The interactive fiction of the latest Black Mirror episode is a thrilling indication of the direction games could take
A new episode of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror debuted on Netflix just before the new year. Unlike most previous examples, Bandersnatch is not a cautionary tale of how current technologies might evolve to further ruin our hearts, minds and communities. It is, rather, a period piece set in early-1980s Britain, when young video-game programmers were becoming millionaires selling their games in WH Smith. Unlike all previous Black Mirror episodes, Bandersnatch is a nonlinear film that allows the viewer to steer the plot using simple A/B choices at key moments in the drama. Like the Choose Your Own Adventure books of the period, these choices range from the mundane (“which cereal would you like for breakfast?”) to the life-imperilling, and each path winds to one of a number of possible endings.
That Netflix should choose to invest in the required technology, then use it with one of its prestige shows is, regardless of how you judge the results, thrilling, and demonstrates that games still have the capacity to enter new rooms of culture to woo those who might otherwise reject the form. Bandersnatch may even prove a tipping point for interactive fiction. This year also promises Telling Lies, a pseudo-sequel to Her Story, one of the best games of the genre to date, which also uses filmed footage (clips of police interview tapes) to reshuffle the narrative in beguiling ways.
For something a little more saccharine, January marks the long-awaited arrival of Kingdom Hearts 3, a byzantine collaboration from Disney and Final Fantasy creator Square Enix (and surely an intellectual property lawyer’s nightmare), whose mythology has become so complex that the games have become a punchline to many a meme. Years of delays suggest a chaotic gestation, but there’s a slim chance Disney has wrangled director Tetsuya Nomura’s creativity into something that honours the glittering characters, ranging from Mickey Mouse to Frozen’s Olaf; creativity that he has, in games past, failed to place into a fitting context.
Nomura’s countryman Hidetaka Miyazaki has more favourable form; his Dark Souls games may require just as much work from a player to work out what precisely is going on, but his talent for world-building and atmosphere is unparalleled. Miyazaki’s new game, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, is set in a reimagined late-16th century Sengoku-period Japan, where you play as a shinobi (mercenary) whose prosthetic arm seems to have done nothing to spoil his ability to fight.
For those players who prefer to write their own stories, Dreams, from the British studio and LittleBigPlanet series creator Media Molecule, is a suite of creative tools that can be used to turn ideas into playable vignettes. Worlds are summoned and shaped, soundtracks composed and creatures raised via a toolbox that is more paint palette than accounting software, and the game may become something of a story factory for the young and ingenious.
A new version of Animal Crossing for Nintendo’s share-price boosting Switch console will allow millennials to experience a storyline closed to all but the most privileged as they move to the countryside and take on odd jobs in order to pay the mortgage on a newly acquired detached property, while opting to befriend or besmirch their neighbours. Finally, for those who can’t be bothered with small talk, Untitled Goose Game (also for Switch) allows us to enact honking terror on a village as a mischievous loosed goose. What better story to salve the incoming blows of the looming year and its inevitable political sucker punches?