Netflix Tests Interactive Storytelling in ‘Black Mirror’ Episode

Netflix released “Bandersnatch,” an interactive episode of “Black Mirror,” its popular techno-paranoia series, that lets the viewer decide what happens at many points throughout the story, beginning with what cereal the protagonist has for breakfast. Netflix, which is using the episode to test if audiences are ready to embrace interactivity, already developed software to organize stories with infinite variations, called on producers to submit proposals for interactive stories, and hinted it has more in the works.

The New York Times reports that Netflix is pursuing interactivity because “viewers will care more if they are complicit.” “If bad things happen, you’ll feel even more crestfallen, because you were responsible,” said Netflix vice president for product Todd Yellin. “If the character is victorious, you’ll feel even more uplifted because you made that choice.”

Netflix previewed “Bandersnatch” at a media event last month, to a “somewhat tentative” mood. That’s because the history of interactive storytelling thus far has been “short of overwhelming” from the 1983 video arcade game “Dragon’s Lair” to director Steven Soderbergh’s recent “Mosaic” on HBO. Netflix director of product innovation Carla Engelbrecht noted that the hurdle is to overcome the long established habit to “press ‘play’, drop the remote and just lean on back and let the TV wash over us.”

A 2017 cartoon, “Puss in Book: Trapped in an Epic Tale,” was Netflix’s first interactive experiment, and “it did well enough with kids to push the studio to go ahead with … ‘Black Mirror’, which [is] loosely inspired by ‘The Twilight Zone’.” Even so, “Black Mirror” creator Charlie Brooker and executive producer Annabel Jones “were initially dubious” about providing so many options to the viewer. Now that the show is a hit, the two disagree on the results, with Brooker saying that, “some people will judge it just on a narrative basis, some people will judge it as a game,” and Jones insisting that, “it wasn’t really designed as a game. It was designed as a cinematic experience.”

NYT notes that, “watching the episode, it is easy to see how interactivity could be the next step forward in entertainment” but that, “it is less easy to see how this could ever be art.” Because “Bandersnatch” is not linear, it continues, “it’s hard to lose yourself in a story if you’re constantly being pulled out of it.”

“There’s a ‘Groundhog Day’ aspect where it keeps cycling around, deliberately so,” said Brooker, whose advice to anyone who wants to try to make interactive content is, “Run away. It’s harder than you think.”

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch Could Become Netflix’s Secret Marketing Weapon, The Verge, 1/2/19
‘Bird Box’ Viewed by 45 Million Netflix Members in First Week, Company Says, Variety, 12/28/18
Netflix Pleads With People to Stop Doing the ‘Bird Box’ Challenge, TechCrunch, 1/2/19

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