New Podcast: A Short History of Interactive Narratives, or Flow Fiction

George Cox

Which breakfast cereal do you prefer: Frosted Flakes or Sugar Puffs? It’s the sort of decision many of us face, bleary eyed, each morning. But if you watched Netflix’s interactive film, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, you might recognise that this is the first choice that viewers have to make when deciding how the story of the protagonist will unfold. While the ability to choose what happens next will have seemed like a novel innovation to some, fictions that hand over power to the reader date back to the 1960s. Do you want to time-travel back over six decades? Then hit play and continue to listen to George Cox as he guides us through the labyrinthine history of interactive adventure.

Stream here or download via your favourite podcast player.

In late December 2018, Netflix debuted the new interactive movie Black Mirror: Bandersnatch on their platform. Users could participate in young programmer Stefan’s descent into psychosis, and explore the parallel pathways that branched off at different narrative decision points. Despite the attention that this Netflix phenomenon received, the interactive narrative has a long history in both print and digital literature. In this podcast, Goerge Cox identifies some of the links between the form’s print incunabula and digital instantiations. Namely, across gamebooks (or “the interactive”) the narrative is conceived as a space to be navigated and mapped by the reader, reflecting both external storyworlds and interior subjectivies.

The form’s affordances and conventions solidify with Bantam Books’, now Chooseco’s, trademarked ‘Choose-Your-Own-Adventure’ series. The Cave of Time (1979), by lawyer-turned-children’s author Edward Packard, gives intrepid readers the chance to explore the eponymous cavern, and warns that “one mistake can be your last… or it may lead to fame and fortune!” The frustration the reader feels at reaching a ‘bad’ ending encourages them to trace back their decisions and embark on another adventure, until they have satisfied themselves that they have experienced each of the narrative’s branches and diffuse storyworlds.

In digital interactive fiction these choices are used to represent internal subjectivity. Twine fiction enables those marginalised by the games industry (such as LGBTQ+ communities, women and racial minorities) to intimately portray personal experiences. Zoe Quinn’s Depression Quest (2013) uses the constraints of the digital gamebook to portray the inaccessibility of mental spaces to a depressed person, whilst Anna Anthropy’s Queers in Love at the End of the World (2013) uses time constraints to reinforce the universality of love. These affordances of interactive narratives are subsequently incorporated into Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, to suggest that Stefan’s psychosis is leading him to a loss of agency.

This podcast was recorded during our series of Late Summer Lectures 2019. Hear more from the series.

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