Bandersnatch and the future of storytelling
21 January 2019 | Written by Alessandro Zampini
From the last episode of Black Mirror to Red Dead Redemption 2, through J.J. Abrams, social networks and virtual reality. To what extent will technology change the art of telling stories?
The stories have been a part of human life for more than 50,000 years. An enormous period of time, during which the art of narrating has evolved and improved, driven by incessant technological and social development. From the first stories around the fire to today, the narratives have changed contents, structures and means, going from oral to written, from literature to theater, from cinema to the web. In this flow of continuous transformation, however, an element has always remained constant in human life: its insatiable hunger for stories.
The media storm triggered by Bandersnatch, the special episode of the tv series Black Mirror released a few weeks ago on Netflix, allows us to reflect on our primary need and on the relationship between modern viewer and narration: a dynamic and complex link, destined to change further with the advent of new technologies.
For those who have not yet heard of it, Bandersnatch is set in 1984 and tells the story of Stefan Butler, a young English programmer struggling with the creation of a video game based on an interactive novel. The atmospheres are typical of Black Mirror, between disturbed scenarios and reflections on the use of technology, but the authors have taken advantage of it to characterize the episode with different levels of meta-narration and dispassionate tributes to the world of videogames and game books of those years.
The success of Bandersnatch, however, is not based on the plot itself, but rather on the way in which it is staged. The episode, in fact, is an experiment of film-interactive, a feature film in which the viewer can interact with the development of the story, choosing firsthand what actions to make the protagonist do. Each choice influences the development of the story and leads to new narrative bivies, which in turn lead to different scenes and endings.
The end result is a product halfway between film and videogames, a hybrid that recalls both the game books we mentioned above, and the comic stories “with fork” published on the Mickey Mouse in the ’80s.
Leaving aside the technical and cinematographic review of the episode, which has already been eviscerated under every aspect, Bandersnatch provides us with a great starting point to face the most obvious of changes in the world of storytelling: for the viewer to see or hear stories it’s not enough anymore, but he wants to get inside, be the protagonist. Not only mechanically, thanks to the possibility of influencing the actions of the characters or the development of the plot, but also and above all at the empathic level. Immerse yourself in history, get excited and have a weight in decisions: this is what the public wants.
Netflix seemed to have found the egg of Columbus, but not everything went in the best way. Many have criticized Bandersnatch because the choices of the viewer have little influence on the development of the plot (and this, in fact, is much more linear than stated by the authors), but the real limitation of the project, perhaps, must be sought inability to engage emotionally the spectator. The public struggles to feel empathy for the protagonist and the choices he is called to make are not accompanied by sufficient emotional charge. The result is that as a possible protagonist, the spectator finds himself playing a role as a simple puppeteer.
This emotional detachment can be filled in literature by the writer’s ability. When the author breaks down the wall that separates him from the reader, he manages to address him directly, transforming him into a protagonist. In Joe Dever’s game books, for example, the British writer describes us in person, making us immediately identify with the hero, in the “Lone Wolf”; in the meta-book by J. J. Abrams “S. The ship of Theseus”, instead, we are the direct recipients of the notes and clues scattered in the volume, and for this reason we feel an active and unavoidable part of the story.
It is thanks to videogames, however, that the art of telling stories has changed forever: from simulacrum of real life, video games have become alternative realities, managing to combine in an almost perfect narrative complexity, empathic involvement and autonomy of action. Recent games such as “Detroit: Become Human” by Quantic Dream or “Red Dead Redemption 2” by Rockstar Games transport the player/protagonist in credible and immersive worlds, universes where the strength of history and freedom of choice are so powerful to push beyond the simple suspension of unbelief. Both titles, albeit for different reasons, help to draw a deep groove between guided entertainment and freedom of absolute action. Trying to believe: riding through the endless prairies of the Wild West in Red Dead Redemption 2 is an activity that goes beyond the playful aspect: it is a real-life experience that, for realism and involvement, can be compared to a journey in the real life. We no longer need to feel what the protagonist feels, because we are the protagonist now.
If videogames have innovated the way of telling and living stories, new changes, however, already seem to be upon us. The signals are clear: technological progress is ready to further revolutionize the world of narration.
Just think of virtual reality, which opens the door to new worlds and experiences of total sensory immersion, or new Artificial Intelligences, able to change our perception of reality. About the negative aspects of the IA Deepfake we talked here, but try to imagine a use of this technology in the world of stories: how long will we have to wait before we can give our face and our voice to the protagonists of every film or video game? In the future there will be no need for virtual avatars, because we will be our own avatar.
Technology is also destined to change the way stories are born. The huge amount of data, tastes, attitudes, preferences and desires that we disseminate on a network every day, including purchases, social networks and smart devices, already influences what we see online. In a few years, however, we can come across movies, books or video games designed specifically for us: products created by AI that exploit the deep knowledge of our interests. At that point, perhaps, we will no longer be satisfied with being the protagonists and being able to choose what to do but we will pretend tailor-made stories, with settings, characters, plots and actions that reflect our personality and our state of mind.
In this way new forms of narration and new narrative genres would be born, giving rise to an infinite number of possible, personalized journeys of the Hero.
From this point of view, therefore, considering Bandersnatch the new frontier of entertainment would be at least a naive operation. But it is equally wrong to ignore the signal of change that, thanks to technology, seems destined to revolutionize forever the art of telling stories. Faced with a request for increasingly rich and engaging content, the Netflix experiment is another small but important step towards a future in which, probably, programs, stories and narratives will arise and develop on the individual needs of each user.
Because if it is true that everyone is the product of the stories he has heard and experienced, it is equally true that, in a few years, each story could be written, thought out and personalized based on what each of us is.