Two interactive fiction writers walk into a bar…
So, how many people called you about Bandersnatch?
Deb: More than sent me those weird New Year’s Facebook messenger memes!
James: With the cats?
Deb: Yeah, the creepy cats. People were messaging and even emailing saying, “Black Mirror have done a You Say Which Way! You’ll love it.”
James: Same. With a bit of, “You should get them to do your Click Your Poison series on Netflix!” Aha! Good point, friend. I’m just going to flip the Netflix switch on my books from “disabled” to “ready.”
Deb: And when I searched #Bandersnatch it turned out it wasn’t just geeky interactive fiction writers talking about it. Bandersnatch had millions of viewers talking about endings and story and replay. Which is quite exciting. I’m always a little bit worried people will forget how cool interactive is.
James: Hashtags! #whydidntithinkofthat
Okay, so what did we think about the episode?
Deb: Well, I was worried by the first couple of choices. The random choice of breakfast cereal and then a slightly more preference based choice of music. Sure, it’s good to test viewer can actually choose and to reinforce that choosing is how this story will be experienced – but let’s have some REAL choices soon, please.
James: That was my first instinct as well. But, I’ve since heard that it does make a difference. I’ll have to go back and see if this is true. Replay value! The hallmark of a good gamebook. Already I want to go back and watch it again.
Deb: It got better though. The next choice gave me the true pleasure of interactive fiction. I got to consider two options. And the writers fooled me, I picked “wrong” and got straight to a frustrating ending. I enjoyed that.
James: See, I didn’t like that. I felt like I was being pushed towards a single path, while I wanted to diverge and explore. I wanted to see the format tested to its limits.
Deb: But then there’s clever use of recap to get to the first meaningful choice again. That’s the next big make or break test for a good interactive story – how easy is it to re-enter the adventure and get back to a pivot in the storyline? Here’s where, as an interactive fiction writer, I give Black Mirror’s writers a gold star. Getting back into the story for a different choice is really easy and, you don’t have to go all the way back.
James: Okay, fair enough. That was extremely well done.
Deb: So next time round – about one minute in screen time later – I make another choice and then the deeper layers of the story start to unfold. As a participant I’ve had a bit of subtle training now, so I trust the experience and get into enjoying choices. Okay so “enjoy” might not be the best description. I was often frustrated by two choices that weren’t too different and, sometimes, a bit appalled at the choices. At these times I was reminded that this was Black Mirror. It’s black, it’s dark. It’s not You Say Which Way. Maybe to give us some respite there’s a bit of campy Kill Bill-esque sequence to find.
James: I’ll admit—this bit made me extremely happy. Click Your Poison isn’t meant for the young or faint of heart. There are other series (like yours!) which have covered that ground so well, that many people often default to: interactive fiction is for kids, right? Not necessarily. If you want darker, black choices, head over here to the dark side. We have cookies.
Deb: Mmph mmph, these cookies are good! Yeah, you’re right, this is interactive for grown-ups and true to what we’d expect from Black Mirror scriptwriters. The stories don’t divert much at all but there’s just enough variety, shades of noir, sledgehammer to the fourth wall, and surrealism, to keep me exploring.
James: Baby-steps. This is our first mainstream interactive TV show. There weren’t that many choices, and it didn’t seem to change the story drastically, but part of me thinks that might have been the point (in this instance). The whole thing was meant to question the concept of free will.
Let’s talk about that whole breaking the fourth wall thing – what did you think?
James: If there’s a spoiler to avoid, it’s this one. Please, if you haven’t fully explored Bandersnatch, stop now, go watch the show, then go read Deb and my books. Err, I mean, return to this interview.
Deb: But we have to talk about it!
James: Of course! I enjoyed it. [SPOILERS] Bringing Netflix in as a character was brilliant. Icing on the cake? This choice isn’t available during the first play-through. How cool is that?
Deb: There was this sort of voyeur-found-out moment that I really loved. The programmer is onto us. Then his hand is shaking as he tries to resist our choice. Nice work, Black Mirror. There’s also the potential to add more story later – additional “episodes” within Bandersnatch. If I made Black Mirror I’d do that. You could dole out more choices for people to come back to. Netflix is such an ideal medium for interactive storytelling.
James: It’s this type of innovation that will bring interactive fiction its audience. We can do things with story that a traditional show, novel, whatever, can’t do. We have replay value. We have events changing context over time and with repetition.
Deb: “The interactive special” could become a regular feature for popular shows, especially since more people are consuming TV from the web these days. It could be up there with the ubiquitous musical episode and the Christmas special.
Deb: You know, there’s a story in that New Year creepy cat meme going around…
James: Once you see the cat meme, you only have seven days to live. Or two months to do your taxes. Whatever’s scariest?
Deb Potter writes and publishes You Say Which Way stories for 10-12 year old readers.
James Schannep is the creator of Click Your Poison, interactive books for teens and adults.
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