Being lost might be a good and desirable thing, one might muse. But like in a badly designed but vast, open world, e.g. in a game of exploration without a “Lonely Planet book” at hand – or a real challenge – we might just lack motivation and inspiration to explore and become uncertain about what to do with ourselves. Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, Channel4s experiment in a branching, interactive storyline evoked unfortunately such a feeling in me. Honorable as an attempt and written by one of the sharpest teams on the planet about dystopian sci-fi ideas becoming media candy, it still lacked two crucial things: a strong story and evoking empathy for it.
I am late to the choir, I have to admit. I sneaked around spooning up the steaming “soup” of Bandersnatch full of transmedia promises of storytelling & innovation for all too long. It just sat there, to be taken from the shelves. Streaming is a bliss. My reluctance had a professional reason, even though avoidance might not have been a solution: the hailed piece of finally interactive, high-production value content of an accessible streaming giant sounded almost too good to be true. It deals with tropes and prospects of the future of storytelling I was involved as a speaker and researcher 10 years ago, where the theme was really hot. White hot – the film industry has invented the job of a transmedia producer for it. There were a lot of success stories, specially in the area of documentary (web-docus like Gaza/Sderot or ), social activism (Conspiracy for Good, Collapsus), horror (Blair Witch Project, The Truth about Marika) or sci-fi (Dollhouse) and branded entertainment (Why So Serious?, The People´s Car Project, Lewis Hamilton: Secret Life) But I feared, biased as I am with the history of attempts in “interactive storytelling”, that it nevertheless may fall short, even after a bunch of really good examples.
Media content obviously had already then the tendency to become multi-channel and cross-media, some were calling it the “convergence culture” (see Henry Jenkins (2006) Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide) or “participatory culture”, some simply labeled it “transmedia storytelling” (see e.g. Tom Cheshire & Charlie Burton (2010) Transmedia: Entertainment reimagined. Wired.com). Why do you not hear of “transmedia” anymore – and what has it to do with “Black Mirror: Bandersnatch” in 2018 – or in 2022? Well, a lot, as the most important transmedia question for a decade still is:”WHY do we care?”.
Audience designer and innovative documentary filmmaker Lance Weiler, considered a pioneer in the field (see e.g. a Wired (UK) article from 2010) did pose this crucial question very often. I heard it firsthand as a mantra in his Transmedia Next Workshop 2011 in the Warner Bros. Tower in London, which I had the luck to participate in with a talent ticket. His focus there was not so much about the content and creativity, but about the audience:”Why shall they care?” and following the second crucial one: “Is it fun?” When new content being produced and written, these test of quality proof is still paramount – and lots of big franchise media do fall short (see 85% of the MCU movies being spun out, the last infamous seasons of GoT (Game of Thrones), many attempts of the DC universe to break into the (boxoffice) success of the Marvel stories intertwined, tons of well produced new streaming content on all the platforms mushrooming…you name it).
Weiler`s journey into transmedia storytelling is older than 2011 and goes along with technology developments of the internet and networked devices, becoming interesting to reach audiences in a new way:“I started to experiment with it not being a film in traditional form — how could I put people into the shoes of the protagonist? How could the story move from one experience to another in ways that created some degree of social interaction?” Well, that is the holy grail, still, also not found by Bandersnatch.
Channel 4 was already in the boat for such an adventue. Already more than 10 years ago it saw transmedia as key to reaching audiences with its factual and educational programming. “We’re commissioning for attention, not platform,” said Matt Locke, who was then responsible for the channel’s cross-platform strategy — and he wants to find viewers wherever they are. The channel’s younger audience, in particular, is engaging online: 1066, a warfare-strategy web game commissioned alongside a history documentary of the same name, has been played 16 million times, for an average of 20 minutes per session, since May 2009.
But, Charlie Booker, the mastermind and writer behind Black Mirror might be out of his league for the first time in the proliferating universe of critical media thinking, and failing in honing his vignettes for greatest impact and affection, IMHO.
The reasons may be simple, but profound. Transmedia’s and some say ANY interactive media’s success relies on two things mainly:
A) Who the f… would care (and why)?
B) Is it fun?
The third caveat I would field is so classic that narration-heavy, well-thought-through Black Mirror cannot possibly not suffer from it: is it a well told (engaging) story when you are experiencing it (and again, and again,…if it’s a re-playable interactive medium)?
Paradise: a lost cause?
Let’s start with the last concern: nope. For me it was not, and it was a big surprise, loving interactive media and trusting Black Mirror to have come up with a witty solution. It felt rather like a sloppy and a “lost” one, concerning storytelling. It was simply not very engaging, as I felt I do not care enough about the main character. He dies, fine. He dies in a stupid way, fine, too. A story which needs to get replayed so that you reach multiple endings relies on your motivation to jump through the hoops again. But many endings felt so anti-climatic or negative, that a re-run to save him somehow was not so “enjoyable”. I did not feel empathy with him so much. He became murderous and in a downward spiral which I as a “puppet master” would help him to conclude. Not fun. I
Bandersnatch feels like “Groundhog Day” without the charm of Bill Murray and its lighthearted humor about death – and a missing romance of depth. I increasingly felt uncomfortable in directing Bandersnatch’s main character with my choices deeper into his misery. A boy as a struggling game developer somehow lost in paradise, and the paradise lost on him. Milton would probably feel the same (see Paradise Lost) – but is he worth saving like Adam and Eve? Who is Satan in this story – a self-fulfilling prophecy, or worse, the viewer/player himself? It did not strike me as an epiphany, if that is what Booker intended. We. while watching and deciding, are blamed by the narrative to torture the poor protagonist, it occurred to me. I did not like that feeling much, honestly, but I might be wrong.
So, A) the multi-ending narrative did not succeed to make me care for the outcome, and B) is was only moderate fun, with a decline in joy the longer I played. Unfortunately I would not recommend to regard Bandersnatch as glorious example of interactive storytelling but rather a cautionary tale, where empathy for the story may go quickly off the rails, creating a feeling to be lost on all the tracks leading really nowhere. A pity, as the potential of transmedia storytelling was and is to make people care, extra. But for this you also have to walk the extra mile…the game “Heavy Rain” by Quantic Dream does a far better job, e.g.