The Illusion of Control: Does Interactivity Make a Story More Engaging?
In the late 1970s, a computer game called Colossal Cave Adventure became the first-known work of interactive fiction. Since then, video games have always — inherently — been about making choices. But deciding whether to A) jump over, or B) duck under, a projectile feels relatively low-stakes compared to sculpting a character’s relationships, moral compass or identity. When a decision holds moral weight, it’s no longer just a reaction. Instead, players must consider consequences that extend beyond the immediate moment.
But does this illusion of control allow for a more engrossing narrative experience? The folks over at Netflix think so. After releasing a few interactive programs aimed at kids, the streaming platform doubled down, launching an interactive, one-off episode of its Black Mirror series called Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (2018).
In Bandersnatch, Stefan, a fledgling programmer, works tirelessly on a text-based computer game with a branching narrative. (Think choose-your-own-adventure novel, but with more typing.) As he programs more paths, Stefan struggles with his own mental health and becomes consumed by the idea of free will.
This meta-dissection of the illusion of control amplifies intriguing questions surrounding the rise of interactive storytelling, both in games and cinema. Namely, does being actively implicated in a narrative experience make said experience resonate more deeply with the participant?
Narrative-Driven Games Emulate Cinema
Innovations in technology allowed games of the late 1990s to break new narrative ground, as seen in titles like Metal Gear Solid (1998), Silent Hill (1999) and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998). Of all these epic, narrative-driven games, one stands out: Square’s 1997 role-playing game (RPG), Final Fantasy VII (FFVII).
Rebelling Against Linear Narratives
However, games like FFVII were still critiqued for being linear. Apart from a few side missions, the narrative followed a single, predetermined path with little room for player choice. With the release of Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto III (GTA III) in 2001, the pendulum swung in a new direction. Instead of emphasizing control, GTA III aimed to give players freedom — and the tools to harness it.
The Bandersnatch Parable
Both Netflix’s Bandersnatch and a 2011 game called The Stanley Parable are meta-attempts to understand the role of predestination in interactive stories. Both titles wonder how much — if any — control players actually exert over a narrative. In The Stanley Parable, there’s no combat or action-based sequences. Instead, the player searches a surreal office environment, choosing to either adhere to what the narrator says the titular character will do next, or rebel.