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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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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An Open Letter to Steam Key E-mail Scammers

Dear [misspelled game site] at gmail dot com, 2gaui.ff at hotmail dot com, and especially you, Danny from GameReviewBomb:

Listen, I know it’s hard out there. We all have work to do. We all have to hustle. The world is cold and indifferent to our suffering, so sometimes we have to get creative to survive. For you, that means impersonating twitch streamers to get Steam keys from independent video game developers, then turning around and selling those keys on G2A. Do I approve? No, of course not. It’s fraud, and a kind of low-grade, unambitious fraud that most fraudsters would be ashamed to try. But you’re here. You’re doing it. You’re trying your scam me and countless other developers.

Quite frankly, you’re embarrassing yourself. Not just because of what you’re doing, but because of how bad you are at doing it. I don’t know why you’re so terrible at this. Maybe you’re new at scamming people, and this is your first rodeo. Or maybe you’re an old hand, and you are discouraged because five years ago you were pretending to be a Nigerian prince. Now you’re pretending to be a guy who yells at Minecraft.

I can’t let you continue. I feel bad for you, which is all kinds of messed up because you’re the ones trying to cheat me. So I’m going to lay this out: if you have to keep up this awful work, you need to do better. You need to make me angry with you, not pity you.

First off, a little praise. Psychologists say that critique is better received when it is preceded by a compliment. Who are we to argue? I’m a game developer and you’re the internet equivalent of a grifter who is trying to hustle a pool hall on your first ever game of billiards. We should listen to the experts.

So I’ll begin by telling you one thing you’re doing right: you are pretending to be foreign journalists and streamers rather than folks from US/Canada/UK. This is an effective strategy for many reasons. First, your mastery of English isn’t doing you any favors and this gives you a reasonable explanation. You probably aren’t from the US/Canada/UK, though you’re not necessarily from the country you’re claiming as home (more on that later) so you roll with it. It’s also harder for us developers to verify whether you’re for real or not. You send out e-mails right as a developer releases a new game, and we’re simultaneously receiving legitimate requests for keys. It’s way easier for me to evaluate if an English speaking reviewer is legit because I can read their website. I can see if they usually cover games like my own. I can easily find their contact info and note that they use their own domain and not a random gmail address that ends in a string of numbers. Making me navigate a website in German is annoying. So bravo, that’s a good first step. But you can’t stop there.

If you’re going to claim to be an editor at the a prominent Greek website, at least give yourself a proper Greek name. Don’t just mash up a bunch of syllables that sound vaguely Greek. I’m talking specifically about you, Mr. Poskalelalos. There are dozens of websites out there that will generate an actual Greek name for you. If your job of spamming developers with the same e-mail over and over has left you so starved for creativity that you absolutely must make up your own fake name, then please at least Google it before your final decision. If there are literally no results, you probably need to go back to the drawing board.

While we’re on the subject, if you’re going to impersonate someone at a real gaming site, why not actually impersonate a real writer there? You’ve already sold your soul to the devil of the gray market. What’s a little lazy identity theft on top? Of course, make sure that your target’s actual e-mail isn’t somewhere accessible on the website. If the person you’ve chosen to name-jack is the editor-in-chief and his real address is the first thing on the “Contact Us” page, well, I’m gonna be suspicious about the hotmail account he’s suddenly decided to use.

Similarly–and I direct this to you, Danny from GameReviewBomb–please take some care in naming your completely fake website. Don’t throw together a site name that gives away the trick from the very beginning. Dude, I know you’re not with Giantbomb. Hell, I know you’re not even with the bizarre Russian knock-off of Giantbomb, Gamebomb.ru. Somehow you tried to split the difference between the real GB and Vladimir Putin’s shadow GB, and came up with GameReviewBomb: a staggering, weeping hybrid that can only beg for death. Run your idea by a friend. Or maybe don’t make up a completely fake website because literally your first google result is gonna be a developer and Austin Walker just clowning on you.

Incidentally, I don’t understand why Gamebomb.ru exists or if it’s legit, but it is hilarious and they can absolutely have a review copy of Echoes of the Fey if they want one.

Except, of course, we make English-language visual novels, so until we are successful enough to be able to hire someone to localize 120,000+ words into Russian, there’s probably not going to be a ton of interest from a site that is full of Cyrillic characters. That’s another thing you scammers need to pay attention to: what kind of games are you targeting? Who are the people you’re impersonating and is there any chance a developer would believe that person would have interest in their game? When a Turkish-language youtuber who plays nothing but CS:Go is asking for a key for a game that is almost entirely reading English, I’m going to hesitate.

That’s not to say that people who are in non-English speaking countries wouldn’t enjoy our game! Woodsy Studios’ last title had some decent sales in Asia on Steam and I’d be happy for anyone anywhere to play! I’m not going to automatically assume anything based purely on language. But at least find a Turkish youtuber who plays Telltale games or RPGs or something. Make sure I have some reason to believe that you are who you say you are. Or, y’know, stop wasting your time on Visual Novel developers.

While you’re at it, go back and check on the youtuber or twitch streamer you’ve decided to impersonate every so often. Has he stopped releasing videos? Is the last time she streamed back when Destiny came out? Is the top story on the website you “work at” about how the Xbox One will have to always be online? Maybe consider finding a new mark. Granted, abandoned accounts and sites are less likely to ever take issue with your impersonation… But you’re found out immediately.

Similarly, actually maintain the e-mail address that you are fishing with. The only time (that we know of, I suppose) one of you tricked us, it didn’t actually work because the e-mail bounced back. I ended up tweeting the person you were impersonating, finding out he didn’t write the e-mail, and promptly wondering what your endgame was. What did you hope to accomplish by putting in a non-existent e-mail address on our contact form?

Next up, if you’re trying to get me to send keys to you because you (claim to) moderate a Steam Community and want keys to give away, I have a hot tip for you. I feel like this should go without saying, but please don’t also send me a link to your profile on a site where you are clearly selling Steam Keys. I know! I know you are proud of the handful of grifts you’ve pulled. You want to show off how you are a prolific trader of Steam Keys. But when you just said you want five keys to give away to your members, you’re introducing a certain level of doubt that I should trust anything you say.

Finally, stop using the scam form e-mails you downloaded from pastebin. When I get the exact same request, down to the word, in multiple messages, it throws up a red flag. Yes, Brazilian youtuber, I accept your apology for your bad grammar because English is not your first language. But the identical, poorly-parsed apology I received from the Swedish youtuber three hours later rang a little false. At least you, Danny from GameReview Bomb, wrote your own unique pitch. Unfortunately, you send it verbatim to every single developer, typos and all, as evidenced above. As a result, we’re not too “trilled” to send you a key.

That’s it. That’s all I’ve got for you. Except maybe that you should reconsider the whole fraud thing. It’s pretty scummy.

Sincerely,

Malcolm