As the streaming service wars continue, Netflix has to be as innovative as possible if they wish to maintain a leading foot in the market race. Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, looks to be the beginning of a big movement in Gamified home entertainment, which may just be the answer to Netflix’s stronghold problem.
Before you read on any further, I would like to announce that there will be no spoilers regarding story details in this article.
While the idea of an interactive movie may be divisive, the potential is undeniable. Sometimes people may want to put on a program which allows for them to “switch-off”, yet on other occasions they wish to become fully immersed in the world of an engaging story. It is within the times that people are more inclined for the latter that something like a gamified movie could help enhance the viewer’s experience.
Who amongst us is not guilty of putting on a series, only to give it half our attention while we scroll through our phones? For those of you who subscribe to any or all of the streaming services out there, you would be familiar with this example, amongst other bad viewing habits out there. Netflix offering an interactive, choose-your-own-adventure style movie, may just be the antidote to some of those bad habits.
For all of you that do not know what I’m referring to when I say Bandersnatch, let me give you a quick rundown. Netflix has released on their streaming service, their first-ever interactive movie for adults, under the banner of the cult classic series Black Mirror. However this project is so ambitious that it could not be confined to the standard episodic length of other Black Mirror material and instead opted for a feature length runtime. Set in 1984, Bandersnatch is the story of a young video game coder named Stefan, who sets out to build a multiple-choice game, based around a science-fiction book that also follows the multiple-choice formula, all the while you the viewer have multiple options to choose from on how the story plays out (getting rather meta at this point).
As the story unfolds, we learn that the original author of the Bandersnatch book descended into madness while writing it, leading him to eventually kill his own wife. These events serve as a bit of a warning for what lay ahead for the protagonist you “control”.
Netflix had already been experimenting with interactive content for some time within the stream of kids programming before approaching Black Mirror creators Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones back in early 2017 with the opportunity to create the first interactive movie for adults.
With a new form of storytelling such as this, you need to crawl before you can walk. Giving young viewers the ability to choose their own path through a simplified story, was the best way for Netflix to forecast any potential roadblocks that may lay ahead for a more ambitious concept such as Bandersnatch.
“There is so much more that we can do than just linear television,” -Netflix director of product innovation Carla Engelbrecht
After Netflix received a firm decline from the Black Mirror creators on their initial offer, citing the gimmicky nature of interactive storytelling. Netflix received a follow up meeting with Booker and Jones just a few weeks later claiming they discussed future episodes and just so happened to come up with a plot that they felt really only worked as an interactive movie.
The biggest challenge that lay ahead for the Black Mirror team was in knowing that younger audiences may be fine with relatively simple choices, but captivating an adult audience would clearly require more complexity, which can be a huge logistical nightmare. This challenge was overcome thanks to Netflix’s engineers building the company’s very own script-writing tool for branched narratives, dubbed Branch Manager.
The tool allows creatives to build complex narratives that include loops, guiding viewers back to the main story when they strayed too far, giving them a chance of a do-over, if you will.
Bandersnatch comes with five possible endings. Viewers who choose the quickest path, and decide against any do-overs, can make it through the film in around 40 minutes. The average viewing time is around 90 minutes.
Altogether, there are over a trillion unique permutations of the story. However, this also includes relatively simple iterations that don’t necessarily alter the story itself. For instance, one of the first decisions is helping Stefan to choose which cereal to eat in the morning (something we will expand upon in a moment).
The Power of Choice
Within the context of Gamification, when an initiative such as Bandersnatch can provide users with purpose through the power of choice, accomplishment through making the “strongest decision” and social influence through later discussion with friends and family over which decisions were made, this often creates an overall positive experience for the user.
Giving individuals the power to steer the narrative is a way for the viewer to have a “lean in” experience, becoming more invested in the characters and the story at hand. Inside the world of home entertainment, this is a big deal moving forward, as having viewers proactively commit to the experience may have a rough start (shaking some bad habits may prove to be difficult at first) but it will be beneficial in the long run for Netflix’s numbers, both within viewership and rewatchability.
With almost endless pathways to multiple destinations, Netflix users who enjoyed the gamified experience may find that they opt for repeat viewings, just so they can get the “full experience” and know all the alternative options that they missed the first time round. This will result in streaming numbers multiplying over time as people will be gaining new experiences with each view.
UPDATE: The team at Wisecrack have put together an interesting video essay around the concept of "Ludonarrativity" in Bandersnatch since this articles original release. check it out below.
Data and Content Marketing
Analysts have speculated for some time now that Netflix will eventually integrate forms of advertising into its content, but the idea has always seemed risky. For a streaming service that has offered subscribers ad-free programming for its entire run, to attempt to weave in advertisements this late in the game, seems like a dangerous call.
With TV watchers all suffering from ad fatigue, a streaming service like Netflix has become a safe haven for hassle free viewing. Deep product integration seems to be the only realistic option for Netflix moving forward. In the case of Bandersnatch, to have a gamified experience changes product integration from simply being covert marketing to defined data collection.
Remember when I said we’d talk more about the first decision you make in the film? The scenario plays out with Stefan’s aloof father presenting him with real life cereal options for breakfast, being both Frosted Flakes and Sugar Puffs. While this may have seemed like a way in which to ease viewers into the decision making process, the backend data recorded from people’s decision pathways can then be on-sold to brands and marketing agencies to help them with future marketing decisions and forecasting, not to mention the programmatic product placement that takes place simultaneously.
In the future, a subtle recurrence of brands that users have been proven to previously show favour with could make Netflix product integrations during interactive content feel less intrusive and more curated.
Netflix has always been a data company first and foremost. Long before they started producing their own content, Netflix was accumulating analytical data in order to roll out their “recommendations” algorithm, original content and personalised feature art for users.
Think about how much extensive information Netflix can gather across its system, now consider how refined the data, insights and trend analysis from a single gamified title such as Bandersnatch can be. This new form of data mining gives Netflix richer, more specific audience information than it’s ever had before.
Another early decision in Bandersnatch calls on users to choose which cassette Stefan will listen to while traveling to the gaming company Tuckersoft: Thompson Twins or Now That’s What I Call Music, Vol. 2. The choice has no bearing on the plot, but it does dictate which soundtrack users hear during that sequence. Viewers are being asked to make an actual aesthetic choice — not just for Stefan, but for themselves. It’s the kind of choice that’s normally left to the director. By putting it in a consumer’s hand, Netflix is not just inviting viewers to participate in creating the tone of a scene; it’s asking viewers to pick one product over another.
In the process, those viewers are providing clear metrics about their music preferences. Even if they later go back and make a different choice to see whether that has an effect on the story, Netflix still knows the music they prefer. That could pave the way to data-mining deals with the likes of Spotify or Apple Music, which could be made during pre-production or even earlier. It’s not too far-fetched to imagine Netflix designing entire shows around a particularly useful or lucrative contract to determine, say, whether teenagers will be more engaged by music on “Gold School” or “Summertime Throwbacks” playlists.
The Future of Television
According to Netflix, gamified television looks to be a potential gateway to a higher-level of audience engagement, with great potential to be a highly lucrative medium.
Mapping and planning out a project of this size is no easy feat, yet it can yield strong results. That being said, from here on out don’t expect every second Netflix original to be a gamified experience. The many variables that need to be considered when creating an interactive project helps maintain that only a certain level of work will be fit for the format, not to mention it also seems that the Black Mirror team have set the bar impossibly high for whoever is brave enough to take on the next project.
Netflix has hinted at plans to dabble in other genres for adult interactive programs in the future such as comedies, romance and horror movies, ultimately, aiming to shake up these genres and advance storytelling in the future.
Even though Bandersnatch’s story is set in the 80s, the project itself may have just made the clearest case yet for the direction in which technology based entertainment is heading in the future.