A Choice Between Two Terrible Things

The first article I ever wrote for the Gutter as a guest editor was about a video game from 2005 called The Indigo Prophecy (or Fahrenheit, outside of North America) where you make choices that cause the story to play out in different directions. The first half of the game seemed really promising, but it’s a very difficult concept to execute well and I suspect the creators ran out of money, time, energy, or all of the above part way through. Now Netflix has taken a stab at adapting the pick your path structure to a television episode with Black Mirror: Bandersnatch. I realize that everyone and their dog will be writing about it right now and that was almost enough to convince me not to, but it reminded me of The Indigo Prophecy and I find the possibilities of interactive narratives too interesting to resist.

I’ve always felt like choose your own adventures had a lot of potential, but in book form they’re awkward to navigate, like a physical maze you can get lost in. Video games make it possible to follow different paths without getting kicked out of the narrative to flip pages, and having to start over at a save point or picking up pieces of information out of order are already familiar game mechanics. Virtual reality is also a natural fit for that type of structure since the whole point is to have different things happen depending on how you interact with the world. But applying interactive elements to a typically linear narrative structure like a movie or tv episode poses some challenges.

With virtual reality you’re experiencing something yourself and reacting to it, so the choices impact your own path, but in a choose your own adventure story you’re drawn into someone else’s experience and the choices you’re making affect their fictional lives. The writer is responsible for making sure that the choices you’re given are consistent with the character, or that the character has little enough self to begin with that you can participate in creating them through the choices you make. It’s a tremendous amount of work to create all of the branching narratives and make them feel complete and linear within a structure that is inherently disjunct.

In Bandersnatch, I felt like the content undermined the form. Part of the appeal and strength of the choose your own adventure form is a sense of agency and being able to identify with the character and immerse yourself in the story by making choices that influence what comes next. Instead of giving us that experience, they went for the option of making it clear that the viewer’s character is The Interactive Viewer and not allowing you to forget that you’re watching and pulling strings. There’s a point where the character realizes that someone else is controlling his actions and requires the audience to interact explicitly with him around it, which kicked me right out of the story.

Given some of the horrible choices we ended up being forced to make for him, I imagine part of the point was to make us aware of the grossness of our own position in relation to the characters. I think some of it comes back to the place that you’re creating things from, and this falls solidly into the Black Mirror worldview. The seeds you water are the ones that grow, and Bandersnatch is what you get if you assume that viewers are nasty, brutish beings who will naturally take the opportunity to become an asshole hand of god, making characters kill each other and lose their minds as entertainment. It’s an angle that’s worth exploring philosophically, but I think it made the show feel like a one trick pony.

The Indigo Prophecy begins with your character getting possessed and stabbing someone to death in a bathroom, then your job is to avoid getting arrested and keep yourself sane long enough to figure out what happened. You have a sanity meter that you have to keep topped up and if you don’t find ways to maintain your mental health, you end up battling imaginary creatures and quitting your job or killing yourself to the game over narration: “and that’s how my story ends…” The equivalent in Bandersnatch when a path doesn’t lead anywhere is “I should try again”, but the conclusions to be drawn from what paths fail seem to be the opposite. The only narratives that move the Bandersnatch character towards creating a video game that gets good ratings are the ones where he stops taking his medication or does things that are clearly very bad for his mental health.

What watching Bandersnatch felt like to me was entrapment. A choice between two terrible things is still a choice, but I often didn’t agree with any of the available options. There also seemed to be no way to avoid making some of the choices because you just got brought back to them after the other options resulted in a dead end. The writers clearly had a very specific moral direction they wanted the story to go, and the viewer is ultimately corralled into creating the narrative they want. Part of that narrative was the construction of me, the viewer, as the person forcing the character to make bad choices and lose his mind, but the viewer also only has access to the paths that the writers dictated for them so it’s more an illusion of choice. There is no path that leads to a good outcome, but you have to follow them all to find that out. In the end, I think the only choice you could make that would resolve the ethical conflict they’ve posed would be to refuse to participate and stop watching altogether.

So what do I think would make a good choose your own adventure movie? I feel like the real opportunity and challenge of interactive narratives is to create something that feels like a real experience of choice with a genuine range of different outcomes from happy ending to badness, rather than driving to specific pivotal decisions with a “right” one to move you forward. Not one where everything goes to hell no matter what you do, but one where you can choose to be good or evil or chaotic and actually have that significantly change what happens to you. I imagine a selection menu branching out like a tree as you follow different paths and once you’re done you can see the whole thing and enter back into it wherever you want.

I think the creators of Bandersnatch actually did pretty well with the structure, but the question is whether this kind of narrative choose your own adventure experience is actually worth the amount of effort required to create it, or whether it’s just a temporary stand in for a virtual reality experience we haven’t quite mastered yet? Even if all we get out of it in the end is the ability to choose our own soundtrack for shows, I think that could be considered a win.

alex MacFadyen would prefer to choose between the paths of adorable monsters and many flavors of ice cream. 

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