Interactive Narrative : Blurred Boundaries

In my previous post I compiled some of my thinking and study notes around the notion of implementing interactive, branching narrative using the smartphone medium. This got me thinking more about the uniqueness of the smartphone app as a creative interactive medium as opposed to book or video. I considered how the Choose Your Own Adventure books I played as a kid were in fact book-games just as games I played on a tv screen or monitor are video-games. More recently I played the 2018 Netflix movie-game called Black Mirror: Bandersnatch.

Bandersnatch requires the player to makes decisions for the main character using the TV remote control. An intriguing twist [spoiler alert] within the Bandersnatch narrative, to me at least, is when you, the player, are able to inform the main character about the nature of what’s actually going on. The narrative leaves the confines of the inner story and blurs with the player’s own reality when the main character demands some kind of sign from the invisible entity [you!] they feel is controling their actions.

“I am watching you on Netflix. I make decisions for you.” 

“[it’s] a streaming entertainment platform from the early 21st century,” 

“it’s like TV, but online. I control it.”

Bandersnatch narrative


At this point, should you reach it in the gameplay, the main character’s father enters the room and sees his son in a state of shock. When he tries to explain to his dad about how he is being controlled by someone from the future (the game is set in the 1980’s) using Netflix; his dad invites him to take a trip to the psychiatrist – the main character agrees and the game ends.

What I find most intriguing about this sequence is the subtle blurring of boundaries between the overarching fictional narrative of the main gameplay and the player’s own reality. You, the player, become directly implicated in the narrative and the worlds on either side of the screen bleed into one another when the main characters learns about you.

This is relevant to my work in a few different ways; it demonstrates how the CYOA format is still relevant and popular – Bandersnatch won two Primetime Emmy Awards and a 2019 Broadcasting Press Guild Innovation award for “a ground-breaking form of storytelling” [http://www.broadcastingpressguild.org/2019-2/].  Bandersnatch was nominated for, and won, a 2019 Nebula prize (recognition for the best works of science fuction in the USA) for ‘Game Writing’ [https://www.theverge.com/2019/5/19/18624664/nebula-awards-2019-winners-novels-books-novellas-kowal-calculating-stars-science-fiction-fantasy] which is noteworthy for it’s nominated category – game writing.

Furthermore, Bandersnatch demonstrates how interactive narrative content continues to adapt to new platforms – Netflix invested in specific technological innovations for Bandersnatch to enable the branching nature of the narrative and for players to go back, try different choices within gameplay. But, that which interests me most of all is the way this innovative work bridges the domain of video with the real world. Or, at least it hints at this; as set out above in respect to the player revealing themself to the fictional character.
 
Edward Castronva, writer of Synthetic Worlds : The Business and Culture of Online Games (2005), considers that there is a kind of boundary between the real-world and electronic synthetic one which is a kind of protective membrane between the rules of either world. He describes this membrane  as the Magic Circle – a term borrowed from Jogan Huizinga, 1938 who used the same term to mean “a state in which the player is bound by a make-believe barrier created by the game” (Huizinga, 1938)

For Castronva, the synthetic world is:

“an organism surrounded by a barrier. Within the barrier, life proceeds according to all kinds of fantasy rules involving space flight,fireballs,invisibility,and so on.Outside the barrier, life proceeds according to the ordinary rules.”

Castronva, 2005 p.147

But, Castronva admits, this membrane is not sealed completely. In fact it is quite porous and people are “crossing it all the time in both directions, carrying their behavioral assumptions and attitides with them.” concluding that the result of which is that:

“The valuation of things in cyberspace becomes enmeshed in the valuation of things outside cyberspace”

Castronva, 2005 p.147

Coming back to Bandersnatch, a further blurring of the boundary between the synthetic and realworld is the addition of a hidden QR code during the final sequence of one of the possible endings. The code, leads the player, should they scan it with a mobile device, to a website bearing the name of the fictional software company from the game’s narrative on which you can play the 1980’s style computer game that another character within the movie-game had been building within the fictional world of Bandersnatch. The secret website and the Netflix production are from fictional worlds allowing the player to further experience elements of the story across different multiple platforms.

Hidden QR code from Bandersnatch

References & Resources

Homo Ludens, Johan Huizinga, 1938
Penguin Random House

Nebula Awards 2019
https://www.theverge.com/2019/5/19/18624664/nebula-awards-2019-winners-novels-books-novellas-kowal-calculating-stars-science-fiction-fantasy [accessed oct 2020]

Synthetic Worlds : The Business and Culture of Online Games, Edward Castronva, 2005
University of Chigaco Press

Rules of Play : Game Design Fundamentals Salen, Katie & Zimmerman, Eric. 2004

The Magic Game Circle as a tool Ellis Bartholomeus
https://ellisinwonderland.nl/wordpress/site/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/magic_game_circle.pdf [accessed Oct 2020]

Ideation : imagining a solution

Problem :  Get people to take more interest in local towns
Solution :  Custom, interactive, gamelike experience with a scenario based within local towns.
Features :  

  • Multi language – to allow tourists as well as locals
  • Custom illustrations/animations based on local town features such as prominent buildings and other landmark features
  • Overarching fictional narrative with multiple outcomes based on player decisions
  • Engagement with areas of the town as part of gameplay
  • Geo based Augmented reality features
  • Gamification techniques to keep players engaged.
  • Short version for short stay tourists
  • Multiple missions, each with their own subplots which tie into the overarching narrative

MVP
The aim would be to create a ‘Pilot’ version of the interactive experience at a local town, to which I have easy access and which I know well.
I would be looking to pitch the pilot to the local population as well as the tourist board and local newspaper.
If I can demonstrate an interest in the pilot app I would seek to raise funds via crowdsourcing or similar for further versions in other medium sized towns.
USP
The uniqueness of the product would be largely taken from the town-level specificity. Most apps are generalised and although some geocentered games like Pokemon Go and Ingress have local elements, they are notpurposely created to a local level – the features of Ingress, for example, don’t really go beyond the level of what google maps offers – i.e. my idea would seek to be a much more personal and less objective interaction with the local environment.
Much will count on the quality of the visual work – the illustrations/animations as well as the creativity and strength of the storytelling/narrative.
If done well, the artistic merit of these elements, will initself, constitute a strong unique selling point in the way that a new graphic novel or board game does.
Collaboration
I have contacts in publishing/illustration as well as acting who I may be able to involve. This could allow me to focus on the content and the technical development – particularly if I can delegate the illustration – however this would have to be carefuly negotiated as the artistic quality will be of crucial importance.
Technology
The main app would be build with Flutter to ensure a faster pathway to cross platform publication.Some elements, such as AR features may require companion apps, if they are not feasable within Flutter. But this could be handledcreatively –  for example, standalone apps with a single purpose like a ‘police radio’ app for a detective theme or a ‘scanner’ app for a sci-fi theme.
Theme
This needs a lot of thought and consideration. I need to look closely at graphic novel, narrative board game genres; but obvious themesinclude: 

  • detective / spy
  • cyberpunk / scifi
  • romance
  • surreal
  • horror

Ideation : Finding and analysing a problem

Over the last 6 weeks I’ve spent much time ideating for a new app. I know that I want to make good use of the technical skills I’ve been developing over the last couple of years in augmented reality, digital illustration, applied machine learning and somehow bring it all together with my gamification research as well and my philosophical interests.

I began my ideation process looking at problems to solve and the one that presented me with the broadest scope for ideas was the issue of towns and even cities becoming deserted. This has been been a common theme in local newspapers here in France for a number of years now; huge commercial centers are continually build outside of town and more and more consumers choose to spend money online.

I have experienced this phenomenon first hand in several of my local towns. Town centers which were thriving on a Saturday afternoon just five or ten years ago are now almost deserted.

My initial thoughts about this problem were about who the solution would be for. Maybe the consumers who once populated the town centres are happy to buy online or visit out of town indoor shopping arcades, with free parking and everything under one roof. So, I initially approached this problem from the perspective of the town centre shopowners. I perceived the solution in terms of the relationship between consumers and traders. However, the closer I looked at the problem, the more I became aware that this is not purely about trade but more importantly its about the status of townlife, urbanism, heritage and citizenship and even philosophy itself.

If it interests me to wonder what a city is, it is because I think that the question is closely related with the other question that is implicit in the title of this essay: what is philosophy? There is a fundamental bond between philosophy and the city.

A philosophical idea of the city
https://www.publicspace.org/multimedia/-/post/a-philosophical-idea-of-the-city

This idea of the city bound to philosophy is fascinating. I discovered this field of study has been given a name: Metrosophy; which I believe was first coined by David Kishik in his 2015 piece for the New York Times titled “Metrosophy: Philosophy and the City

Perhaps the term metrosophy can better express this bond between the metropolitan and philosophical experiences. It is meant to help us see cities not only as hubs of economic activities but also as fountains of abstract meditations.

David Kishik 2015

So, this is an angle I’d really like to explore further in respect to the problem of the dwindling activity within town and city centres.

Further Reading:

Examples of Problems on the High Street from French News Articles

Supermarkets, e-commerce: why many stores are doomed to disappear
https://www.challenges.fr/services-et-distribution/la-verite-sur-les-fermetures-de-magasins-en-centre-ville_635929
Nantes : Town centre shops are suffering!
https://www.hitwest.com/news/nantes-les-commerces-du-centre-ville-souffrent-32793

Shops: yes, Grenoble city centre is suffering… just like the others!
https://www.lessor38.fr/commerces-y-a-t-il-un-probleme-en-centre-ville-20746.html
“Yes, shops are suffering in the city centre” of Besançon
https://www.estrepublicain.fr/edition-de-besancon/2019/03/29/oui-les-commerces-souffrent-dans-le-centre-ville
Trade: The deterioration of city centres is not inevitable.
https://dis-leur.fr/commerce-la-degradation-des-centres-villes-nest-pas-une-fatalite/