While watching TV or movies, have you ever found yourself yelling at a character for making a seemingly destructive or just down right dumb decision?
Or have you ever wondered how a show or movie might be different had a character chosen a different path, or wished you could see a story end differently than it did?
For those who experience these kinds of frustrations, look no further than interactive entertainment, a relatively new concept recently brought into the spotlight with the December release of Netflix's "Black Mirror: Bandersnatch," an interactive episode of the British paranoia-inducing suspense drama "Black Mirror."
Inspired by the ever-popular "The Twilight Zone," each stand-alone "Black Mirror" episode examines modern society and explores humanity's sometimes troublesome relationship with technology.
The interactive component of this unique episode means viewers make decisions for the main character, giving themselves the opportunity to drive the storyline in several different directions. Some decisions will end the episode right then and there, while others will make it lengthier, and several different endings are possible based on the choices the viewer makes. And in true "Black Mirror" fashion, reality seems to get warped during the episode, as the main character becomes aware someone is making his decisions for him. Creators break the fourth wall, as the viewer's presence becomes an integral part of the story.
Before the interactive "Black Mirror" episode came out, the only other interactive content Netflix offered was kids' shows, like a Puss in Boots storybook saga and a Stretch Armstrong superhero adventure. With Puss in Boots, viewers guide the feisty feline through various fairytale scenarios when he gets trapped in a storybook. The character appears to make it to the end of the story no matter which decisions are made, but the path there differs based on each choice. Stretch Armstrong watchers help the superhero and his friends decide how to fight their villains, creating the ability to pull the show in several different directions and create a series of various storylines. The viewer's decisions ultimately determine how long the episode lasts and how successful the characters are.
Though Netflix has certainly drawn the attention of users and entertainment connoisseurs of all kinds since releasing "Bandersnatch" at the end of last year, the media giant isn't the first to come up with the interactive idea.
A quick Google search for "interactive movies" took me to a website called makeuseof.com, featuring three free downloadable interactive movies.
The first is "The Outbreak," a 2008 zombie movie allowing viewers to help the main character survive-or maybe fall victim to-a zombie apocalypse. Only one combination of decisions will lead to survival, and I hate to say it wasn't as easy as I anticipated. I picked just about every wrong action I could before I found the right path.
"Bank Run," released in 2010, is more of a hybrid movie/video game, allowing the viewer to not only make decisions for the main character but requiring some quick reflexes to press certain buttons on the keyboard to help the protagonist get out of some sticky situations.
The third movie featured on the site, "HBO Imagine," looked like an even more complex format, but I couldn't find a working link to try it out.
The first two, though, created by the digital production company SilkTricky, were definitely interesting and unlike any other movies I had seen, though I actually found myself getting stressed out. Time is limited to make decisions, and if you don't choose quickly enough, one will be made for you. "Bank Run" induced even more stress for me, as I'm not an avid video-gamer, so trying to quickly react to on-screen instructions and press buttons before the main character died was quite a challenge. And unfortunately, after only a couple decisions, the movie ends and requires the viewer to download an iPhone app for $1.99 to continue.
Netflix's new interactive "Black Mirror" episode, however, is more complex than "The Outbreak" and "Bank Run." Even with all the wrong choices I made in the zombie movie, I only spent a total of about 20 minutes on it. With "Black Mirror," I spent at least two hours working through different scenarios and storylines, and after talking with a co-worker who watched it, I realized I didn't even encounter all of the possible endings.
I'll admit, I'm no stranger to spending several hours in front of the TV on a lazy weekend day, but after doing so, I usually feel that laziness. I feel like I've wasted hours of my life doing nothing but staring at a screen. The time I spent watching "Bandersnatch," however, didn't have the same alarming effect. I was surprised at how much time had passed since I began my interactive endeavour, but I didn't feel like it was time wasted because my mind was working the whole time.
I wasn't just sitting back, idly watching. I was having to think quickly and make conscious decisions while weighing the possible effects my choices might have on the characters. And that, I think, is what sets interactive entertainment apart from regular TV shows and movies. I still got to enjoy a story that was written out for me, but I also experienced the added bonus of being able to somewhat dictate how the main character ends up at his final destination. And unlike a video game, which might be considered the original form of interactive entertainment, I didn't have to have any level of skill except some quick decision-making to get to the end.
Even though Netflix's interactive children's programs are a far cry from the complexities of "Bandersnatch," the same overall effect is there-kid viewers become a valuable part of their entertainment's development and get to keep their minds working while also enjoying some lighthearted amusement. Parents can find easy entertainment for their kids without worrying too much about them frying their brain cells in front of a TV for hours.
And adults like me might be able to stay entertained during a lazy weekend while not feeling totally unproductive.