For those interested in learning much more about this topic, Realised Realities’ next Immersive Storytelling course will be held at #UKIE (London) on Tue 12 Nov 2019. Places are still available but act fast as there’s a 16-person limit for this workshop. Click the link to find out more!
Immersive Experience Specialist Jed Ashforth shares insights about Interactive Storytelling in the XR age.
Last week, Netflix’s choose-your-path Interactive Storytelling vehicle Black Mirror : Bandersnatch was awarded the 2019 Emmy for Outstanding Television Movie. Since the show has won the Emmy twice before (and reaped 4 more in other categories), few were surprised. But it has created fresh cuts in the various conversations about Interactive storytelling formats and re-opened some old wounds. The oldest wound, the one that never heals, is whether limited-choice interactive narratives like Bandersnatch should be seen as a traditional narrative in the style of movies or TV. Or should they be regarded, instead, as some kind of videogame?
The responses to the win across the two camps of Interactive Storytelling are illuminating. Influential gaming site Kotaku are clearly framing it as a game, reporting “Mediocre videogame show Bandersnatch wins Emmy”. Leading site Polygon have a similar point-of-view, asking “Does this mean a video game won an Emmy?”. From one vantage point, viewed through the lens of a videogame, Bandersnatch is unexceptional, limited in its interactivity and restrictive in the freedom it grants the player. As such, Bandersnatch does not represent a high watermark in interactive storytelling for videogamers.
But as an evolution of a TV Movie, Netflix have delivered a polished, technically seamless interactive storytelling experience. The Emmys, after all, reward ‘outstanding achievement in television’, a broad scope which clearly includes Bandersnatch’s technical achievements. But its story, while making strides to incorporate the themes of choice, control and repetition into its meta-infused narrative, is also being held up against the best that an entire linear medium has to offer in 2019, and for some that makes the win hard to swallow. As Variety puts it, “Bandersnatch, as creative work and not as experiment, falls so short of the standard “Black Mirror” has set that to put it forward is to risk the credibility the series’ first four seasons have earned.”
The same platforms where the interactive narrative of Bandersnatch can be experienced – Smartphone, Smart TV, Tablets – are of course also host to a huge number of narrative-driven iOS and Android games that offer richer and more complex interactive experiences. Perhaps there’s now a valid question as to whether this means progressive interactive works such as Sam Barlow’s Her Story, 80 Days or Heaven’s Vault (both from London-based Inkle) should now be valid for nomination. The instant reaction might be that an iPhone game is clearly a world away from being classed as ‘TV’, but then Bandersnatch’s Emmy win also acts to further blur the definition of exactly what constitutes ‘TV’ in today’s world. If video streamed on-demand through an App (i.e. Bandersnatch) qualifies as TV, this this might arguably encompass YouTube and other video platforms. And that same description also comfortably fits streaming videogame platforms like PlayStation Now and Google Stadia. These are considerations that will surely need some academic introspection for the Emmy panel in future years. My thought would be that the most useful distinction is neither the delivery medium nor a requirement that the content is pre-recorded. Instead, the biggest differentiator may be whether a narrative is linear or interactive. Only the former guarantees that everyone is viewing and assessing the same content.
My Bandersnatch was better than Your Bandersnatch
Some plot aspects of any interactive story are going to be different for each viewer. Netflix boasts 5 possible endings resulting from trillions of different permutations of the story. For an interactive narrative to be eligible for the same award as traditional linear narratives immediately raises an obvious question – which version are you submitting? Are all of your endings equally satisfying? Is every route through the story going to deliver a narrative worthy of praise?
My own experience of Bandersnatch was one of feeling that I may have missed out on some important story moments elsewhere. How can a user know? Creators can’t rely on audiences to go back and revisit story paths not taken. Maybe one route through the story does deliver a better narrative experience than all the others, but if that’s the case, did those trillions of permutations actually serve to hide the best version from many who played it? From a creative and storytelling perspective, that can’t be good. Adding choice will always make it harder to find the most satisfying route through the story. You risk that the combination of story moments and important incidents that sow the seeds of a good story might never be encountered. You gamble that the challenges and incidents that grow those seeds so they can later flourish might take place. When creating an interactive story, a fundamental question to ask is whether you expecting the audience to make the best story choices, or to make the choices that personally appeal to them most? Plenty of players will pick the most disruptive option, so those options need to be carefully thought-through.
From their foundations upwards, it’s clear that interactive storytelling needs to be conceived of and structured very differently. Movies are not games, and games are not movies, simply because giving the player ‘agency’, the freedom to choose what happens next, makes it exponentially harder to ensure a satisfying ending.
This might all feel familiar to those who are au-fait with modern videogames. Videogames reach 50 years young this year. Over that span, that massive industry has tried every-which-way to figure out how to build and deliver interactive stories at varying complexity levels. Nobody understands these challenges better than those who have wrestled with it creating story-based games, arguably the prevalent form for the medium. What rapidly becomes clear is that the more you try to mix the player’s choices with the real story you want to tell, the harder it becomes to keep control over where the story is heading.
Story needs structure. Agency breaks structure. Is this a Mission Impossible?
There are a million-and-one guides to writing radio dramas, screenplays, novels, and comics. The structures of the most successful and critically acclaimed linear stories are analysed and studied in-depth. A thousand theorems are formed. We may not have found the perfect formula for making movies and TV yet, but plenty of books and lectures will tell you they know the best recipe.
And as well as the story structure, a great movie lives in a wider combinations of factors beyond the page. The editing, shot composition, lighting and colour, performance, music, production design can all be supporting the themes and trajectories of the narrative to make a cohesive whole. Every moment is considered, not just key moments or pivotal turning points. There’s some of these aspects that storytelling in XR can and will incorporate and capitalize upon. But there are many more nuances in the artistry of mature linear storytelling mediums that rely on the storyteller knowing precisely where the narrative is going.
What’s clear is that these are mature forms, and under full authorial control. A writer or creative team can carefully work out and execute the structure of their story and have precise control over what the audience sees and when. For storytelling, that’s powerful. Our best storytellers hold audiences in thrall for hours with masterful control over every aspect of how the story is being told.
Giving your audience control and choice (‘agency’) over which way the story goes will challenge the best storytellers. The more agency you grant your audience, the harder it is to tell the story you wanted to tell. Imagine if halfway through Casablanca, Rick decided to just go to war against Major Strasser and his Nazi forces. Suddenly the whole genre of the piece has changed, so good luck trying to shoehorn in the heart-breaking love story you’re really wanting to tell. Hell, Rick might not even wait around in Casablanca long enough to run into Ilsa. And if that sounds like some hard twists for a human storyteller to accommodate, then you’ll appreciate that trying to program game systems to be able to cope with high degrees of agency can often seem like an impossible task.
User Expectations for Immersive Mediums are not yet settled
For a game to tell a well-structured story no matter how the player twists and turns the narrative threads is still a rare and beautiful thing in videogames. Despite 50 years of trying, few would argue that we’re at the point where anyone has cracked the problem. We have compromises and workarounds to allow player agency and linear narrative structures to sit side-by-side safely. The most common practice is to only grant action agency to the player – they can shoot guys in any order they want using whatever weapon they choose. Narrative agency is usually off the cards. The story is delivered by pre-animated cinematics in-between action sequences. Grand Theft Auto. Tomb Raider. Call of Duty. Play game, watch story. Do not mix. It’s such a staple norm of videogames that we rarely question it the way we should.
Of course there is a storied history of interesting examples where games have tried to avoid this strict dichotomy, from early titles like Colossal Cave Adventure (1975) through to modern approaches like last year’s Emmy-winning Wolves in the Walls, unusual narrative adventures like BAFTA 2018 Best Game What Remains of Edith Finch, and the innovative 2018 GDCA Best Narrative winner Return of the Obra Din. Also of note are the Hollywood-faithful titles of controversial developers Quantic Dream, who build massive, vastly complex variations on the Bandersnatch branching pathways concept. Game designers have always looked to create worlds where the players feel they matter, and the dream of interactive stories has always been to put the player at the center of the story by giving them the power to make significant choices.
One beguiling aspect of videogames is that we still haven’t settled on what to expect from any one game style or genre. Every new game carries the potential to find some delicious new flavour of gameplay challenge hitherto unknown. Even after 50 years, the medium is very much still in flux, regularly benefitting from fresh new opportunities that technological progress creates. Bumps in processing power, analogue control sticks, internet connectivity, motion controls, higher definition displays, and computer vision are all advances which have opened up new gameplay and interactions opportunities that have flourished into rich, populated landscapes that continue to grow. The arrival of immersive technologies like MR, AR and VR is seen as hugely exciting by pioneering creators because of the possibility spaces they represent. They are new landscapes so vast and so deep in promise that even after 5 years of commercial consumer VR, we haven’t even started to find the edges.
Videogame users have learned to expect technical innovation to regularly lead to new game styles and genres. In comparison, there have been considerably fewer technical innovations that have moved us closer to solving the Interactive Storytelling conundrum. Gamers will always expect their stories to be interactive, but after a lifetime of expecting linear stories, we all expect that our narratives will deliver a satisfying pay-off in the same way as we’ve come to expect from Movies, Books, Theatre and TV. Where can we start looking to find robust, audience-pleasing narrative structures that can withstand the wrecking-ball that Choice represents?