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Netflix Puts Some Storytelling Power Into Viewers' Hands


Netflix recently put some of the power of storytelling into the hands of viewers. The series "Black Mirror" is a lot like "The Twilight Zone," right? Each episode is a unique, science fiction tale. But the episode that debuted this past weekend called "Bandersnatch" isn't a single linear story.

You, the viewer, are constantly asked to pick outcomes for the main character. It's kind of like those "Choose Your Own Adventure" books. For example, earlier in the movie, you got to pick which box of cereal he opens, and that changes the story arc from that point forward.


CRAIG PARKINSON: (As Peter Butler) How about you decide what you want for your breakfast.

JANKO ROETTGERS: This is obviously just a simple choice. But from there on, it gets more and more complicated.

MARTIN: That second voice there is Janko Roettgers from Variety magazine. He's been reporting on how Netflix and the "Black Mirror" team pulled all this off, and he spoke to our co-host Noel King.

ROETTGERS: You make very hard choices at some point, and sometimes it also throws you off a little bit. And maybe you even find one of these questions only has one choice.

NOEL KING, BYLINE: Do you know how many possible outcomes there were, given all of the choices that you make for this character, this young man?

ROETTGERS: Netflix did the math on this, and they say there's 1 trillion possible permutations of this show. In reality, you wouldn't notice the difference between many of these. But there are quite a few different outcomes. So I got to see this a couple of weeks ago at Netflix, and I spent 90 minutes, I think, exploring it. And so I got to see quite a bit of this, and I thought I saw almost everything.

But then a couple days ago, I watched it again with my wife, and she made just a few different choices. And not only did she see a lot of things in a different order, but she also arrived at an ending that I had never seen before. So it kind of almost felt like she watched a completely different movie.

KING: That is amazing. I didn't realize that the small choices had so much impact down the line. So how did Netflix pull this off? I'm just trying to imagine filming this, and it must have been kind of a logistical nightmare.

ROETTGERS: Yeah, and even before they started to film this, they had to develop their own script-writing tool for this that would kind of help them branch the narrative, try to figure out which choices end up where, how they can bring all these strings back together and so forth. And I talked to the masterminds behind "Black Mirror," and they said at first it was pretty much a nightmare. At some point, even the script-writing tool kind of broke down. And they had never a script crash on them before. But in this case, it actually happened.

KING: So the main character is a young man, and there are points at which you can choose paths for him that you know will put him in harm's way versus paths that will seemingly, like, just put him on a, you know - a bus or something, right? And I found myself really thinking about what kind of person I was particularly when the show sort of started getting slow and I'd choose to make some action happen.

Do you feel like you learned anything about yourself as you made choices on whether to put this young man in harm's way and potentially make things more interesting, or to keep him out of danger but maybe be a little - a little bored?

ROETTGERS: That is a really good question. I think the show plays with that as well. Do you want to have good entertainment, or do you want to actually empathize with the characters and kind of give them an easy way out, if you will? They also played with the question of whether the character has any choice because you make choices for him.

But at some point, it's also the question, do you actually have any real choices because if you arrive over and over again at the same point, is it the script writers that kind of dictate where you go? Are you dictating where this character goes? It's a really interesting thing, and I think it's kind of a "Black Mirror" take on interactivity, if you will.

KING: Janko Roettgers reports for Variety. Janko, thanks so much. This was fun.

ROETTGERS: Thanks for having me.