Just before the new year, a highly anticipated Netflix series-turned-movie sent the internet into a frenzy. What was all the hype about? Fans of the Black Mirror show realized the movie was a choose-your-own-adventure style film. While Black Mirror: Bandersnatch was Netflix’s first attempt at interactive storytelling for adults, the concept itself can be dated back to the late ‘60s.
Here’s a brief look at the evolution of interactive storytelling: from Kinoautomat to Bandersnatch.
In 1967, Kinoautomat was screened at the Montreal Expo and shown in a special cinema hall uniquely built with a green and red button for voting at each seat. Throughout the movie, the reel would stop, and the moderator would step on stage to ask the audience to vote between two scenes. The votes would then be displayed by either red or green lights around the scene, and the winning selection would be generated by the projection team. While the storyline could be altered in many ways, the ending always remained the same.
This was unlike anything anyone had ever experienced at the time, even with the clunky stop and start interactions. But if we fast-forward to the late ‘90s, an interactive documentary offers a bit of an improvement.
A collaboration between a computer scientist, interactive media artist, and documentary filmmaker resulted in an interactive documentary generator called Terminal Time. At its first viewing in 1999, the audience was asked multiple-choice questions at several points throughout the show and voted by clapping. The option with the loudest applause generated the historical narrative, and the video and sound clips were chosen from a term-indexed multimedia database creating a custom-made, ideologically-biased documentary.
The machine used the past 1,000 years of world history as a driving force for the custom documentaries, matching the biases of the current audience to ultimately raise meaningful questions.
More recently, interactive technology has evolved from buttons and applause meters to touch- screen, app-based decisions.
In 2016, CtrlMovie (a Kino Industries technology) released a smartphone app where viewers can watch a novel interactive movie and make decisions for the protagonist. The project titled Late Shift is a high-stakes crime thriller with countless storylines and seven different endings. Throughout the film, two timed choices pop up, and a selection is made by a touch screen.
In the case of a film screening, the app plays out the choices that received the most votes. So, theoretically, you could go see the movie more than once in hopes of getting a different ending with a different audience.
The CtrlMovie technology is licensed by 20th Century Fox for an upcoming Choose Your Own Adventure film adaption of the popular book series by the same name. And with that, we’ve come to the present of interactive storytelling.
Black Mirror: Bandersnatch
Released in December 2018, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch is a non-linear film that gives viewers 10 seconds to make choices for the main character by remote or touch screen, depending on the device. Multiple storylines created from a trillion different permutations all lead to one of five official endings. The first decision is easy enough: deciding whether the protagonist will eat Sugar Puffs or Frosties for breakfast.
What sets Bandersnatch apart is the complexity of the proprietary technology that Netflix engineers had to create to support the non-linear movie—named “Branch Manager.” The tool includes “state tracking” to remember a viewer’s choice throughout the experience, which impacts later scenes. A new device memory was also created to offer seamless playback after viewers have made their choices.
The is just the beginning of what could be a revolutionary change in the way content is consumed and produced. For example, the breakfast choice offers next-generation product placement opportunities, while collecting information on preferences and even how long it takes to make those decisions. Technology like this and CtrlMovie could also help with viewing numbers and attendance as fans could potentially flock to theaters multiple times to witness different endings of the same movie.
For a deeper look at how machine learning is transforming content creation methodologies, check out the January/February 2019 SMPTE Motion Imaging Journal!