I had just finished to write a post in the Italian section of the blog, about the interactive cartoon Minecraft: story mode on Netflix, and the streaming platform started promoting nothing less than a Black Mirror interactive episode: Bandersnatch.
Even without spoiling anything – but how to spoil something which has so many possible stories and endings? – I think it could be interesting to share some reflections about this new paradigma of “interactive tv” which is being introduced (?) by Netflix.
As I wrote in my post in Italian, talking about Minecraft: story mode, the mechanics is really nothing new: it comes straight from the multiple-choice books, or Gamebooks, which were very popular (at least in Italy…) in the late 80s and early 90s, usually telling stories set in some fantasy / D&D universe. Ok, only one spoiler: the (fictional) book Bandersnatch which is used in the episode as an inspiration for the protagonist, is a gamebook indeed.
(When we talk interactive storytelling, we should always mention the legendary pen-and-paper roleplaying game indeed. I do think that a real storytelling revolution happened first there, with those 20-faced dice and character sheets allowing players to be protagonists of the narration, building it in first person while it unfolded itself, with the crucial contribution of a good Dungeon Master as a director (thanks Marco, once again!). A lot of convergence culture was at play in those late nights in the garage, so many years before Jenkins would start writing about it.)
We should start from the beginning, telling you that Bandersnatch was originally a Lewis Carroll character in Through the Looking Glass, and this should already tell you something:
Now the Bandersnatch episode has been widely discussed online, and as I said, I do not want to spoil anything, but you should all know from the trailer now, that it is about video games.
…with glitches? 😀 I wonder how comes that something might end up wrong for some users, finding themselves stuck in some dead end, as quite some people reported in online forums and comments – come on, Black Mirror guys, did you beta-test this the proper way?
The duration of the whole experience is anyway great, lasting from a normal 40+ minutes Black Mirror standard episode to a much longer, movie-alike experience of 100+ minutes, depending on your choices.
The amount and the frequency of possible choices offered is also amazing, and since this is the internet and it is the reason I love you all, someone already mapped (almost) all the possible paths in Bandersnatch:
The internet is also going wild about Bandersnatch easter eggs, geek culture quotes and post-credits scenes, which appear to be a must in any proper high-level production nowadays, so here’s the news: there is even more you should be afraid to be spoiled about 🙂 – but not here.
What I see, is that a lot of people are really excited about Bandersnatch, as newspapers comments are widely repeating this “finally connecting movies and video games” thing: I don’t know which kind of lame video games have you been playing lately, but come on, there is really no match. Video games are (…still?) way, way more interactive and immersive. The level of interaction here, honestly remembers me of this:
That was another “innovative” product which kinda let a lot of people down, as it was really amazing in the laser-disc graphics and technology under the trunk, but… quite unsatisfying to play. And it was 1983. Now if you are telling me that generally speaking, the level of tv shows nowadays equals the one of video games in 1983… well, then I could agree 🙂 and Black Mirror is usually very happy to slap nowadays media culture in the face, so: once more!
(Edit: Just to make it clear, in fact the way the story answers back to you and your choices (up to… perceiving your control!?) is indeed the true innovation here, and yes, I have to say that Dragon’s Lair is very, very far from this. )
Videogames are in any way very relevant while talking about Bandersnatch. If you haven’t seen the episode yet, I could at least tell you that Bandersnatch itself is the name of a video game, and a real one too: a very ambitious project by Imagine Software, which eventually went bankrupt exactly for not being able to complete this game. This fact is a huge inspiration for the episode.
Together with their other never completed project Psyclapse, Bandersnatch was promoted and announced to be a mega-game, in that golden age of computer games in the early 80s.
Being Black Mirror based in the UK, the choice of this title has been wise, as Bandersnatch was really promoted to change forever the gaming experience on… the UK-born Sinclair ZX Spectrum computer.
Bandersnatch never made it to the Spectrum tough, but Imagine Software titles were acquired by the newly created Psygnosis (yes, those guys: Lemmings, Wipeout, Formula One…), which then released the game as their first production, with the title Batraccas for the next generation of computers: Atari ST, Amiga and even the first Macs.
So I have to say that in the usual uncomfortable, grim, dark and tough Black Mirror atmosphere that permeates this episode, what I loved most is this under-track ongoing tribute to the 80s gaming culture and the incredible amount of stories originating from it, and still to be told: this is definitely one, and telling it in a… game-like way, feels appropriated.
Moreover, I loved the fact that Bandersnatch is the triumph of convergence culture: an interactive, game-like tv episode, talking about the making of a real game, offered in a way that watchers/players can change the story – and of course there is more, trough the looking glass 😀 . A huge amount of geek culture references to be dug out, guys…
For instance, the (fictional) game studio mentioned in the episode, Tuckersoft, has a real website (even if internet was really far to come, back then…) which is really old fashioned with its 80s ZX Spectrum-alike look, with even their job search announcements, and their game catalog, including of course Bandersnatch (“cancelled”) and Nohzdyve, the one being developed by the protagonist at the beginning (and this name? Black Mirror fans, anyone?). You can even download the game and play it, if you are able to set up your own ZX Spectrum emulator 😉
PS: here is a list and explanation of all Bandersnatch endings.
MORE TO READ: my pal Carmine Rodi wrote a nice post about Bandersnatch on his blog too, going deeper into all the geek culture – movies – games references in the episode: