When the full list of Nebula Award-winners was released last May, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, Netflix’s flagship interactive show, claimed victory in the new Game Writing category.
This isn’t entirely surprising. On release, the Black Mirror special quickly captured popular attention with its on-screen choices and sprawling spiderweb of a story. Critical reviews, while tepid, acknowledged its clever and inventive crafting. They also avoided calling it a game.
Is Bandersnatch an “interactive … movie” (New York Times)? Is it a “television special” (Vulture)? A “Choose-Your-Own-Adventure” (Rolling Stone)? That last one might be a good guess, seeing as the series publisher ChooseCo sued Netflix over it.
In choosing Bandersnatch as their winner for the game writing category, the Nebula Awards makes a bold claim as to what it is—and, therefore, how to assess it. While it may have been a tricky text for screen critics, Bandersnatch loses much of its mystique when approached as a game. Interactive storytelling, after all, is one of the oldest aspects of video gaming.
When Stories Are Games
What is it that makes something a game? Most definitions suggest some common factors: a game follows rules or a structure and it has an objective or win condition. Most definitions also say they’re something we do for fun or enjoyment but the amount of cursing involved in most video gaming leaves this criterion in doubt.
The first games to truly feature stories—despite Colin Ritman’s claims about Pac-Man—had players interacting through clicks with on-screen elements to solve in-game obstacles. Take The Secret of Monkey Island for example: the objective was seeing the story through to its conclusion; the structure was the world as it was presented—elements you could interact with directly and those you couldn’t.
Since then, narrative games have expanded the scope of both their gameplay structures and their stories.
Some games simply use narrative as a means to stage other elements. One example is the Final Fantasy franchise, where scripted cinematics and player-driven gameplay are connected but largely independent. The narrative lends a sense of purpose to your fighting villains. But no matter how you play it, the ending is largely unchanged.
Meanwhile, other games use narrative itself as their main mechanic of play. Gameplay can be as simple as players selecting between various on-screen choices to decide how the story progresses. This type of game structure is most common in the format of visual novels (VNs). They serve as a useful point of comparison, given how often people question whether they’re games, as well. The usual refrain: can you really call it a game if all you’re doing is choosing how a story progresses?
(If your answer is ‘no’ and you won’t change your mind, then why are you even reading this? Bandersnatch isn’t a game to you and it doesn’t deserve that award. That said…)
What It Takes to Win
Many Bandersnatch impressions would have you believe it’s an innovative work. While that’s true in some respects, it’s not true of the story format. Nonlinear narratives have been around long enough for writers to figure out what makes for a good one.
Frog God Games, a designer of tabletop RPG supplements, puts it this way:
Thus, the cardinal rule of adventure design: seek to maximize the number of meaningful, potentially-informed decisions the players can make during the course of the adventure. By “meaningful,” I mean that the decisions aren’t just trivial options with no real influence on what’s going to happen. And by “potentially-informed,” I mean that the players should have enough information – or the potential to have gotten that information – to make a good decision rather than an arbitrary selection between options. (from the Tome of Adventure Design)
Though they use the term “adventure”—drawn from the tabletop RPG context—the principle applies to any narrative used where player choice directs the outcome.
Going back to our definition of what games are, stories like this certainly qualify.
A player’s objective is to arrive at a particular story outcome— often termed a good, bad or true ending. The rule is that they can only use the choices afforded them to reach them. To make strategically viable choices, they must predict the consequences of each choice based on the story up to that point.
In other words, narrative games use information as a resource; close reading as a player skill; and player-chosen outcomes as win conditions. A good game takes these ingredients and makes an experience that is challenging but possible and, perhaps more importantly, enjoyable—after all, it’s a game, right?
And this is where the more traditional criteria for good stories kicks in. Even the best-designed game narrative, its choices and clues in all the right places, will fall flat on its face if the story’s not worth reading—or, in this case, winning.
Because narrative games rely on players choosing their own ideal outcome, at least in the broadest sense, they have to empower players to set that direction. That might mean foreshadowing or even stating the possible endings. Games that want to maintain more suspense must at least show a clear direction from choice to choice; for instance: do I make choices that are cruel or merciful; that uphold the status quo or break it?
With these principles in mind, it becomes quite easy to assess Bandersnatch’s merit as a game. So where does that leave it?
An Exercise in Futility
Even a few minutes into the runtime, Bandersnatch blatantly flouts these principles. Choices are often cosmetic, if not outright meaningless (e.g. cereal, background music) or, worse, forced upon you without any way for you to guess their consequences. How are you to know, for example, the pros and cons of working at the Tuckersoft office versus working at home? That choosing the book over the family portrait leads to bending reality?
As I mentioned, it’s possible to mitigate these issues if choices fall along a clear axis—but Bandersnatch stumbles here as well. You might think that it’s a question of whether you launch the game successfully or not but most options don’t logically connect to such objectives. Could it be about taking responsibility for your mental health? It might be a viable basis but the results don’t really bear this out.
Another possible justification is that Bandersnatch’s needs at least a second playthrough to guess at each choice’s consequence. That would be fair if an initial playthrough hinted at the breadth of possible endings. But when options range from murder drama to time travel to fourth wall-breaking shenanigans, this meager defense soon falls apart.
Bandersnatch’s choices are an exercise in futility and, to be fair, it’s pretty upfront about that. However, when each option is no more than a shot in the dark, the total package ceases to be playable. The only meaningful information is “What have I not tried before?” and the only possible objective is “See if there’s anything else.” There is no player agency. There is no winning—only finishing.
In Search of a Good End
What all this means you’ll either plumb into the depths of Bandersnatch—because you enjoy going through it anyway—or you’ll simply lose interest.
In choosing to obscure the consequences of each action; to reveal details after the choices they should have informed; to subvert every meaningful axis of decision—in short, to remove any chance of a player setting and striving for an outcome, Bandersnatch dissuades any investment; not just in the act of choosing, but in the consequences it entails.
All its cleverness can’t save it from a structure that makes it difficult to invest in its characters and their conflicts, which are at the heart of all good fiction. In other words, Bandersnatch is a terribly written game.
And if you discount the whole winning-the-Nebula-Award bit, that’s not really a bad thing.
There are a lot of signs that point to Bandersnatch not being a game, ranging from interviews with its creative team to Netflix’s own marketing efforts. And when taken as a piece of interactive television, it’s certainly quite the interesting experience. It’s not groundbreaking—Netflix has done interactive TV before and there are many games using full motion video—but it is a solid contribution in its field.
Give to Games What Is Theirs
In other words, it’s not that Bandersnatch isn’t praiseworthy. It’s a respectable work in its (decidedly non-game) format and represents a big step in bringing interactive storytelling closer to the mainstream.
The issue is that recognizing it specifically for it’s “game writing” leads to two damaging effects. First, it contradicts long-established principles of good writing in games, which could send mixed signals to aspiring creators. Second, it takes away opportunities from other works, which better deserve to be recognized for their writing as games specifically.
The Nebula Awards have made considerable strides in showing the world that speculative fiction, long excluded from the literary mainstream, is a rich genre, as worthy of deep engagement as its more “realistic” counterparts.
Hopefully, they will show the same discernment and determination in doing the same for the stories in games.