The Dream of Interactive Sheep
The seminal cyberpunk noir classic Blade Runner takes place in the year 2019, a fact that has not been lost on the entertainment press as the calendar has wound its way down to this, the start of that same year in the real world. While most of us are probably happy that there aren't yet "replicant" androids that are artificially intelligent and can pass for human in nearly every way, there is always a bit of a letdown when the future inevitably becomes the present and it doesn't quite live up to the full range of technological splendor that we imagined it might. While it should be noted that in some very key ways we might be further along as a species than most of us are aware, we don't yet have the soot-covered and sexy version of "now" that much futurist fiction presented to us. For the time being, we will have to make do with the labyrinthine spiderweb of knowledge and connection that is the internet as it runs system updates behind and between everything in our lives in lieu of personalized holographic billboards dotting polluted nighttime cityscapes.
Storytelling, however, is beginning to evolve in ways that we may not have seen coming only a few years ago. Netflix's recently-released film Black Mirror: Bandersnatch represents one of the first and most widely-available ways to enjoy a narrative experience that is at least partially driven by the choices of the viewer in realtime - it is an interactive story presented as a film. The depth of the ability to make choices that are necessarily binary due to the new use of streaming technology for this purpose, or the lack of multi-tiered and interleaved choices, may not feel robust enough for some, and this is understandable when one considers that video games have been providing a richer level of interactive storytelling for over a decade (point borrowed from above linked SlashFilm article). Video games are inherently interactive, designed to provide players with outcomes that can be changed partly or wholly for purposes of replayability: give a man a game and he's addicted for three hours, give him multiple endings and he's holed up in his TV room for four weeks trying to unlock them all. The multiple outcomes become their own reward, one based on one's ability and time investment.
The emergence of Netflix in the 2010's as both the preeminent streaming service for millions (billions?) of users worldwide and as a respected purveyor of original content has uniquely positioned the company to carry out this first mainstream foray into a movie that can be controlled by the viewer. It also guarantees that despite interactivity's roots in video games people with little to no experience in narrative gaming will try it out, even if it is only for the novelty of the experience. In the weeks since its release, idealogical battle lines have been drawn between people who find it to be an admirable effort despite its limitations and others who find it to be weaksauce when compared to what gaming has been up to lately. Both sides have valid points, but are their conclusions missing something larger in the context of how stories are told and how film works?
Those who find the interactive experience of modern gameplay to be so vastly superior to that of Bandersnatch that the latter hardly warrants consideration seem to be assuming that casual movie viewers want a deeply engrossing film experience that can be manipulated for multiple endings and payoffs in the same way that Chrono Trigger can. This is the type of argument that will also (perhaps justifiably) point out things like how the Black Mirror outing doesn't fully sketch out its characters to allow for proper development and that the relatively low number of possible endings doesn't allow for choices to mean as much as they could in a more accomplished work. But…are these things that movie viewers who aren't also video game buffs would really want?
Those who find that the experience is an interesting one and can open the door in time to tighter and more intensely-developed versions of the same modality are making perhaps an even more fallible assumption: that interactive films are the wave of the future. The implication is that there will be a significant market for interactive film as a genre all its own that goes beyond those enamored with the form itself. Said another way, this presupposes that large numbers of casual movie watchers will opt in to the interactive experience over one that offers them a fully-formed piece of storytelling from the top down with a designed and predetermined beginning, middle, and end. This is a variation on the other argument, but they've gotten to it from the other direction. One says, "As interactive entertainment, it isn't good enough yet for the discerning consumer," and the other says, "It's pretty good for the first mainstream attempt and the fact that it's enjoyable at all means the form is viable for the future."
While admittedly simplified here for our purposes, both of these generalizations miss some key points about art, specifically the art of cinema.
The best films don't need the best stories or the best characters or the best performances or the most plot twists, though these things can help and most that are considered "great" will almost certainly have at least one of these elements working for it. The best films, like any of the best art, are those that attempt to explain the world through the singular vision of an artist. [Note: this is not to discount the efforts of the hundreds of people without whose time and expertise no film would even be possible, only to say that the endeavor begins with one vision.] The best films are the ones that use the conventions of the medium to emphasize, subvert, or upend our own inner interpretations of how events occur, how relationships work, how people think. When it comes to an interactive film, the fact that one thousand people could see the same piece of art but between them experience twenty-five differing versions of it means that the art is no longer subject to the same form of translation from the screen to our minds. The version any one person would see cannot be counted upon to be the same as the next, and, importantly, in the world of interactivity this isn't a bug but a feature. This sort of entertainment would lead to interesting water-cooler conversation around the office as viewers compare the versions of the film each had seen, but the film itself has ceased to be a vessel for artistic interpretation at that point. It has become simply a mirror inside the bubble of each viewer's own established version of the world, or an escapist fantasy that they have pushed to its breaking point just to see how far it goes with no regard for the original vision for it.
For perhaps longer than any other form of mass audience entertainment, books have offered the ability to choose one's own adventure. Novels with choices leading to different narrative branches and ultimate conclusions were very popular for a while in the recent history of art consumption and are undoubtedly still being made for a small group of appreciators. But why is it that the form has yet to become more than a genre curiosity? Why is it that these books never make the NYT Bestseller List? Why haven't Dave Eggers, Stephen King, or J.K. Rowling delved into the world of interactive storytelling? It might be because the "choose-your-own-adventure" conceit nullifies each's ability to craft a world, to showcase an emotional epiphany, to make a real and valuable point. A movie, or a novel, or any story-based art, is a sort of Rosetta Stone that offers a way in to deciphering another person's vision of the world at large. By definition, this code-breaking only works if the content is specific and the order of plot points preconceived. Of course, the interpretation cannot be controlled, but that variable comes with the territory. Interactivity, on the other hand, is an insertion of the viewers own ideas or desires that muddies the waters and renders the concept behind the story, at best, less effective, and, at worst, puts it at loggerheads with its own foundational theses. In this respect, is an interactive story "art" in the same way that The Godfather is art?
Let's go back to Blade Runner for a second. Imagine that you are in control of the narrative. After Rachael saves Deckard's life, you are given the choice to have him fulfill his directive and "retire" her, so you take it. What follows is more madcap blade running fun through the steaming neon streets of Los Angeles, and eventually you are given the choice to have Deckard take the Voight-Kampff test, you elect it and his true nature is revealed to both him and the viewer at the same time. This is probably a very fun story. It has a definitive ending, and it might feel satisfying in ways that the original film doesn't to some people. What it's missing is the high-stakes ambiguity of a world that is increasingly connected but more out of touch with itself than ever. It's missing the forbidden romance of what we assume to be an organic human and someone who is, for better or worse, not that. It doesn't speak in the same way to the shady power structures in and around the corporate hegemony, the question of playing god with synthetic life forms, and the vices that sometimes drive us more effectively than our virtues can. This version of the story isn't a message from the filmmaker to the viewer, it's a conspiracy between them.
At the end of the day, if we can't trust art to definitively communicate something to us then it is no longer a multipurpose tool that levers under the surface of the collective conscience to offer a glimpse of either bedrock universality or supreme idiosyncrasy. When it no longer offers that possibility, it is little more than an amusement park ride.