For many children, ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ books were a major part of their reading diet. Primarily known as gamebooks, these interactive books rely on the decision-making of the reader to curate a unique experience for that particular individual. You might be familiar with adventure books like the famous Choose Your Own Adventure series meant for children as well as other horror series like the Give Yourself Goosebumps collection of books by famous author R.L. Stine but this specific kind of fiction has a vast history of evolution.
There have been many examples of works of fiction with branching narratives, seen in books, plays and even psychoanalytical theory. While literary pioneers like Jorge Luis Borges experimented with this idea of “forking paths” through alterations in narrative structure, other academics such as B.F. Skinner explored the possibility of alternative dialectical methods to boost learning skills in children by engaging them on every step of the learning process. All these seminal experiments contributed to the popularity of the gamebook form in later years.
When Netflix’s Black Mirror film Bandersnatch came out, everyone thought it was a huge leap in narrative media. Netflix had managed to utilise the omnipresent influence of video games as well as the tradition of gamebooks and translated it into consumable content but interactive films had been around for a long time. Back in 1967, legendary filmmaker Radúz Činčera presented his iconic interactive film Kinoautomat to the audience in an incredibly effective manner.
The screening had a mediator who conducted democratic voting at various points of the film in order to determine how the majority wanted to proceed but no matter the choice, the consequence was the same apocalyptic one, signifying the obsolescence of democracy in the modern world. Where Činčera was transparent about the illusion of choice, Netflix decided to capitalise on it.
Of course, the most popular form of interactive narrative content is video games (evolving from various board games before it) but there’s a fundamental difference between interactive films and video games. In the game’s isolated universe, the programmers offer you a lot of freedom to explore various possibilities and execute actions that have multi-layered consequences on the condition of your character in the game.
While games like Life is Strange and The Walking Dead are a bit closer to the genre of interactive films, a truly immersive and interactive media can only be conceived of in terms of open world games which will only continue to increase in popularity with the development of VR (virtual reality) technology. So can interactive books or even films catch up to the degree of freedom offered by video games?
Pioneering game designer David Lebling insists that it is impossible, stating: “When you think about narrative and interaction you’re thinking about the degree of control the player has over the story. You can make sandbox games where you wander around and do things. There’s no way you can really die and there are many paths exploring your sandbox, but if you want to get something closer to a traditional narrative you can’t do that. You have to push, entice, or otherwise drag the player along through your narrative.”
Even when he first encountered the Choose Your Own Adventure books, Lebling felt that there was a great chasm between the idea of freedom that these books were tricking readers into believing and the limitations of choices they offered. “I saw the Choose Your Own Adventure books as being a knock-off,” Lebling said. “I saw them after Infocom started up and thought, ‘Oh, this is trying to do an adventure game as a book. How strange.’ I thought of them as being less interactive and less open than even the smallest adventure games.”
The company behind the Choose Your Own Adventure book series, Chooseco, actually threatened to sue Netflix for Bandersnatch and Netflix decided to settle out of court in November of 2020. This legal battle does not represent the old guard preventing the newer generation from achieving progress; it is only emblematic of the timeless conflict between snake oil merchants.
If younger filmmakers were to actually think of a truly democratic form of cinema in which the tyranny of the auteur is completely erased, it would only be possible due to leaps in VR technology which isn’t nearly developed enough at the moment. Otherwise, we are doomed to be stuck with the current generation of interactive films which fail to offer the freedom of video games as well as the magic of cinema.