Because I Feel Obligated to Write Something About Bandersnatch

Folks, it is time to revive the old blog again because Netflix has released their first (relatively) adult-oriented interactive film, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch. As someone who writes narrative-focused games with branching narratives, I’d be remiss to completely ignore Bandersnatch and as someone who wants to promote himself (however reluctantly) I’d be stupid not to weigh in on a moment of cultural zeitgeist.

If you don’t know what Bandersnatch is and care about spoilers, I’d recommend that you stop reading this post. I’m gonna spoil the shit out of Bandersnatch. If you care, go watch/play it before you read any further.

If you don’t know what Bandersnatch is and don’t care about spoilers, Bandersnatch is an interactive film produced by the creators of the Channel 4/Netflix series Black Mirror. Black Mirror is, in turn, an anthology TV series exploring the intersection of modern society and modern technology. The story of Bandersnatch changes based on decisions made by the viewer. The viewer chooses whether the main character, Stefan, eats frosted flakes for breakfast. The viewer also chooses whether Stefan murders his father. Yep.

Along with my partner, I write video games that are typically classified as visual novels (though, due to certain biases, we often call them adventure games). Bandersnatch,at its heart, shares a lot of DNA with visual novels. Specifically, the participation of the reader/player/viewer is limited to occasional choices that affect the development of the plot. That is how the viewer/player interacts with the work and affects its storytelling. You could call it an “interactive movie” or FMV game or get everyone angry with you by asking whether it is a movie or a game, but I approached it like I would a VN. Because that’s what I do.

Another way of looking at it: I often remark that Woodsy Studio makes indie Telltale games; which is to say that we strive to achieve similar (branching) storytelling but with a team of literally two people and very little budget. Bandersnatch is the opposite. It is like a Telltale game made with even more people, with actual actors and millions of dollars of production. And, for better or worse, it is going to be the first time a lot of people experience a branching narrative production.

So I had to write something.

HERE’S WHAT I LIKED:

First: The best part of Bandersnatch is the book. For those who haven’t seen/played it, the story of Bandersnatch focuses on a young game developer in 1984 who is adapting a book (called, of course, Bandersnatch) into a game. The game he is making is effectively an indie visual novel. The book is a “choose your own adventure” novel. But it’s not like any real “choose your own adventure” novel, because it is a (relatively) critically-acclaimed piece of outsider art written by a troubled artist plagued with mental illness. People respect it. People revere it as a novel of meaning.

Bandersnatch (the Netflix interactive film) starts by positing that Bandersnatch (the Choose Your Own Adventure book) could be art. This was really important to me, because interactive fiction games/visual novels are often denigrated with a comparison to those very same books. Writing interactive fiction would be SO MUCH BETTER if there was a massive critically-acclaimed fantasy CYOA book from the 1970s that we could all use as a touchstone but we’re not that lucky.

The metatextual treatment of Bandersnatch (the book) in the film was kind of a lame rip-off of the metatextual stuff in House of Leaves, but holy cow it was nice to see an alternative reality in which a “choose your own adventure” book was treated with any amount of reverence.

Second: The joke ending was great. Maybe my biggest regret was that literally the first ending we watched was the one where the viewer/player reveals themselves as a Netflix member. The main character, Stefan, relays this to his therapist who goes on to posit the very reasonable question: if we are TV characters, why aren’t we doing anything more interesting?

When you agree with this (by selecting FUCK YEAH) from the menu, Bandersnatch turns into a very brief Edgar Wright-esque action comedy. The therapist dual wields batons. Stefan’s father intervenes, Terminator-like, and the way to disable him is to choose to kick him in the balls.

It’s incredibly dumb. It’s incredibly fourth wall breaking. It was also hilarious. Sadly, none of the real endings were even able to match the appeal of the joke ending we got first.

Third: The best/most serious ending, which wholesale rips off The Butterfly Effect (which itself might have been ripping off Donnie Darko) introduced me to Laurie Anderson. If you want to talk about Black Mirror and the failure of algorithms, it’s absolutely wild that neither Spotify, nor Amazon, nor Pandora has ever recommended me anything by Laurie Anderson.

Fourth: It was fun. I watched/played Bandersnatch for two hours or so with my partner and a friend and we enjoyed it. That can’t be disregarded. I largely felt the same way about Bandersnatch that I did about Heavy Rain. The story wasn’t great. But it was fun to experience it with other people.

HERE’S WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE:

First: I want to sit down with Charlie Brooker (the creator of Black Mirror) and ask him just how much of 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors he played before deciding that he “got it” and “could totally do this.”

Here is where I warn you about 999/Zero Escape spoilers but, c’mon, if you haven’t played 999 yet…that’s your own fault.

The fundamentally interesting part of Bandersnatch that (allegedly) sets it apart from other interactive branching narratives is that on some paths Stefan becomes aware of the fact that there are branching narratives. He also becomes aware that he is being controlled via the choices you (the viewer/player) make and this drives him to madness.

That’s cool. That’s definitely cool. But presenting that as a novel concept is fucking bananas. Visual novels have chipped at the fourth wall for years. Doki Doki Literature Club did it, Hatoful Boyfriend did it, our own game miraclr did it, and probably (for this point) most importantly, Zero Escape did it and did almost the exact same gimmick way better.

At various points, Bandersnatch toys with the idea that experiencing other/failed paths informs Stefan about how he should act. New choices open up based on the paths you’ve seen and, at times, this feels intentional. Other times, it feels weird and arbitrary.

The best example of this is a password-cracking sequence that happens near the very end of (several) paths. This is a moment literally straight out of multiple points in the Zero Escape series. In those games, your character is (for various reasons that are explained in excruciating detail) able to glean knowledge learned in failed narrative branches to solve problems in the present. This manifests itself as passwords/lock combinations several times.

Bandersnatch does the same trick. But it never (really) explains at least one of the possible passwords. You get the password “TOY” via a bad ending in one branch, but it’s executed rather cheaply. Specifically, you don’t actually learn the password but presumably Stefan guesses it because of a thing he heard.

That’s fine, I guess, but the real problem is there’s no payoff for the idea that Stefan learns more through the branches. There are approximately five times it ever comes up. There’s a wink-and-nod early on about two characters meeting for the second time, there’s the password stuff, and…that’s basically it.

Maybe I could forgive that, but VNs have pulled the same trick so much better for so much longer.  999 (a game almost a decade old) hits this very specific idea out of the park so hard that it’s a little embarrassing Bandersnatch didn’t handle it better.

Seriously, if you watched Bandersnatch and think the idea of a character who learns from other timelines is fun play 999 right fucking now just do it.

Second: So here’s the thing about interactive fiction and interactive narratives…

You can have branching stories (great!)

You can have different endings (hell yeah!)

But ultimately every player will have a true ending. It is incredibly important that the true ending–the last one the player experiences–is at least “good”. Viewers/players shouldn’t depart your story with a bad taste in their mouths.

THIS IS INCREDIBLY HARD.

In a game with multiple endings, there’s no way to know the order in which your players will experience them. Some games (999 again) fix this by gating the true ending behind all others. Anyone who completes the game–truly completes it–will get the most satisfying ending. Other VNs, especially dating sims, cordon off endings/routes based on choices made by the player that will ultimately make their ending the most satisfying one possible. After all, if you chose to romance Edward… You should be happy if that’s your ending.

Bandersnatch messes this up on a couple levels. Whenever you get an ending, you are directed to go back to a key point that could branch you off into another ending. This is done regardless of ending. There is no stopping point, unless you choose to exit. There is only seeing all the “major” ends. AND IT SUCKS.

I say it sucks because we got unlucky. We got the funniest ending first (action movie fight). Then we clearly got the ~canon~ ending (Netflix remakes the game and the curse continues). Then we got the Butterfly Effect ending (Stefan kills himself and stops the cycle).

Any one of those would have been a fine “true ending”. But after each one, the app pushed us to keep going–as if there was more to see that would make everything EVEN BETTER.

The next twenty or so minutes were weird conspiracy shit that undermined everything in every other ending and wasn’t well executed and we ended Bandersnatch on the worst possible note. None of the endings were particularly good (the action movie ending was fun, the Netflix ending was at least appropriate and completed the arc of the story), but for us the show effectively “ended” after the worst possible one and that kinda sucked.

HOT TAKE: I’ve been giving the Butterfly Effect ending (Stefan goes back in time and kills himself and prevents the game from being made) a lot of shit but if it had force closed the Netflix app and deleted Bandersnatch from Netflix for my account… I might be shouting to the heavens that the whole thing was amazing

Back to real serious points: This is going to be the first experience a lot of people have with interactive/branching narratives and I’m not thrilled.

Bandersnatch largely can’t decide how sincerely it wants to engage with its own concept. I’m perfectly happy with ironic/meta  interactive fiction (see 999, Doki Doki Literature Club, miraclr), but I don’t think that’s the point here. Bandersnatch seems torn between introducing the world to IF and tearing down IF (the only ending where the game gets good reviews is one where the game is only faking narrative choice rather than embracing it), and it doesn’t do either particularly well.

It seems like Bandersnatch is going to be a success for Netflix, so I expect they’ll keep making more interactive film experiences. That’s good! There’s nothing about the format that prevents it from telling a compelling, interesting story. But in my opinion, Bandersnatch is not that story. If you liked it, that’s fine! It was very entertaining! I’d suggest you check out some visual novels. Maybe visual novels by Woodsy Studio (hint hint).

If you didn’t like Bandersnatch, however, I really want to be clear that there are (and have been, for decades) games out there that have been applying the same mechanics (and themes) to much better effect, so don’t write off branching narratives and interactive fiction just because the BBC and Netflix tripped over their own feet and (likely) didn’t play enough of those other games to get the formula right.

 

 

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My Latest, Echoes of the Fey: The Last Sacrament, Is Out Now

This blog has been pretty dead for awhile, and a big reason for that has been all the work I’ve been putting into my latest game with Woodsy Studio, Echoes of the Fey: The Last Sacrament.

The Last Sacrament is a follow up to Echoes of the Fey: The Fox’s Trail, which we released two years ago on PC and last year on PS4/Xbox One.  It’s a sequel of sorts, though we designed each installment in the series to be playable all on its own. You play as Sofya Rykov, a private detective in a fantasy (vaguely steampunk, without the Victorian elements) world of magic, Elves, and so on. The idea of blending detective and fantasy fiction is one I’ve wanted to play around with for awhile, and Echoes of the Fey finally gave me a good excuse. We’ve also deliberately tried to develop a fantasy world that is different from most, specifically trying to avoid the way fantasy typically embraces the bad gender/sexual politics of the real world when it doesn’t have to.  

In The Last Sacrament, Sofya is blackmailed into a dangerous job to steal the ingredients of a sacred religious rite from the powerful Krovakyn Church. But that’s not her only job. She’s also been hired to protect the Emperor’s daughter (who happens to be her former childhood sweetheart) from would-be assassins during a visit to the border.

The Last Sacrament is a much bigger game on a more complicated engine. A year and a half ago, we moved from Gamemaker Studio to Unreal Engine 4, which prompted us to (basically) remake all of our assets and environments in 3d. That’s been a lot of work! So has designing a tabletop RPG inspired mini-game, RiftRealms, to break up the visual novel-style sections. But the game is now done and out on Steam!

 

Ludum Dare 40 Post-Mortem

I haven’t used this blog in a while, mostly because all my recent work has been for my Woodsy Studio projects. If you want to see what I’ve been up to, check out our latest games over there and definitely take a look at our Kickstarter for our next game, which we’ve had a hell of a time publicizing.

This weekend, however, I participated in my first Ludum Dare and, since it was a solo event, I figured I’d write up my experience here. Ludum Dare is a game jam-style event held (worldwide, with no specific location) three times a year. There are two branches of LD, the Compo and the Jam. The Compo is 48 hours and has far stricter rules–only one person per team, all content must be made in the 48 hour period–while the Jam is 72 hours long and allows for premade assets.

I chose to do the Compo for a couple reasons, not the least of which is that we’re busy with work on Echoes of the Fey and the 48 hour time limit was appealing. However, as someone who is, shall we say, a little lacking as an artist and very lacking as a musician, the need to create all my content was somewhat intimidating. I figured I would only go forward with it if I could come up with an idea from the theme quickly, because time would be lacking if I had to make my own textures, music, and sound effects.

The theme was “The more you have, the worse it gets” and I almost immediately know what to do: a collectable score-attack game where each pick up decreases the fidelity of the game itself. During Echoes of the Fey Episode 0, I helped optimize the game, made in UE4, to run (looking ugly) on a laptop with integrated graphics. I figured I could use some of those tricks to intentionally restrict resolution, texture quality, and frame rate no matter the system quality.

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Making Games at the End of the World

The Bus Station

At three ‘o clock in the morning, the St. Louis Gateway Transportation Center is a hostile environment, but it isn’t the passengers at fault. This is a bus station, after all. Some of the people there are sprawled out across a few seats. Others are a day or two behind on a much-needed shower. But there is nothing glamorous about bus travel, especially trips stretching across multiple days and several layovers. Anyone forced to put up with those circumstances deserves a certain level of leeway.

The St. Louis Gateway Transportation Center is oppressive because it is a strange little building nestled away behind the home of the St. Louis Blues. Most directions to the SLGTC force drivers to arrive at the wrong part of the facility. The heat (more on the heat in a moment) is turned on. Everyone is sweating, even people who just arrived. And there are no water fountains.

A television above the waiting area blares an infomercial for a product called Astaxanthin. Astaxanthin is a chemical compound found (in extremely tiny amounts) in salmon and greater, but not terribly meaningful amounts, in krill and shrimp, giving the flesh of these sea creatures a pink-ish hue. It is also produced synthetically and injected into fish-based pet food, to give the cheaper meal a more healthy color. It is not approved for human consumption, but it can legally be fed to other salmon (which is messed up) to improve the pink tint of the inner meat.

The infomercial playing in the waiting room of the St. Louis Gateway Transportation Center claims that Astaxanthin will reverse aging. It will remove and prevent wrinkles. It will restore eye function. All for the perfectly reasonable price of sixty dollars a bottle .

At three thirty, the infomercial mercifully ends, only to be replaced with (presumably) the late-night edition of the local news. I hear the stories you expect from the local news in 2017. A suspect has died in an officer-involved shooting during a drug bust. Hundreds of headstones in a Jewish cemetery were defaced. Donald Trump tweeted again. The high temperature today, on February 22, will be in the mid 70s in St. Louis.

I wonder what the hell I’m doing in this bus stop, waiting to go to a conference about making video games.

The bus outside honks twice and I line up inside the stuffy terminal to board. The first thing I hear when I’m inside is a passenger telling someone he just met how he lost his finger on the job and was then fired for it.

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Let’s Greenlight Echoes of the Fey: The Immolation!

Today we’re proud release our first official trailer for Echoes of the Fey Episode 0: The Immolation and launch our Greenlight campaign with the hopes of releasing on Steam and other PC platforms simultaneously!

wideskygraphicEpisode 0 is a short prologue to Echoes of the Fey that we will be releasing FOR FREE in early 2017. This installment will take our players back to before Sofya Rykov was a private investigator and before she could use magic. In Episode 0, Sofya is an officer in the Human Empire with a (relatively) cushy assignment, guarding non-essential Leshin prisoners in the fortified city of Onigrad. Of course, anyone who has played Episode 1 or read The Prophet’s Arm knows that Onigrad is hardly the safest place near the end of the world.

The Immolation is also the first installment of Echoes of the Fey we are developing in Unreal Engine 4, utilizing 3d backgrounds and dynamic camera angles for dialog sequences. Transitioning to UE4 has been a lot of work–especially since we’re working with all new environments!–but we’re sure that the work we’re doing on this short project will help us in the future. And we think that both fans of Echoes and new players will enjoy this introduction to Sofya, Heremon, and the world of Oraz.

If you want to see Echoes of the Fey Episode 0: The Immolation, click the link below and throw us a YES!

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Star Trek Online, The Tomorrow Children, and Collectivism in Games

I want to tell you all about The Tomorrow Children, a strange online survival/exploration/building game from Q-Games (of PixelJunk fame) but I don’t know where to start with it. So I won’t. Instead, I’ll start with another game that came out of PS4 on the same day, Star Trek Online.

If Star Trek Online sounds familiar and old to you, that’s because it is. STO originally released in 2010. It came out in the same month as Heavy Rain, Deadly Premonition, and Bioshock 2. Like most video game properties, no one really knows how much money the initial launch of STO made, but it probably wasn’t enough. Less than two years later, it was re-released as a free-to-play title. To give an idea of how long ago that was, the STO re-launch happened a few weeks before the initial release of Crusader Kings II. That’s an eternity for games.

I have no idea why Star Trek Online suddenly came to PS4/Xbox One in TYOOL 2016. Maybe it was phenomenally successful as a free-to-play title, and finally decided to follow Neverwinter, DC Universe Online, and Warframe several years late. I have no idea! It’s quite frankly bizarre, and that’s part of the reason I downloaded it. For some reason, an MMO from 2010 was on consoles and I had to see what it was like.

I'm on the bridge of my own ship! This is awesome! And also looks like an early 360 game

I’m on the bridge of my own ship! This is awesome! And also looks like an early 360 game

Well I mostly have my answer. Star Trek Online is exactly what I should have expected. It is an MMO from 2010. Granted, there is a ton of content. This thing has been running for over half a decade. Just looking at the Starfleet “episodes”, there’s probably a hundred hours of single-player missions in this damn game. And there are two other factions you can choose to join (Klingon and Romulan which I guess are the best choices for a three-faction ST game). The only problem is that it is all MMO content. As far as I can tell, every mission is just a couple space battles and a couple away team missions (that always involve combat) stitched together in a different order.

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No Man’s Sky – A Game of Moments

My very first planet in No Man’s Sky was a frozen hellscape. During the day, it was too cold to venture outside my broken ship for long. The environmental protection in my exosuit ticked down at a steady rate. The night was even worse. This made the very first objective of the game–finding a specific resource five minutes away–unusually difficult. I was five minutes away from one of the resources I needed, which was a bit too long without finding some zinc along the way. There was enough, just enough, to make the run and return to my ship. Which made me feel like the section was scripted, even though that’s fundamentally impossible.

It’s impossible because the planets in No Man’s Sky are procedurally generated. No one crafted them. They are created by algorithm and seeded with outposts, life, and resources. From reading about the experiences of others, I had a particularly harsh go of it in the beginning. But everything turned out fine. I repaired my ship and departed the planet to explore new, more hospitable ones.

The next few planets I discovered were fairly dull. Very few animals, lots of plants, and a variety of harsh conditions that weren’t quite as brutal as my homeworld but still a hindrance to exploration. Then, in my second star system, I landed on a remarkable world. Every few minutes, it was battered with beautiful and toxic storms. The sky was full of long, dragon-like creatures and large insect-fish hybrids. Wherever I went, these creatures were dancing around in the clouds above me. I stayed on that planet for a long time, despite the toxic storms, finding seven separate exosuit upgrades (which were incredibly useful going forward) as well as some good deposits of Emeril that helped fund my first new ship purchase.

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