Are you watching Netflix (or is it watching you)?

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On: September 22, 2019
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Bandersnatch (2018), is the first release of an interactive film for adults on a platform (Netflix) where the viewers make decisions for the main character, taking control of the storyline. The question is: do we really monitor the characters’ actions and take control of the plot? Or are we being swallowed by the narrative and surveyed by Netflix instead?

Bandersnatch as a pioneer

Back in 1967, the world’s first interactive movie ​Kinoautomat​ came out: yet the audience would choose between two scenes by voting, instead of Bandersnatch’s individualistic experience. Interactive video games were also available to the public at that time: but with a thinner narrative emphasis.

Written by series creator Charlie Brooker and directed by David Slade, Bandersnatch is part of the science fiction anthology series Black Mirror. The term originates from a fictional creature – “possibly a monster” ​[1] ​in Lewis Carroll’s 1870’s poems.

Evolution of the audiovisual content consumption

When television was introduced (the late 1920s and early 1930s), the spectator was passive. Almost 70 years after that, the viewer’s role was rethought and turned into what we know as “spect-acteur”​, used to refer to “an active spectator in the construction of history”​ ​[2] ​. This would redefine the whole concept of the audiovisual content and how spectators relate to it. It led to the (possibly misleading) feeling of ​immersiveness​ of the user.

Nowadays, the fact that Netflix provides on-demand content through streaming has also displaced the traditional concept of television. In 2013, the platform “started uploading entire seasons of established TV series at once, essentially creating the binge-watching atmosphere”​[3]​ which means watching television for a long period for a single show. This marathon viewing beats cable TV’s “once a week programming model”​[3]​.

In Bandersnatch, viewers are expected to care more if they are complicit: a Netflix executive said “If bad things happen, you’ll feel even more crestfallen, because you were responsible. If the character is victorious, you’ll feel even more uplifted because you made that choice”​[4]​.

There is a definite appeal in giving the consumer instant control over the content yet a closer look reveals that those choices are only apparent and quite meaningless, rendering the “interactive”​ aspect of the film a mere commercial technique of engagement.

Fig 1:​ Main Character/Viewer Has a Hard Decision to Make[9]

Interaction films and rumination on free-will

The trailer says it all:​ ​“Change your past, your present, your future”​[5]​ . At the beginning of the film, there is a brief tutorial that explains to the viewer how to make choices: he has 10 seconds to choose, otherwise, the decision is made by the platform.

McLean (film’s producer) stated that this was done to give the viewer the sense of having his control over the narrative when in reality one was being funneled towards making this or that choice​[6]​.

From an early point in the experience, one realizes that some endings are impossible to reach: “Netflix pushes you back if you choose a route that ends a narrative”​[7]​.

Through the soundtrack and design of the film, the viewer feels pressure when having to make decisions yet many of those are purely esthetic: choice of music or choice of breakfast cereal.

Later on, one also understands that the film is full of “false” choices, as most lead to the same point in the structure. Bandersnatch strives in this manner for a balance between viewer control and protecting the creator’s vision. While we are carried to think that we control the main character’s life and actions, Netflix is actually manipulating us, as sustained by McLuhan’s view that “all media work us over completely”​[​8]​.

One could also encounter in this “false choice”​ paradigm a well-crafted metaphor and an allusion to the problem of free-will, regarded by many as the mere illusion of choice within a set of pre-established boundaries.

Connection to Black Mirror Series

Black Mirror explores in great depth how the future of technology might look like and how it can bring about profound changes in society. In each episode, technology is presented as manipulative, superior and unchecked by humans. Through the Science and Technology Studies’ (STS) point of view, it is plausible to affirm that we are already being manipulated and guided by the very tools we created.

“The notion that Black Mirror – a series about the horror effects of tech – would be pioneering a method that makes TV screens more addictive, while giving Netflix troves of data about its users’ choices, as it helps to further turn “engagement”​ into a closed-loop where viewers play in inscribed and controlled ways masquerading as freedom is so darkly ironic”​​[4]​.

Indeed, the sight of someone watching a dark, on-demand interactive movie like this one could perfectly be another one of those well-crafted, background details from a Black Mirror futuristic universe. Bandersnatch is, thus, the Black Mirror episode from a Black Mirror episode and its creators must have been at least aware of this, since they have always shown an inclination for all sorts of meta-narrative games.

Don’t let them fool you

The urge to find new commercial opportunities has always pushed the entertainment industry (and specifically Hollywood) to make use of new possibilities afforded by each channel of distribution (3D and interactivity being the latest examples).

Whenever such opportunity is forged, huge investment is made a “flagship”​ piece – a new media object. Significantly, Bandersnatch is a “Netflix Original”​, meaning the initiative is at least partly launched by the distribution platform itself. Yet, as it is often the case with such “flagship”​ works, Bandersnatch seems created to function as a showcase for the new entertainment paradigm and a benchmark for its adoption. The result is a product where the quality of the storytelling seems to have been neglected – especially when compared to previous output by the same team.

Whether or not the audience will value this new kind of experience is still an open question, yet it is telling that no other product in the same vein has been launched on Netflix ever since. Maybe the passive way of watching a narrative unfold is so deeply rooted in our nature and tradition that no new technology can present a stronger alternative.

Bibliography

[1]​ ​Slasher, Ruby “Cuff”. “Bandersnatch.” ​Urban Dictionary​, 26 June 2004, https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=bandersnatch.

[2]​ ​Ivars-Nicolas, Begoña, and Francisco Julian Martinez-Cano. “Interactivity in Fiction Series as Part of Its Transmedia Universe: The Case of Black Mirror: Bandersnatch.” ​IntechOpen​, 21 June 2019, doi:10.5772/intechopen.86881.

[3]​Investopedia. “How Netflix Is C2hanging The TV Industry.” ​Investopedia,​Investopedia, 25 June 2019,https://www.investopedia.com/articles/investing/060815/how-netflix-changing-tv-industry.asp​

[4]​Paskin, Willa. “Black Mirror’s ‘Bandersnatch’ Is the Perfect Netflix Show.” ​Slate​, 28 Dec. 2018.

[5]​Netflix. ​YouTube,​ YouTube, 27 Dec. 2018,https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XM0xWpBYlNM​.

[6]​Strause, Jackie. “’Black Mirror’ Duo on the Challenges of Netflix’s First Interactive Movie — and Why They Would Do It Again.” ​The Hollywood Reporter,​ 24 May 2019.

[7]​Whittock, Jesse. “Bandersnatch: an Experiment in Storytelling.” ​ProQuest​, 10 Jan. 2019.

[8]​McLuhan, Marshall, et al. ​The Medium Is the Massage.​ Penguin, 2008. 8

[9] ​Main Character/Viewer Has a Hard Decision to Make.​https://www.imdb.com/title/tt9495224/mediaviewer/rm2055894272.

Hartley, Jay. “Bandersnatched.” ​Urban Dictionary​, 14 Jan. 2019, https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Bandersnatched.

Wankel, Laura A., and Patrick Blessinger. ​Increasing Student Engagement and Retention Using Multimedia Technologies: Video Annotation, Multimedia Applications, Videoconferencing and Transmedia Storytelling​. Emerald, 2013.

Browne, Ruben. ​Videogames Be Like…’The Ludic and Narrative Circuit of The Videogame’​. 13 Feb. 2019,https://thatotherruben.home.blog/2019/02/13/videogames-be-like-the-ludic-and-n arrative-circuit-of-the-videogame/​.

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