts at the format have sort of faltered.
The interactive film features five different endings and about five hours of total footage, which inspired redditors to map out every possible ending only a few hours after its release, effectively making watching it a game on its own.
Bandersnatch is something special, and one can’t help but wonder how the medium moves on from this debut. One way might be to remove the humans altogether.
David Bushman, the TV curator for the Paley Center for Media for more than two decades, marvels to me: How did co-creators Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones take concepts that were once exclusive to video games and turn them into an engrossing film for the Netflix’s 130 million paid subscribers?
“I’ve never had an experience before where I’m sitting at home beyond pushing stop, play, rewind, or fast-forward. I was determining the story and character development with a click,” he tells Inverse. “That was something exclusive to games but this wasn’t a game. Or was it a game? It is about gaming anyway. It’s so meta.”
And people online were just as enthralled as Bushman. A day after its release, Twitter timelines were dotted with reactions from people who spent hours trying to get every result possible and reactions to the life or death choices that Bandersnatch presents. The buzz on social media prompted a subsequent series of think-pieces from entertainment outlets like The Ringer and Vulture, the latter of which characterizes the interactive film as something that conjures feelings of a TV revolution.
“I have to say if I was a writer I would hate this.”
We’ll get more choose-your-own-adventure films like Bandersnatch soon, though they may not be called that for legal reasons. In spite of the labor required — 35 days of filming vs. 14 for another Black Mirror episode — the apparent success of Bandernsatch means this is just the beginning, industry watchers tell Inverse.
David Schwartz, director at the School of Interactive Games & Media at the Rochester Institute of Technology, sees a future where artificial intelligence can be used to generate choose-your-own-adventure stories by using viewer opinion as data. But Bushman says leaning into this type of content could be the beginning of the end for creative expression.
Bandersnatch sets viewers free to make choices as they would in a role-playing video game. Instead of being restricted to one conclusion, they can wreak havoc on main character Stefan Butler’s (Fionn Whitehead) life as they please. In an endless sea of shows from which to choose, now those shows have their own sets of outcomes from which to choose.
There were 487 original programs that aired in 2017 on streaming platforms, and YouTube users watch a billion hours of varying video content every day. The people want an endless menu of options, and production houses seem to be more than happy to provide, even when it comes to in-show choices. So where is this headed? Bushman believes that dangers lurk in the distance, if this new genre eclipses traditional storytelling methods in TV and films.
“I have to say if I was a writer I would hate this. Artists should be allowed to follow their creative imperative rather than accommodating every choice,” he says. “That’s why directors want final cut. Can you imagine going to someone like David Lynch and saying, ‘Go make your movie, but we’re going to let the audience decide how it ends.’ That’s insane.”
Fans of Twin Peaks shouldn’t be worried; Bandersnatch likely doesn’t signal the end of classic storytelling, and there’s data to back it up. Most adults in the United States don’t give TV the sort of undivided attention that is required by Bandersnatch, data from a 2017 study by eMarketer shows.
Video games with a choose-your-own-adventure format, like 2010’s Heavy Rain, took four years to complete and involved a 2,000-page script. But it’s possible that a descendent of Bandersnatch isn’t even written or produced by humans. The audience could suggest endings and plot points, leaving A.I. to generate the story.
If studios want to churn out budget Bandersnatches, they can turn to the fastest laborer on Earth, artificial intelligence. Schwartz tells Inverse that he envisions a future where A.I. can be used to write, produce, and direct.
“Say we use A.I. and other computational techniques like machine learning or procedural generation to predict and/or generate responses. Designers and developers don’t need to plan/make so much content,” he says. “Moreover, say you threw in user-generated content and crowd-sourcing — perhaps looping in a few million co-creators, and offered a discount for helping to make and review the product — I could imagine a rather rich experience forthcoming.”
A.I. is already writing movie scripts and rendering realistic human faces in films. While most of these algorithms need refinement, there’s no reason why computer scientists can’t improve and merge them to create a film or series.
Schwartz believes this trend points to the potential of virtual reality experiences where people can actually step into the shoes of characters like Stefan — a little like the “Holodeck” from Star Trek.
“I think all of this technology is trying to nudge toward very immersive escapism,” says Schwartz. “We’ve seen Ready Player One! and the excitement over virtual reality. Coincidentally, I’ve been having fun re-watching Star Trek episodes, the notion of how this work all heads to VR and the “Holodeck” is exciting.”
As it stands, computer-generated TV shows and VR experiences are still out of reach. But Bandersnatch has shined a spotlight on how we’ve come to expect our future to billed filled with choices on top of even more choices. Could Bandersnatch lead to a new genre of entertainment filled with A.I. directors, decreasing the demand for human-made content? The answers to that aren’t so clear just yet.
Netflix hasn’t released viewership numbers for Bandersnatch — Inverse has asked about it and will update this if we hear back — but the buzz it generated is almost a guarantee there is more multiple-ending interactive programming to come.
Even if A.I. writes the scripts, Bandersnatch has shown that humans still love to call the shots.