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Normally, I would offer a sensible spoiler alert before discussing an episode of a popular series like Black Mirror. The Netflix series explores the impact of technology in a format that reminds me of The Twilight Zone. Before you stop reading, know that the latest episode of Black Mirror, titled Bandersnatch, released on December 28th doesn’t require a spoiler alert for the ending because each viewing experience is unique.
Many reviews liken the branching storytelling format of the episode to a “choose your own adventure” book. While the comparison is common, the scriptwriting, technology advances, and sheer concept are so far beyond the books of your childhood that you may end up tongue-tied trying to describe it as an experience, like I did.
Bandersnatch takes everything you know about streaming a show and turns it on its head. It’s an immersive experience that requires you to take responsibility for how the story unfolds for the main character.
First off, I think Netflix deserves a hat tip for choosing Black Mirror to test interactive storytelling - a show that revolves around the futuristic perils and possibilities of technology. The series regularly challenges viewers to grasp the damage that technology can cause, but this narrative forces viewers to explore their own willingness to participate.
By making the viewer control the choices, the creator turns what is already a dark storyline into a personal discovery of how far you’re willing to go. Quite a few viewers expressed angst on social media about the choices they had to make and were empathetic to the main character’s situation.
The story follows a computer game programmer in 1984 named Stefan who is developing a videogame called Bandersnatch. The main theme of the story, supported by every possible ending, is whether or not people have true freedom of choice and control, or whether it’s an illusion. Viewers get to witness Stefan unravel as he struggles with the concept of free will while programming his game.
True Black Mirror fans have a history of sharing Easter Eggs discovered in each episode. The term Bandersnatch originated from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass as a monster of sorts. The show doesn’t disappoint followers looking for Easter Eggs, as gamers will identify Bandersnatch as a re-appearing villain in the Final Fantasy game series. Diehard gamers might also recognize the title as that of a highly anticipated Imagine Software game project from 1984 that never released. There are many other references that fans have exposed, including a surprise ending.
There’s not a run-time listed because it varies based on the choices that each viewer makes. It took me about 90 minutes to get to the end credits after having made about 24 choices. Once you reach an ending, you can start over for a completely different experience with new choices.
This wasn’t the first attempt the streaming service made to create “choose your own” content. Four animated programs established the groundwork and technology required to stream an interactive storyline. Even with this experience, the creators struggled to find a tool to manage the intricate, branching script and a multi-layered story map. Flow charts and storyboards were too simple to manage the dynamic content, and no software solution existed to support a nonlinear script.
As the writing process evolved, Netflix creators developed an internal tool called Branch Manager to support the dynamic script. It enabled the creators to outline all of the possible paths along the way showing how viewers can arrive at each ending.
To give you a scope of the scale, the filmmaking process involved 250 segments of video to cover all the possible scenes which allow millions of possible paths through the story. Each branch opens up other potential branches, so it’s not a simple binary choice that ends up at the same basic conclusion each time. The Netflix team says there are too many possible paths to quantify, but they challenge viewers to reach a more reasonable goal: count the number of endings.
Another custom development effort was required to remember what choices each viewer made during their experience. State tracking allowed the streaming giant to remember each choice a viewer makes that branches off to a different experience, with millions of possible permutations that lead to different endings.
Next, Netflix had to tackle loading the episode without buffering, given all the possibilities. The new device memory technology developed by the team allowed them to seamlessly load only the relevant videos at each decision point, rather than trying to load everything all at once. Lastly, streaming the interactive video had to work in 28 different languages across multiple platforms. Imagine the testing to include all smart TVs, browsers, every Android and iOS device, and the most popular game consoles. Netflix wasn’t successful in getting it to work for Apple TV users, Chromecast, and a few other devices.
The overwhelming technical accomplishment was launching the show to 137 million global subscribers without a glitch or crash. Successfully making the innovative branching storyline work on multiple platforms and languages at that scale is remarkable. The complexity of all the moving parts that require perfect execution at every level is awe inspiring.
Without the dedication of the script, the technical expertise to serve up relevant video, and a less-suited series, this experiment could have been trite instead of magical. I hope Netflix builds on this revolutionary foundation for the future with equally outstanding stories.
Megan Southard is a writer, mom, technology enthusiast, and movie junkie. She dreads the day her kids have to explain gadgets to her and is old enough to say, "I was the remote for our TV growing up."
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