You are obsessed with Black Mirror: Bandersnatch. If it were a 1980s cassette tape, you would have worn this interactive story down by playing it over and over, trying to guide the main character Stefan to all five endings. Nothing could dissuade you — not the seemingly random limits on which devices can play it, nor the $25 million trademark lawsuit from the makers of Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) books.
But once you’ve reached all endings, what then? You’d like to keep this interactive buzz going — at an appropriately adult story level, since, let’s be honest, those slim old-school CYOAs look a little childish and schlocky by comparison.
But in which medium do you want to chase the buzz? What was it about Bandersnatch that spoke to you, exactly?
We’ve presented our recommendations here in trusty branching-path format. As in any good interactive adventure, there will be some dead ends and infinite loops. Choose wisely!
If you’d like to explore the brave new world of interactive video, go to #1. If you’re curious about apps that tell interactive stories, go to #2. If you have your heart set on something like the giant doorstop of a book that Stefan loves, go to #3. If you like interactive books but would prefer to use your Kindle, go to #4.
1. Interactive video
Since the 1990s there have been a handful of attempts to make movies with branching story paths, you learn, with the audience voting via handheld controllers or apps. But none made a splash. Moviegoers seem to prefer a passive, shared experience, and they actually don’t want to be looking at their phone (or controller) in the theater.
But there’s one storytelling video startup on a mission to bridge the gap between movies and video games, one that garnered a lot of buzz and netted around $40 million in funding in 2016: Los Angeles-based Eko.
So you give Eko’s website a whirl. There’s a fun dating-based interactive series called “That Moment When,” which is sort of like Bandersnatch meets Girls. Interactive content and embarrassment comedy seem to work pretty well together!
But there’s only so many times you can throw yourself into cringe-worthy dates before it becomes old (or too real). Same goes for Possibillia, Eko’s trippy 8-minute movie about a relationship discussion that splits into multiple alternate realities. There’s a reason it’s that short.
You try Eko’s prestige project with MGM, a 21st century remake of the 1983 Matthew Broderick movie War Games. You click on the first episode, which is full of hackers talking to each other on video chat. You are encouraged to click between the floating chat windows. And you wait, through some pretty terrible acting, for an actual choice to appear.
There isn’t one. Supposedly the show watches who or what you decided to focus on — even if you’re just clicking between windows to stave off boredom — and that makes some kind of difference in later episodes. Which is, simultaneously, creepy and not nearly interactive enough. You’re sure it sounded edgy and subtle in the pitch meeting, but post-Bandersnatch, ain’t nobody got time for that.
As a Hail Mary move you decide to try Mosaic, the interactive video app that came with Steven Soderbergh’s 2017 HBO murder mystery of the same name. It turns out to merely provide different ways of arranging half-hour chunks of what was, sadly, a pretty dull story. Hard pass.
If you’re still feeling visually driven and want to find out what’s up with interactive comic books, go to #5. If you’re enjoying tapping on your tablet, go to #2.
2. Interactive story apps
You tap on the App Store and search for interactive fiction. Your reasoning — that if you can think of it, there’s probably an app for it already — turns out to be sound. Because indeed there are plenty … if you like cheesy comics for tweens, that is. (And no one’s going to judge if you do.)
The biggest interactive fiction apps, with millions of downloads each, are Choices, What’s Your Story, and Episode. They look interchangeable, seem popular with the Twilight demographic, and are content to stay there. You fire up Choices, and your first choice is between “young adult, romance or vampire.” Episode recommends you start on “The K*ss List,” a story in which your goal is to kiss 10 of the hottest singles in high school.
Elsewhere in Apple’s storehouse of stories, there’s a lot of fantasy dreck written by amateurs. Damn, you think, I wish someone had written an article that sifted through all this nonsense for me. There is the occasional diamond in the rough, though. Such as Reigns, a very casual stripped-down medieval romp that has lately introduced a Game of Thrones version. Or Alter Ego, a text-based “life simulation game” that takes you back to the womb over and over.
Or Lifeline, an innovative, atmospheric tale in which you have to text assistance to Taylor, the survivor of a spaceship crash on a far-off planet. Taylor goes off and conducts his tasks in real time. If you have an Apple Watch, he will ping you on that when he’s ready. Spooky stuff! No wonder there are seven sequel apps starring Taylor.
As you research further, you can’t help notice that a lot of the most critically acclaimed CYOA apps, such as the Sorcery! series, were based on gamebooks from the 1980s. Maybe you should just go straight to the source. On the other hand, there’s a whole world of role-playing video games, many of which give you multiple conversation options, CYOA style. Perhaps it’s time to get lost in those.
To play a gamebook or two, go to #3. To become an RPG nerd, go to #6.
3. In search of ‘Bandersnatch’ the book
In love with the notion of a giant, meaty, interactive novel that can drive you mad with endless choices? You’re not alone. The great Jorge Luis Borges was the first to tinker with the concept in his 1941 short story “The Garden of Forking Paths,” which described a novel with infinite variations.
What came 40 years later in the UK wasn’t exactly Borges, but certainly influenced Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker more than the old-school CYOAs. Fighting Fantasy was a series of more than 50 tomes that added the Dungeons & Dragons elements of dice and character scores (for skill, stamina, luck). You fought monsters and solved puzzles as part of your quests. Many of them have now been converted to apps.
You find Fighting Fantasy to be a little more diverse than its title suggests; there are superhero adventures, samurai adventures, space adventures. But as with those CYOA novels, you find the quality to be uneven, since Penguin started pumping the books out on a monthly schedule when they became a British playground craze. The series went on to sell more than 17 million copies worldwide, even as it flew under the radar in the US.
If there is a real-life Bandersnatch book, this is it
By far the best from this era, and the biggest gamebook a British nerd like Stefan would have been playing in 1984, is the Sorcery! series by Fighting Fantasy co-creator Steve Jackson. Over four volumes unfolds a Lord of the Rings-like quest to retrieve the Crown of Kings from the evil Archmage. More mature than the Fighting Fantasy series, it delivers plenty of fiendish puzzles and chill-down-the-spine moments.
Once per book you are allowed to call on your goddess, Libra, to get you out of a jam. To use a magic spell, you memorize a three-letter code that you have to pick out of multiple options. All of which sounds pretty Bandersnatch-y, you think. The fourth book, Crown of Kings, still weighs in as the longest gamebook ever published. If there is a real-life Bandersnatch book, this is it.
It strikes you that there’s so much potential in this medium beyond high fantasy. What about a more realistic gamebook set entirely in the world where most of us live, with mundane choices like Bandersnatch‘s cereal decision? Or a CYOA that takes its cues from the world’s greatest literature?
To play reality-based adult CYOAs, go to #7. To look into more literary options, go to #8. If you prefer to try other apps, go to #3.
4. Fun with eBooks
Screw this paper nonsense, you think. Isn’t this the age of the screen? You’re right. It turns out gamebooks are making something of a comeback in the Kindle age, thanks to this essential efficiency: tapping on a “go to page X” option on your ebook is just a hell of a lot faster than flicking back and forth through sheaves of dead wood.
And it’s in the Kindle store that you find what is probably the most informative and relevant CYOA of our terrible age. Can You Brexit (Without Breaking Britain) was released in 2018; you play an unnamed Conservative Prime Minister who has to navigate the hundreds of pitfalls and thorns around Britain’s increasingly tricky, economy-threatening divorce from the European Union. (“Rescind Article 50” isn’t an option, alas.)
You keep score of your popularity, your authority, your goodwill with EU leaders, via Kindle notes. The text will ask for a score frequently. It also uses the Kindle’s highlight feature well; you highlight boxes and gain keywords when you’ve done certain tasks as a clever way to navigate you through the same “crossroads” entry a few times.
You worry that Can You Brexit might tip over into academic boredom or political screed or dumb edgy comedy. It does none of these things. Instead, it does what most of the news media has failed to do over the past 3 years: It gives you real insight into why the whole Brexit process is so damn fraught. Having walked a book in her shoes, you find yourself with a tiny bit of sympathy for Theresa May, although you’re now also certain you could make a better job of it.
Time to head back to the Kindle store. You’re ready for a palate cleanser after all that weighty politics.
Maybe something where you’re just a regular Jane or Joe, rather than the prime minister? In which case, go to #7. For a refreshing comedy-based riff on classic stories, go to #8.
5. Interactive comics
You head down to the nearest nerd haven and ask your local Comic Book Guy for his favorite interactive comics, expecting him to load you down with a bunch of them. Instead he has to think for a while before saying, “well, there was one, by the cartoonist Jason Shiga … what was it called … Meanwhile.” (He’s currently working on a longer one called The Box).
You pick up Meanwhile (also now available as a $5 app) and it becomes immediately clear why more people haven’t attempted this. It’s really hard! The cartoon panels are connected by decision lines that go all the way off the page. A series of page tabs show where the line you chose is going next. The story, about a time machine and ice cream and infinite coin flips, is twisty enough to make you go insane, Stefan style.
But your curiosity has been piqued. You go down a research rabbit hole and discover that Britain went through a short-lived interactive comics phase in the mid-1980s, the Bandersnatch era. There was the hilariously grim satire You Are Maggie Thatcher: A Dole Playing Game. A magazine called Diceman ran a similar interactive story starring Ronald Reagan alongside tales where you play Judge Dredd, Rogue Trooper and other 2000AD characters.
Here is a great untapped genre, you think. In fact, you don’t just think it. You make it happen! You work nights and weekends to create great interactive comics. In the wake of Bandersnatch there is no shortage of publishers willing to take you on. You become wealthy and successful, and decide to reward the writer of the article that inspired you. Ten percent of your fortune is a fair commission, right?
6. Role-playing games
In Bandersnatch, Stefan was trying to build a computer-based role-playing game, or RPG. Maybe that’s the direction you should go in — after all, wouldn’t he love to see what’s possible in your era, O Netflix user from the future?
You’ve heard Bioware’s Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (2003) described as the best RPG of all time — and yeah, you guessed it, it’s also an app now. So you dive in. Wow! It’s better than you expected, a compelling action-filled story full of that rich Star Wars conflict between light and dark, Jedi and Sith. No wonder fans want a movie trilogy in this setting.
You feel so much perverse delight as your character slips to the Dark Side that when you’re done, you fire up the sequel. After KOTOR II, you know this is your new obsession. You devour the Mass Effect series; the Fallout series. You sample award-winning new interactive content that pushes the envelope, like Life is Strange and What Remains of Edith Finch. Like a true hipster you go through your old-school phase with text adventures like Zork.
Then you hit the hard stuff: Final Fantasy.
Somewhere around Final Fantasy IX, you lose your job — only a day or so after you finally realized you’ve stopped going into the office. Well, whatever. Your parents can keep you in Mountain Dew and Doritos and pay the electric bill, and do you really need anything else to play? When your house is seized by the bank, you devolve into a series of couch-surfing situations; you are thrown out every time for hogging the TV with your console.
Under a downtown bridge, examining a knife you won in a recent fight, wondering why you can’t have a simple conversation without seeing dialogue boxes in the air, you think about taking revenge against the writer of the article that took you down this dark path. Interactive fiction this, buddy.
7. Reality gamebooks
There aren’t a whole lot of gamebooks that even attempt to represent the ups and downs of an average human life. But you find a few leaders in the genre: Life’s Lottery by Kim Newman and Pretty Little Mistakes (plus its sequel in which you win the lottery, Million Little Mistakes) by Heather McElhatton.
The choices here seem like the natural heir to the cereal choice in Bandersnatch: seemingly easy but somehow ominous. Life’s Lottery opens with you as a kid in a British playground in the 1960s being asked a casual question about the hit show The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: Do you like Napoleon Solo or Ilya Kuriakin?
Such choices lead in radical and unexpected directions, almost all of them feeling like mistakes at times. You feel the authors take a sadistic pleasure in leading you down dark paths, but you enjoy (if that’s the right word) its overall resemblance to the regretful let-downs and blind alleys of life.
Still, after dipping into a few satirical office-based gamebooks (In a Daze Work and Choose Your Own Misery: The Office), you realize you’re spending more time making choices at fake work than real work. it’s all getting a little too real.
You abandon your Bandersnatch obsession and return to your other hobbies with a renewed appreciation for the game of life itself, a game that does not tie itself up in a neat bow like most narratives; a game that can, at any moment, stop.
8. Literary gamebooks
There’s a lot of fun to be had with taking sacred tales like Hamlet or Regency-era romance novels and giving them a CYOA makeover (the former in To Be or Not to Be; the latter in Lost in Austen and My Lady’s Choosing). Still, in reading them, you can’t shake the notion that you’re reading a piece of edutainment.
The goal seems to be to encourage you to read the source material, to make it accessible in a slightly too zany manner. The adventure, which often loops around back to a single story, is secondary.
So you go to the source material. Shakespeare and Austen lead you inevitably to the other giants of the canon, and before you know it, you’re hooked on Actual Literature. You consider going back to school, maybe getting a PhD in this stuff.
This is not something you expected to result from watching a Black Mirror episode. But hey, in a universe of infinite branching paths, any ending is possible.