Choose-Your-Own Movie Storylines? Interactive Entertainment is on the Rise
Netflix wrapped up 2018 with the premier of Charlie Brooker’s newest installment to his Black Mirror franchise with movie Black Mirror: Bandersnatch. In addition to tiding fans of Black Mirror over until the release of the fifth season, Bandersnatch showcased Netflix’s intentions to introduce interactive entertainment to their service. You can watch a movie or TV show, but the next experience Netflix has planned is to give viewers the power to choose what happens.
Reminiscent of Choose Your Own Adventure books, or Gamebooks, from your childhood, Bandersnatch allows you to make decisions that the protagonist, Stefan, will live out. From something as simple as choosing which cereal he has for breakfast, to the choice of whether to take his medication or not, the viewer is in control. Of course, Brooker challenges the fourth wall and takes the storyline to the next level to compliment the new format and arguably excites audiences for further “choose-your-own” installments. Black Mirror demands nothing less.
Black Mirror: Bandersnatch is not the first Netflix production to utilize this interactive element though. Netflix’s Buddy Thunderstruck and Puss in Book: Trapped in an Epic Tale both premiered in 2017 and featured a number of interactive episodes for their audiences to choose their way through. Though simple enough for children to use, the format proved to be successful. Interactivity proved to be popular as far back as 2006 with New Line Cinema’s Final Destination 3. The DVD release featured a special viewing mode that allowed audiences to "Choose [the] Fate" of each character in the film. These decisions were much more simplistic than Bandersnatch, with only a single scene deviating from the original story until the next choice, but nonetheless helped prove the potential of this new way to watch.
Despite the potential in interactive entertainment, though, there are quite a few hurdles that stand in the way of it becoming a trend as popular as something like IMAX movies. Even though interactivity has proven itself as practical to produce, the question of sustainability is what will decide if the fate of interactivity is a year or two away.
Something that production companies hate is the idea of wasted time and effort in their investments. Companies like Lionsgate, Disney, and Warner Bros. provide the money in the budget of the film or TV show with the hopes of making all of their money (and more) back. An interactive production, then, poses a problem; money must be spent to film and edit scenes that only a handful of people may see. This extra time also poses the threat of interfering with other release dates, as the complexity of production is not yet well known. In Bandersnatch, there are pathways hidden behind some pretty obscure choices that are less likely to be chosen by viewers. A diehard fan may see them on their fifth time through, but the casual viewer may never even hear about said scenes – a waste of money when compared to a standard movie that is linear and constant. This also begs the question of the quality that is put into a production; if some unpopular choices have filler scenes in them, will a film crew strive to give it the same quality as the rest of the film? Furthermore, with money being put towards filler scenes, of high quality or low, will the financial strain affect the quality of the rest of the movie?
When considering the spectrum between diehard fans and casual viewers of a series, the issue of attractiveness arises. Shows like The Office and Friends can be thrown on in the background while doing chores, and movies like Mean Girls will always be there to relax with at the end of a busy day. Entertainment is meant to allow audiences to unwind and spectate, but interactive media begins to change challenge this idea.
Interactive entertainment requires viewers to be paying attention throughout the entire film. It could be so the viewer is informed on the decision they are about to make or that the viewer has to make a decision to keep the action of a scene going – both of which are welcomed situations during the first time watching a film. On top of this is the concept of decisions being time sensitive, as they were in Bandersnatch. The allure is lost on viewers looking for something more passive, without timed decisions that determine how the plot will unfold.
Bandersnatch’s staggering overall runtime of 312 minutes highlights yet another hurdle for interactive media to face. An Adventurebook can be hundreds of pages long, a string of keen choices make the story a fraction of the length. Interactive productions hold the same potential, with Bandersnatch having an average runtime of around 90 minutes, but pose an inconvenient issue; with a book, the reader can quickly flip to another page to change the plotline they wish to be on. While watching an interactive movie or TV show, the viewer would either have to completely restart, or hope that a ‘bad choice’ presents itself and allows the viewer to return to the earlier decision. This could very well ruin the flow of a movie and make audiences watch scenes they only just saw.
Finally, there is the issue of release potential. While interactivity is a very interesting idea, it functions best on a small or simplistic scale. An individual watching a movie or TV show at home can make decisions they want to make, leading to a more satisfactory viewing experience. Simplistic interactivity can be found on reality TV, where a contestant is voted off every week based on popular demand, or on any show that has a two-part episode. In a movie theatre filled with up to 300 people, though, there are bound to be audience members who miss out on the experience they want, and any decision afterward is uninspired. This discontent would keep audiences from going to theaters, and in turn would persuade theaters away from screening any sort of interactive film.
The hope interactivity has for a future lies in the nature of exactly where it can be found – services like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video. The allure of the inventive format fits in quite well with the online streaming companies’ distribution practices, as they doesn’t make money advertisements shown throughout movies or between episodes of a TV show. Their massive libraries are funded by the monthly subscription fees paid by the hundreds of millions of subscribers each service has (125 million and 137 million for Amazon and Netflix, respectively), which provides plenty of revenue that can be used for production budgets. The allure of interactive entertainment could further promote subscriber growth, especially if it can make use of cult favourite shows and movies like NBC’s Community, or Twisted Pictures’ Saw franchise.
Though the platform of online streaming services provide interactive entertainment with a more promising shot to be sustainable, the issues of cost, audience attraction, and audience satisfaction are far from covered. With the right franchises and the right execution, interactivity may become more widespread - but with only a few examples to learn from, it is hard to tell if they will be the next IMAX, or the next Smell-o-Vision.