In two of the last three weeks we talked about Black Mirror, so why not do it again? This time, I’ll use the one Black Mirror that I ignored in my previous posts – the interactive film Bandersnatch – in order to discuss interactive films and their potential for the future. In case you didn’t already know about it, Bandersnatch is a Netflix film released in-between Season 4 and Season 5 of Black Mirror, whose main characteristic is its interactivity. While watching, the viewer can make decisions in certain key moments, decisions which affect the pathway the film will take, and eventually lead to one of multiple endings. Such moments are marked by the appearance of two on-screen options and a timer – by the time it runs out, the viewer must make a decision. Gamers should be familiar with such mechanisms, but Bandersnatch is actually the first time it is mainstreamly implemented in a film context. Will this trend live on, or will it simply fade away in the near future?
Say what you will, but Bandersnatch’s choices are rather limited. I’m not having a dig at it, but it’s simply what the concept permits. Some initial choices feel insignificant (e.g. choosing between two types of morning cereal), and are there in order to help viewers familiarise themselves with the choice mechanism. When the film does not ‘like’ certain choices, it offers a sort of pathway back, and gives the opportunity of a new choice – albeit with some knowledge of the inital choice, and not a simple ‘rewind’. Bandersnatch still does well with what it has – it crafts many different pathways, diverging points and plot twists, which are augmented by the knowledge of how things previously played out. Why it works is primarily because the interactive film’s main theme is, well… interactivity, making choices, parallel universes and flashbacks.
When I play a videogame, I relish the opportunity to make decisions, affect outcomes and reap the consequences. However, when I watch a film, I prefer to not have this pressure. I would rather just sit on my sofa and watch the story unfold, without having to interact in any way. I can still evaluate decisions – some positively, some negatively – but I don’t necessarily want to change them. I think that a film, just like a book, should be a finished piece of art, which can either offer a unitary closure, or can instead lead to decisions and interpretations, but in an indirect sense of the word.
Moreover, it’s perhaps good to watch characters take decisions that you would not take if you could choose for them, because not everything that we see should confirm our own worldview. And decisions are not only down to story points – if the musical score of a specific scene could be chosen, selecting hard rock instead of jazz, for instance, could heavily detract from the value and/or meaning of the scene. Same goes for decor, aesthetics, level of violence/gore and other potential variables. A lot of effort is placed by filmmakers in such apparently tiny decisions, and viewers should perhaps not be given the liberty to select everything with the imperfect information they may have at any given moment during their viewing experience.
Yes, it would be quite difficult to produce interactive films. Even if Netflix have several other projects similar to Bandersnatch in works, I doubt this trend will catch on, especially since it takes great effort, and leads to a disorganised mess. Again, this works under an ambiguous or mindfucking context, such as Bandersnatch or something close to Primer, but seems to lose both relevance and grips on the project under a different background. It needs much more footage, much more editing, and leads to either very divergent conclusions that lack unity, or too similar ones which beg the question of whether the interactivity was necessary in the first place. It would lead to very mixed reception – just as Bandersnatch got, even among big Black Mirror fans. It’s a big risk, and the payoffs beyond initial curiosity are very small.
So yes, I think interactive films are pretty much doomed from the start. Even more doomed than 3D movies, which are surpisingly still a thing nowadays. There might be a few more experiments, a bit more talk, but apart from the ocassional existential question asked in film class about ‘what films are’, I don’t see it being mentioned too much in the future. And, if I’m wrong about this, perhaps I took the wrong decision.