In the Netflix production “Bandersnatch” the viewer is integrated in the narrative in the role of a sort of puppet master. From the comfort of his or her own couch, the viewer supports Stefan Butler, a teenager who is rather lacking in self-confidence, in making decisions in 1980s London, which, depending on how things turn out, can lead to suicide, the murder of others and many other consequences. The first decision he faces: Kellogg’s Frosties or Quaker Sugar Puffs? Like many of the “Black Mirror” episodes, the film succeeds in outlining a scenario that is as fantastic as necessary, but simultaneously realistic enough to provoke discussion about future issues of digital societies. In this case, however, this is accomplished less through narration and more by means of the interactive concept. By the way, 73 percent of viewers chose the Frosties – Netflix CEO Reed Hastings announced this, thus making it clear what kind of impact viewing interactive films has on issues of data privacy: in the background, every viewer decision can contribute to the creation of behavioural profiles of the Netflix users.
The idea of the viewer as arbiter has been familiar in the theatre for a long time: Back in 1934, author and philosopher Ayn Rand (↗ form 271, S. 101) conceived the stage play “Night of January 16th”, in which a jury consisting of selected audience members was to decide the guilt or innocence of the protagonist Karen Andre on the basis of staged witness testimony and thus determined how the play ended. Ferdinand von Schirach pursued the same concept in 2015 with his courtroom drama “Terror”: after the defendant’s hearing, the audience not only found whether or not he was guilty, but also decided on the final scene. A year later, it was all filmed and broadcast on television. Now audience members were able to vote by telephone or via a specially provided website. In each of the three stagings, partly due to the genre of courtroom drama, the inclusion of the audience was designed to trigger a moral discourse. The productions were intended to provoke debate.
Interactive narrative media formats have been widespread since the end of the 1970s at the latest. The highly popular “Choose Your Own Adventure” series of children’s books established a concept that permitted the reader to influence the plot of the story and the protagonist’s decisions within a certain framework. The contents of the books are divided into segments, at the end of each of which a decision must be taken, sending the reader to one of several subsequent segments in which the story continues to unfold. In this manner, various courses of action are possible that, depending on the reader’s decision-making behaviour, are revealed bit by bit upon repeated reading or may also remain concealed forever. Whereby particularly in the book form, it is still very easy to tell which pages haven’t been read yet.
A branched structure is the simplest one for non-linear stories. In terms of content, however, it is laborious and complicated, because it is necessary to come up with ever more detailed and yet meaningful branches of a story. This structure is well-suited to numerous storylines that come to a single conclusion. On the other hand, however, a structure of this type curtails the role of the reader as a decision maker because the end of the story is always the same and predetermined regardless of the path to it.
As digital systems evolved, new possibilities for such interactive narration models resulted, leading to an implementation that is reminiscent of the functionality of video games, but decisively differs from them visually because it makes do without graphics and functions solely as a text. In contrast to a book, the structure of the story as a whole is much harder to reconstruct in this form because it is less accessible: in the digital realm, hidden paths stay hidden. The narration is, as it were, the prize won by playing.
One example of this development is hyperfiction: a non-linear story structured as hypertext, for example, according to the principle of hyperlinks and cross-references. One of the first texts of this kind is Michael Joyce’s 1987 avant-garde novel “afternoon, a story”, which was published on floppy disk. For its time, the structure of the text is highly complex thanks to the use of so-called “conditional links” that appear only under certain conditions, for example, only after repeated visits to a text page, to lead the reader to new storylines and provide information about people or situations. Thus readers have the opportunity to appropriate the novel in an individual, intuitive manner and explore the story independently. With online hyperfiction, depending on the author’s stipulations, it is possible for readers and authors to supplement the story bit by bit with additional narrative modules.
What all of the aforementioned media have in common is the self-empowerment of the recipient. Interactive narrative formats facilitate the experiencing of self-efficacy and thus, from a psychological point of view, have a motivational benefit: They prompt interaction with the environment.1 The experience of self-efficacy resembles the exercising of control and power in its psychological effect, but has fewer situational requirements. The only thing that is important is that people see the results of their own actions. But what is the impact if I identify with a story so much that the consequences of the decision I have taken in the fictional realm actually move me?
On account of the playful element and heightened identification potential, entertainment media that use interactive elements do indeed stand a better chance of keeping the recipient in suspense. Does the availability of interactive cinematic works thus result in the supposed trend towards ever shorter attention spans? In any case, the interactive entertainment programmes currently make great marketing springboards. Last year, for example, the studio 20th Century Fox, in cooperation with Kino Industries, developed the format “Ctrl Movie”, which enables moviegoers to influence the plot of the film via an app. The idea is anything but new: the first interactive film, “Kinoautomat” by Czech director Radúz Činčera, was screened already at the 1967 World’s Fair. Back then, cinema audiences could press a button to take decisions about the plot of the film. There is really only one major difference between it and modern formats such as “Bandersnatch” or “Ctrl Movie”: In 1967, the mainframe computer that tallied the voting results still occupied an entire room.
Kim Kaborda has studied sociology and is currently studying design at Burg Giebichenstein Univerity of Art and Design Halle. She is interested in social impacts of and on design, from aesthetic phenomena to structural issues.
1 Christoph Klimmt, Christopher Blake, Selbstwirksamkeitsmaschinen. Motivationsprozesse interaktiver Unterhaltung, in Leonard Reinecke, Sabine Trepte (eds.), Unterhaltung in neuen Medien. Perspektiven zur Rezeption und Wirkung von Online-Medien und interaktiven Unterhaltungsformaten, Cologne: Herbert von Halem Verlag, 2012, pp. 65–81, p. 73.