Hailed as a ground-breaking innovation, the trippy ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ episode follows years of experimentation by advertising creatives and music video directors, writes Laura Swinton
Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror has (and I don’t know if he’d be thrilled to hear this… bleakly amused, perhaps) become something of a cultural touchstone in the ad industry. Existing at the intersection of technology, media and society, the speculative fiction show is a compelling exploration of where our irresponsible tinkering in artificial intelligence, tracking, data gathering, virtual reality, augmented reality and the rest of our techy fads might end up taking us.
The aesthetic and ideas from Black Mirror have an unnerving way of manifesting themselves in the work we see. ‘Oooo it’s all a bit Black Mirror, innit.’ It’s a phrase we use in the LBB office at least twice daily. Judging by some of the work we see, I do wonder if agency creative technologists are aware that Black Mirror is supposed to be a dystopia.
However, the latest outing, Bandersnatch, which launched on Netflix on December 28th, reverses the polarity of the neutron flow. It picks up where adland left off, taking its cues from one of the big advertising and music video trends of a few years ago – the live action Choose Your Own Adventure film. Black Mirror’s creative deployment of the concept and the tech supporting it are second to none, but it remains to be seen whether Netflix can flourish where many brands before have kind of flumped. Can they make interactive live action storytelling a truly mainstream form, independent of gaming?
The episode is an impressive outing from the streaming service, which has been investigating the possibilities of interactive storytelling for a couple of years now, starting out with experiments in kids' programming. Bandersnatch, however, takes the concept of ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ (CYOA) and doesn’t so much deconstruct it but absolutely pulverises it. At key points in the narrative, the viewer is invited to make a choice and control the protagonist's actions - leading to multiple pathways and one of five endings. However, as the viewer/player loops back and attempts to re-do their decisions things start to get, pardon my language, rather fucky. The fourth wall starts having a meltdown in the corner. For their first big adult outing in interactive film, breaking the format to pieces is a bold play by Netflix. The decision to go big with Black Mirror’s existential crisis-inducing meta-narrative could kill off the concept before it has a chance to take root - where on earth can you go next? Or, perhaps, by allowing Netflix the chance to acknowledge the potential gimmickry face-on, they've wrong-footed potential naysayers and made it easier for mainstream audiences to accept any future projects.
Other studios, producers and platforms will be watching the public response to Bandersnatch keenly as Netflix isn’t the only entertainment behemoth to be exploring interactive filmmaking and the CYOA model. In April 2018, Variety revealed that Twentieth Century Fox announced that it was developing an interactive movie and app based on the '80s and '90s book series that was officially known as ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’. Movie studios and content creators must be trying to get their mitts on some of that fabled games industry gold (gaming was estimated to be worth $138bn in 2018). All that juicy, juicy behavioural data to be harvested from viewers' depraved decision-making has got to be worth its weight in lootboxes too.
The Bandersnatch creators are leaving it up to audiences to decide if they categorise it as a game, a TV show or something else (gaming legend Hideo Kojima has opted for 'all of the above' in his Twitter tribute). The gaming roots are, however, undeniable. Not only is the story set in the world of '80s games design, but showrunner and writer Charlie Brooker started out as a games journalist himself. Bandersnatch lovingly draws its inspirations from the well-thumbed books of old, the early text adventure games and clunky interactive video CD ROMS of the '90s, as well as more recent developments in narrative-driven games from the likes of Telltale Games (the now-closed game studio whose previous game Minecraft: Story Mode was actually ported over to Netflix as an interactive story). Bandersnatch also shows how even the simplest gameplay mechanic can allow creators to explore tricky concepts in a more direct manner than more traditional, linear media can. In Bandersnatch’s case, it’s the introduction of choice to explore the illusion of free will and it follows in the footsteps of games like 2015’s Life is Strange, the seminal indie game The Stanley Parable (which you should play immediately if Bandersnatch has left you unable to rejoin reality as you used to know and understand it), and, of course, Bioshock.
From a creative and business standpoint, the intersection of gaming and film represents an intriguing space. Brands’ interest in the CYOA specifically peaked around 2010, when there was a flurry of projects that made the most of YouTube’s clickable end cards. It all seemed pretty groundbreaking at the time, but now it’s adorably quaint. However, we may yet see a renewed interest, spurred on by Black Mirror. In October 2018, Walmart announced a $250m investment in Eko, a platform designed specifically for interactive film content and which has been used for CYOA in the past. Agencies, brands and production companies have since become enamoured with different non-linear forms of storytelling like VR and AR, but the humble CYOA film is significantly more accessible. And with the likes of Netflix and Eko beefing up the supporting background tech, the experience is far smoother than the hacked and cobbled together YouTube experiments of yore.
But while we’re looking to the future, let’s also look back to some of the earlier ads and music videos that allowed punters to, well, choose their own adventures.
A Different Ending
In 2009, AMV BBDO and Mad Cow director Simon Ellis used choice to convey an important message about knife crime and to try and show young Londoners why they should think twice about carrying weapons. ‘A Different Ending’ for the London Metropolitan Police was an early example of how to create an interactive story on YouTube using clickable end cards.
Deliver Me to Hell
Using a similar technique to the previous effort, but to a very different effect, this low budget comedy horror for Kiwi pizza joint Hell Pizza has clocked up millions of views since its launch in 2010. Shows what lashings of fake blood, a willingness to experiment and an exuberant use of expletives can achieve.
AMV BBDO – yes, of A Different Ending fame – scaled things up with this 2012 project for Mercedes. This CYOA tale played out not on YouTube but on TV. Who says mass media can’t be interactive? Audiences were invited to vote via Twitter to decide how the story should end – though completionists could head to YouTube to experiment with different outcomes too.
Say what you want about Coldplay’s music, but their music videos have always had their own creative flair. This promo, Ink, is an innovative adventure and an animated love story in one. It’s beautifully designed and lives on Eko, a platform specifically created for brands and artists to introduce a bit of choice into their content. And to get your head round the sheer complexity of developing a promo like this, check out the making-of from production company Blink LA. Massive props.
Toronto Silent Film Festival
In 2015, the TSFF brought classic silent movies to the social media generation. To entice young people to check out the festival, Canadian agency Red Lion created a Choose Your Own Adventure game on Instagram – built entirely of clips from the film programme.
Play Less Nice
Earlier this year Wieden + Kennedy and Stink created a series of TV ads for Nike Canada where the nice guys of Canadian sport slowly revealed their nasty, competitive side with each airing. Running alongside this was an interactive video , from Anomaly and Jungle Media, that gave viewers the power to decide just how naughty or nice they wanted to be. You can play about with the video and subvert national stereotypes here.
What is it about Canadians and choosing their own adventures? This time it's punk band Pup, who have fully embraced the 8-bit gaming aesthetic in this ambitious outing that shows that, with enough creativity and ingenuity, any budget should be able to stretch to alien lizards and grisly bear attacks. It’s full of silliness, joy and nerdy references – which is why it took home Best Interactive Video at the 2018 UK MVAs.
Another Instagram adventure – this time a 2015 outing for Land Rover from Brookyln Brothers. You’ll have to slum it with still images rather than video… but what do you want? Blood?
Smart Water – Shoot Day
Less Choose Your Own Adventure than Choose Your Own Commercial, this fourth wall-breaking interactive spot starring Jennifer Aniston turns the viewer into the director. For most LBB readers, we realise this is a bit of a bus driver's holiday. The choices made can lead to one of eight different outcomes. Well, she's worth it.