Bandersnatch (Netflix)

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If you work in interactive narrative at all, there was a period recently where you could not go anywhere without people asking your opinion of Bandersnatch, Netflix’s branching-narrative episode of Black Mirror.

Because I am ornery and/or busy and/or was sick part of the relevant time, I didn’t watch it then. Still, I was aware that IF folks felt

  • annoyed that people were treating this as massively innovative when there are tens of thousands of works, produced over the past fifty plus years, exploring the possibilities of interactive story, including quite a lot specifically of interactive film if we’re narrowing the gaze to just that
  • disappointed that a lot of the choices were kind of basic
  • weary at the prospect of yet another Author’s First Interactive Work about free will vs chance, fate, and external control — this theme being (for obvious reasons) not exactly new in the interactive narrative canon
  • excited by the hope that this meant big commercial possibilities for interactive story
  • like ignoring Bandersnatch and playing more Cragne Manor

I have now watched, and here is my opinion, now that no one is asking.

The short version: I found Bandersnatch slightly more satisfying than a lot of my friends did, perhaps because I happen to have landed on an ending that is, I gather, rare.

At the same time, I had various criticisms of it. Some amount to “this is a first interactive work by someone new to the possibilities, and it’s designed for an audience that is also not particularly literate in interactive fiction, and I guess that’s to be expected.” Others are more serious issues with the messages and themes.

Long version below the fold.

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Mid-February Link Assortment

Events

February 20 Jason McIntosh will be leading an IF playthrough and speaking about IFTF at the Providence Geeks meetup.

The next Boston IF Meetup will be Thursday, February 21, 6:30 pm, MIT room 14N-233.

On February 23 the Baltimore/DC IF Meetup will look at Grimnoir and Cragne Manor.

February 28 unnamed.jpgis the deadline to apply to attend GAIA, a three-day event in Buenos Aires in November.  GAIA is being organized by GAIN and Game On!, and will have a cap of 20 attendees; confirmed key notes are Lorenzo Pilia from A MAZE./Talk and Play (Berlin) and Marie Foulston from Wild Rumpus/V&A Museum (London). More info can be found here.

March 2, I am running a workshop on using Spirit AI’s Character Engine for works similar to Restless. Sign up via the IF Meetup website.

March 2 is also the next SF Bay Area IF Meetup.

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Mailbag: Adapting IF Skills to Adjacent Media

This is a follow-on answer to a previous mailbag post, specifically the part in which the questioner asks,

Would you have any thoughts on how to… improve the adaptive skills needed for bringing IF to newer formats and into audio?

I take this to mean not “how do I port an existing work to an interactive format” (which is also an interesting question), but “how do I do IF-like interactivity in formats other than text, especially audio?”

Key challenges for this, in my experience, center on these areas:

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Sunless Skies: Carillon, Sky Barnet, et al

Failbetter Games’ Sunless Skies is out, as of January 31, and I contributed: Carillon, a port in which Devils work to refine the souls that come their way; Sky Barnet, the gateway to the Blue Kingdom; and the Repentant Devil’s officer quest. There was also some nightmare content, a story that you can fall into if your terror grows too great.

I’m going to talk a bit more about those stories; this will be light on any actual specific spoilers, but it will touch on the general lore of Sunless Skies and the Fallen London universe.

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Story (Robert McKee) and the Expectation Gap in Interactive Story

McKeeStory is one of a handful of screenwriting books that turn up constantly in the bibliography of game writing books. McKee himself gives courses — I’ve never been, but I hear they’re very good shows, whether or not they’re good advice. It’s advised at least as often as Save the Cat, and possibly more so.

It is also, I think, more applicable to non-cinema writing than Save the Cat: McKee is interested in structure, and he has a lot of formulaic rules to suggest, but he cares about content as well. At one point he has a speech about the need for emotional truth, and how this can only come from within the author.

There are aspects of the book that aren’t entirely to my taste. In support of his points, McKee often spends quite a while reprinting classic screenplays — he’s particularly enamored of Chinatown — with his own commentary interspersed. I did not generally find his comments to be that much more instructive than the original dialogue, undisturbed. And even when he’s not giving verbatim chunks of screenplay, he spends an awful lot of time summarizing the events of various movies you’ve probably seen. He’s also a bit grandiose with his rhetoric about the great imaginative work of writing.

Then, too, quite a lot of his advice belongs to the “add an appropriate amount of salt” school of recipe writing — warning that too little or too much of something will be bad, but offering no heuristics.

All the same, there is a lot of basic vocabulary about how plots are assembled and how scenes are designed, which this book introduces as well as or better than many another. Personally, I’d be inclined to go for e.g. Wonderbook instead, if you want an introduction to basic structure vocabulary, and you’re not specifically writing screenplays. For most purposes, Wonderbook is more varied and goes deeper than Story.

There are, however, a couple of points — the ideas of expectation gap and of internal subconscious conflict — where I think it’s interesting how those concepts carry over to interactive work.

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End of January Link Assortment

Events

February 2 is the date for the next SF Bay IF Meetup. where the group will be playing Cragne Manor.

February 8-9 there will be a two-day conference Beyond the Console: Gender and Narrative Games.  I will be chairing Friday’s event; for more information about the conference, please click here.

On February 23 the Baltimore/DC IF Meetup will look at Grimnoir and Cragne Manor.

unnamed.pngEarly registration will soon be open for the 2nd International Summer School on AI and Games, to be held in New York City, USA, May 27-31, 2019.  The event is organized by Georgios N. Yannakakis and Julian Togelius, who wrote the Artificial Intelligence and Games book.

More information on the school and guest lecturers can be found at the site.

 

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