By qualifying for and winning this year’s Emmy for Outstanding TV Movie and Outstanding Creative Achievement in Interactive Media Within a Scripted Program, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch actually exists at a crossroads between television and interactive fiction. The Netflix-produced story adventure combines choice-based interaction with the high production value of prestige TV to create something that can be easily defined, not least in established awarding bodies.
This isn’t a first for the format, though the latest wave has been dormant for nearly two decades (and nowhere near the Emmy threshold). TV shows in the 1980s tried to engage viewers with toys as “interactive” additions. The CD-ROM era invited television drama to computers and game consoles.
In recent years, several smaller creators have revived the form, blurring the lines between straight-up live action drama and video game. Two such works were released in August: Flavourworks’ Erica and that of Sam Barlow Telling lies-telling stories that go well beyond ’90s FMV (full motion video) games and the simple ‘either-or’ ramification of bandersnatch†
“Don’t take turns with the game designer”
“People have been trying to make film and games work together for decades, and it always felt like neither medium was doing any good,” Jack Attridge, creative director and co-founder of FMV game studio Flavourworks, told Ars. “The production value and quality of storytelling wasn’t there to make it a good movie, and the fidelity of interaction wasn’t there in video to make it a good game.”
With a background in filmmaking, Attridge founded Flavourworks to reconcile these disciplines. Instead of taking black mirror Flavourworks developed a game through filmmaking and created a symbiosis between the two forms. Ericatheir first release, is a first of its kind attempt at this seamless blend of film and gaming.
“It was important to us that we first made a game that happened to be filmed,” Attridge says. “Most importantly, would we make the same design decisions if we didn’t film it? And the answer was yes.” In this interactive drama, the audience doesn’t watch or act, but takes part, from directly telling the titular Erica what to do, to sometimes controlling the camera in the scene and exploring the environment. Pace was key, Attridge says, in balancing the reclining movie watching with the forward nature of gameplay.
“We had this important rhythm that we wanted to create to make sure the player was interacting every 15 to 20 seconds,” Attridge says. “Then instead of having these symbolic interactions, instead of having this character who can just say whatever they want, and go on this big adventure, they take the player for the ride, and then if the player doesn’t feel If they want to speak or act, then the character doesn’t have to speak or act. This is to try and make it feel like they’re not taking turns playing the character with the game designer.”
The timing of the meet-cute
Sam Barlow’s Telling lies, published through Annapurna Interactive, takes a different approach. Rather than building on the FMV framework of a live-action choose-your-own-adventure, Barlow’s interest is an examination of a modern trend: how fragmented YouTube and social media inclusion has changed the way how we understand stories.
“If you see the meet-cute first, and then you see the relationship go horribly wrong, there’s an emotional journey there,” Barlow tells Ars. “But when you see the relationship go horribly wrong, and then see the meet-cute, now there’s some dramatic irony, because you already have a foretaste of where this is going… this extra thing to encourage people around jumping into videos, to watch them forward and backward, was another way to mess around a bit with that experience of what it really means to sit and watch video.”
Functionally a police procedure, there is very little linearity in it Telling lies† Instead, the participants are given the dual role of researcher and editor. A makeshift desktop interface teases the mystery of the story, and it allows players to view and rate various video clips to create not only their own timeline, but also their own pace. Everyone’s version of the twists happens a little differently, adding a layer of metal where different players can discuss and compare their experiences to get the most out of the story.
Allowing every possible possibility
One part of the FMV game equation that’s easily overlooked is the human element, like actually casting actors. Thanks to the looming skepticism about being a video game, it wasn’t always easy to get past agents and managers for casting. Rather than not being part of a major franchise, or having support from a streaming service to convince the likes of Logan Marshall-Green and Alexandra Shipp, it was Sam’s ancestry as a 2015 BAFTA winner. Her story who got his foot in the door.
“They said, ‘I see this guy won a BAFTA with his last game,'” explains Barlow. I had read the script just because they were told it was a video game. When we met and discussed how we would film it, they generally became more interested.”
Both Erica and Telling lies were largely shot as regular movies or TV shows. Completed over a period of several weeks, Telling lies filmed actors through an improvised, high-fidelity selfie camera to produce the perspective of a one-sided video call. Because all the footage would be processed into malleable gameplay in post-production, Flavorworks had to be aware of what the film crew was doing, and make sure the choices fit the game development side of the process.
“We were still using traditional film conventions in terms of angles and tempo,” Attridge says. “But every once in a while there would be something where I’d say to the filmmakers, both on set and in post-production, ‘That’s an absolutely valid thing you’ve done there, but because it’s a game, we want to avoid that. to do.'”
Likewise, there was added pressure on Holly Earl, the titular lead in Erica, to deliver each narrative arc. Just like Fionn Whitehead and some of his co-stars in bandersnatch, she had to do a lot of scenes and interactions over and over again, considering every possible possibility, all the while being wary of the viewer being the one in control. “She’s never had a bad shot and we especially wanted to keep her very muted because we didn’t want it ever to feel like the player wasn’t with her anymore and went to watch her instead,” Attridge says. “So she would never go away and do this huge action where she throws her arms around and, you know, leaves without feeling like it’s a player input.”
Don’t “bend down to ‘click the left button'”
being on Netflix, bandersnatch is designed for use on anything the streaming service can host. Made for PC, mobile and game consoles, Telling lies and Erica could demand more potential controls from their audiences. Attridge believes Netflix’s restrictions are restrictive and says Flavorworks has already turned down a number of compelling offers: “We’ve waived proposals from major players in the movie industry because to facilitate what’s needed it would mean have to give up the ambition to reach a level that changes to ‘click on the left button or the right button’, which in principle does not work for us.”
That said, their multidisciplinary mindset makes Flavorworks feel a bit isolated from both industries. “I sometimes feel like we don’t know if we have a house because we’re too interactive for a Netflix viewer,” Attridge says. “At the same time, because we have a movie aesthetic, there’s the prejudice that we’re not a real game either.”
A two-time BAFTA winner and with Annapurna behind him, Barlow understands his privilege with the freedom he has to push boundaries in such a hybrid space. In the end he hopes that bandersnatch‘s Emmy wins open doors for others to follow suit on riskier and forward-thinking crossovers. “As storytellers, we are more reviled, and recently there was the controversy about the WGA not having a video game award,” says Barlow. “I think, especially as a storyteller, if the BAFTAs or the Emmys recognize your work, people are primed for the idea that these can be interesting ways to tell stories.”
List image by Flavorworks