This December, Netflix anthology series Black Mirror released their first “interactive narrative” episode, entitled Bandersnatch. The critical response was explosive, with some reviewers calling it “groundbreaking” and that the episode “shows what Netflix can do”.
Bandersnatch is not the first interactive narrative that Netflix has created. The media service has already created interactive shows based on Dreamworks’ Puss in Boots, Stretch Armstrong, and the hit video game Minecraft — notably, these were made for younger audiences.
But just what is interactive narrative storytelling and more importantly, what can you do to prepare yourself to design content for it?
Just to clarify, Netflix’s “interactive narrative storytelling” isn’t quite a game or a movie, but an extension of existing interactive stories like the Telltale adventures The Walking Dead or Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy. These choice-based stories run about 30 minutes long, with (usually) six to twelve decision points over the course of the story.
Interactive Narrative is based on the concept of branching narrative – a story that resembles a tree of decisions (hence the term “branching”) that moves the stories off in different directions. The hero of a branching narrative can start in a cave in Montana and end up in Medieval Europe or all the way back in prehistoric times!
All branching narratives use two main components to create their stories: a decision point and a bottleneck point.
Decision points are when the protagonist of a story is forced to make a decision between two or more choices. Often one choice furthers the story while the other leads to the end – often death for the character.
You can have more than two decision points, but the more you create, the more story content you will have to create as well. The “branches” of a branching narrative can grow quickly and exponentially, so how do you keep the storylines from getting out of controls? That’s where bottleneck points come in.
Bottleneck points are places in the story where all the branches in the story all lead to the same place. For example, it won’t matter if you are nice to the Knight or insult the King, you still end up in the dungeon.
These bottleneck points keep things on track for the writer and you usually want to introduce a few of these over the course of the story to keep the narrative “under control.”
If you’re thinking of writing an interactive, it helps to be familiar with where they come from and where they might be going:
The Cave of Time (1979)
While experiments in branching narrative date all the way back to the ‘40s (with Jorge Luis Borges’ The Garden of Forking Paths), the first book of the pivotal Choose Your Own Adventure series was written by Edward Packard and published by Scholastic. The books are written in second-person, talking to its young readers directly.
In The Cave of Time, you are a young boy who wanders into a cave but comes out in a variety of locations and time periods. Some of the paths lead to fame and fortune, others to an untimely end. The book was so popular that over 184 Choose Your Own Adventure titles were published over two decades.
Genres ranged from fantasy to sci-fi to mystery. An amazing visualization of the branching narrative of the Choose Your Own Adventure series can be found at: http://samizdat.cc/cyoa/
Fighting Fantasy (1982)
Over in the UK, Ian Livingstone (who would become one of the co-founders of board game company Games Workshop) wrote his own version of Choose Your Own Adventure books. But Livingstone, being a big RPG gamer, added dice rolls and D&D style stats to his series. These “gamebooks” were a big hit with and over 60 titles were published in the course of the series.
Dragon’s Lair (1983)
The arcade game by Cinematronics and RDI Video Systems was the first to use the then-cutting-edge laser disc technology. Laser disc not only allowed for high-fidelity image and sound, but it allowed the game’s code to access any of the disc’s tracks in any order. Players had to make a choice (usually a direction or a sword attack) within a few seconds’ time; the wrong choice resulted in a humorous death animation.
Under the leadership of ex-Disney animator Don Bluth, Dragon’s Lair was a huge success. It was followed by a sequel, Time Warp, and the space-themed game Space Ace. Unfortunately high costs of production shut down Cinematronics in 1984.
While computer-based Hypertext systems have existed since the 1960s, it was the inclusion of HyperCard on Apple’s Macintosh computers that allowed branching narratives to become easier to create. Coupled with the Macintosh’s drawing programs, designers and authors could write their own interactive novels and distribute them via floppy disc.
Eventually the publishers of text adventure games such as Infocom got into the act; creating interactive fiction games based on Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and James Clavell’s Shogun, as well as original titles such as 1893: A World’s Fair Mystery and Journey: The Quest Begins.
The “Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion” or SCUMM for short was created by the game developers at LucasArts for their adventure game series. Rather than using complex word parsers like those found in text adventure games, the LucasArts team eventually migrated their interface to a “point and click” system for making choices, manipulating objects and talking with characters. Some of their games like Grim Fandango, Full Throttle and the Monkey Island series to this day are considered classics of the interactive adventure genre.
Mass Effect (2007)
Primarily a third-person action game, Mass Effect different from other shooters by focusing on the story. Inspired by the LucasArts games and the Choose Your Own Adventure books, Mass Effect included a “morality system” that allowed players to make choices that impact the plot and their relationship with the other characters in the game. As a result, players felt the story had an infinite amount of possibilities to where it would lead. (Although in reality, they only had 8 possible endings to the game.)
Chad, Matt & Rob’s Interactive Adventures! (2008)
Creators fired up their creativity when YouTube announced that hyperlink style links that could be placed on videos. Chad, Matt & Rob’s Time Machine was one of the first of these interactive narrative videos on the platform. Since then, not only storytellers but advertisers have utilized the interactive feature for their own videos. A quick guide to learn how to make your own interactive YouTube videos can be found here.
Telltale Games (2010)
Following in the steps of LucasArts, Telltale Games single-handedly resurrected the adventure game genre with the release of Sam and Max: Season One on the iPad. The company has since created several interactive games based on popular intellectual properties including Back to the Future, Jurassic Park, Batman and The Walking Dead game.
Ready to make your own Interactive Stories?
Inspired? Here at New York Film Academy, we teach interactive narrative in several of our Game Design and Screenwriting programs. Here are just a few of the tips and tricks we teach to help students create their own interactive narrative games:
- Remember the basics of screenwriting. Even though interactive narratives twist and turn all over the place, they still follow the basic format of all storytelling. Game stories and screenplays are pretty similar in form and format.
- Make sure the choices make sense. When thinking about where you want the story to go, think about the natural choices the reader will have for the character they are playing as. If the protagonist is standing in front of a haunted house, the choices might be a) open the front door or b) walk around to the back of the house. It doesn’t need to be any more complex than that.
- Make sure the results are fair. One of the biggest complaints about interactive narratives is that the effect of an action (as in “cause and effect”) doesn’t make sense, or is even fair. Give your readers/players some sort of foreshadowing to let them know what might happen if they make the right or wrong choice.
- Work backwards if you need to. Sometimes working backwards from the ending you want to have is the best way to keep your storyline from sprawling all over the place.
Good luck on writing those interactive narratives and remember that game design opportunities can come from a variety of places — not just games!