Although there are dozens of different types of video games, the key difference between all of them and a film is, well, control. In a video game, to varying degrees, you, the player, take charge of the decision-making process, whereas in a film you kick back, relax, and enjoy the narrative as decided by the filmmakers.
The variation in medium allows you to experience both forms of entertainment differently. Whereas in the former, the storytelling isn’t usually as impactful, save for some exceptional titles, the thrill — whether the game is based on skill, story, or a combination of both — is about feeling the consequences of your actions. Films, on the other hand, are more powerful storytelling experiences, for one, because there is no decision-making to break the immersion. What’s more, it is a better use of a filmmaker’s time to tell one story the best they can rather than worry about multiple narrative threads.
Video games that are the most film-like are role-playing games and story-based adventure games. One of the most emotionally affecting such game that I played was Heavy Rain, by Quantic Dream, and perhaps it is no coincidence that it is one of the most movie-like games ever made, to the point where it is almost more like an interactive drama than a video game.
I thought of Heavy Rain a lot as I watched Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, a clever interactive film by David Slade on Netflix. Set in 1984, it tells the story of a young budding video game developer named Stefan Butler who wants to develop a title that follows the format of a “choose your own adventure” book called Bandersnatch. Well-acted by Fionn Whitehead, Stefan is an interesting protagonist, especially because he seems to suffer from some psychological issues stemming from a childhood tragedy.
The cleverest aspect of Black Mirror: Bandersnatch is how it breaks the fourth wall between the viewer and the protagonist
I called the film clever, and it certainly is in multiple ways. For one, it allows viewers who aren’t interested in an interactive experience an out, by going with the default choice if no choice is taken in a short period. For the other, when viewers hit a dead end, it swiftly takes them back to a key decision-making fork, because it realises that fans of such interactive media usually prefer to experience all the possibilities. The efficiency doesn’t stop there. For the average viewer, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch will last 90 minutes, but I quickly saw all 150 minutes of footage after my first viewing session ended, thanks to the fast-forwarding options in the interface.
Without giving too much away, the cleverest aspect of Black Mirror: Bandersnatch is how it breaks the fourth wall between the viewer and the protagonist. At some point, Stefan — thanks to some borderline psychotic behaviour on our part — begins to become aware of our existence and control over his decision. What follows is a hilarious sequence where Stefan and his psychologist, Dr. R. Haynes (Alice Lowe), drop all pretense and begin to entertain us.
As interesting as Black Mirror: Bandersnatch is, it should have been better. Its strength is its interactivity gimmick and its level of self-awareness, but the story itself isn’t particularly good or moving. While Stefan’s unfortunate past is painful to watch, the gimmicks take us out of the plot so often that the narrative doesn’t realise its potential. Let’s put it this way, without the interactive elements, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch would have been panned as a mediocre film.
Interestingly, Heavy Rain told a more stirring tale. Primarily, this was because its story of a father looking for his kidnapped child was told with fewer arbitrary breaks for decision-making at crucial points in the actual story. If it weren’t the fact that Heavy Rain was made with computer graphics and Black Mirror: Bandersnatch was live-action, you could argue that Black Mirror: Bandersnatch is more video game-like.
It may seem like I’m coming down hard on Black Mirror: Bandersnatch and that’s not the case. If anything, it has sparked an interesting discussion on the difference between a video game and a film, and the strengths and weaknesses of either format. I certainly look forward to the next interactive Black Mirror drama, and hope that its story matches its ingenuity.
Published in Dawn, ICON, January 27th, 2019