What makes interactive fiction a game?

gaming, writing

Over winter break, Netflix released Bandersnatch as part of its Black Mirror series, an “interactive film” where viewers make decisions for the main character as he attempts to create an interactive fiction game (hmm) in the 80s. Like many people, I watched–or is it played?–the film, exploring its many routes and endings. And as I did so, it strongly reminded me of a very similar entertainment experience–that of Telltale Games’ The Wolf Among Us and the studio’s similar games.

In both of these kinds of interactive fiction, the consumer watches a scene unfold on the screen, chooses–or doesn’t–the main character’s action or dialogue at certain points, and then continues to watch as the story unfolds from there. Telltale games even include a “default” option if the player doesn’t make an active choice, just like Bandersnatch. Scene, choice, scene… the cycle continues until the story ends, or you decide to go back to a certain scene and make a different choice.

But while Bandersnatch is called a film, Telltale products are called games, even though they have the same core interaction. Which raises the question: Is Bandersnatch a game? Is TWAU a game? At what point can a work of interactive fiction be called a game? And why?

The case for Telltale

The first story “choice” in The Wolf Among Us. Your treatment of Toad can affect whether he’ll tell you about a crime later on, but you can still put the pieces of the crime together without his help.

Before I really get into my discussion of Telltale games (specifically TWAU, as that’s the Telltale game I’ve personally played), I need to explain that Telltale games contain many other forms of interaction besides making story choices. In most Telltale games, there are quick time events (QTEs) where a player has to quickly hit a button during a cutscene, as well as point-and-click exploration sections like traditional adventure games. The type of interaction with the environment and non-player characters (NPCs) varies across Telltale’s titles–for example, Rhys from Tales from the Borderlands can scan objects to gain extra information, an interaction unavailable to either Bigby of TWAU or the characters in The Walking Dead.

The player must do these other interactions (succeed at QTEs, explore the environment, etc.) to continue the story. If a player fails at enough QTEs, or doesn’t find an important plot-related object, the story stops. This directly contrasts Bandersnatch, where the consumer doesn’t have to interact at all to get a complete story.

However, the core interaction–the mechanic that Telltale is known for–is its timed dialogue choices. QTEs and point-and-click exploration already existed before Tellatale’s first “interactive graphic novel,” but the timed dialogue in cutscenes and the “[character] will remember that” prompts elevated Telltale to a new type of interactive fiction game. While other kinds of interaction may vary across Telltale’s titles, the dialogue / action interaction does not. When I and my colleagues compare a game to a “Telltale game,” we are invariably referring to the timed choices that are key to the Telltale experience.

Typically in TWAU, the player is presented with 4 of these choices during scenes, each of which can change Bigby’s next dialogue line or action. Bandersnatch only provides the player with 2 choices at any time. At first, this makes it seem as though TWAU has more choices, and therefore that the player has more control over the story, which can bolster the argument for TWAU being more of a game than Bandersnatch.

…But in reality, those 4 choices are meaningless. While they might change the way an individual scene plays out slightly, it rarely changes the outcome of the story. Even the choices that result in “[character] will remember that” might change the way that character will respond to Bigby in a later scene, but Bigby will still get the information he needs from that character. The significant choices in TWAU and other Telltale games are the binary choices, to save this person or the other, to go to this place first or that. When a player must decide between 2 choices, that choice does affect the story… like in Bandersnatch.

At least the choices still affect the story, right? Even if it’s not as many as it first appears? Well, yes… and no. The big, binary choices influence the order that events happen, for sure. But a frequent complaint of many Telltale game players is that their choices are, in fact, meaningless. Not just the dialogue decisions, but the big ones, too. For example, say I have to choose between Bigby visiting one crime scene first or another. No matter which one I go to first, I will end up visiting both of them, and getting the information I need to proceed to the next location in the case; and no matter how much time I spend at each scene, I will always show up to the next 14 minutes late. How I get the plot-relevant information will change, but the plot itself doesn’t.

In the end, Telltale games all come down to the same scenes, with only a few different endings (in my experience… about 2 of them per episode). All of your choices, except for one or two big ones, don’t matter. What Telltale games give players is not actual choice, but the illusion of choice, the illusion that they have some control over what is in reality a fairly static narrative.

And since games are all about interaction, choice, and having an impact on the game state… can we really call Telltale a game?

The case for Bandersnatch

In Bandersnatch, once you reach an ending, it automatically gives you the option to go back to the last significant decision branch and make a different choice.

The big argument to be made in favor of Bandersnatch being a game is, of course, the mere fact that you can interact with it. Typically, when I engage with a film, I say I “watch” it. In Bandersnatch, I actively interacted with with the film, and instinctively refer to that engagement as “playing” it. I’m not “using” it, like I would a piece of software like Netflix itself–I’m “playing” with the film.

The interactions in Bandersnatch, as I said in the intro, are very similar to other games, especially Telltale’s. You use your controller (mouse, remote, whatever) to select an option at the bottom of the screen. Bandersnatch even has the same kind of timer UI for its decisions as Telltale games (a bar at the bottom of the choices that shrinks over time)!

And not only can you interact with Bandersnatch, interaction must happen to experience the “real story” (for all that the creators say there is no “real story”). True, you–the viewer / player–can sit back and not touch a single thing, and get to a credits screen. But even the “default” film restarts and changes a decision in an early scene, making an interaction and decision for you.

Not to mention, I find the “default” story pretty unsatisfying. If I kept the “default” choices of TWAU (which would mostly result in Bigby being very quiet), I’d still get the same basic story and feel like I reached an appropriate ending. Not the case for Bandersnatch, where interaction is key to experiencing, in my opinion, a full story.

When it comes to those choices, unlike TWAU, they are all meaningful. A possible exception is the cereal you can choose at the start of the game, but as that’s a mechanism to teach you about choice in this game, I’m giving it a pass–especially since the other choices are meaningful. In Bandersnatch, if you jump off a balcony, you die, and the story ends. If you fail to hide your father’s body properly, the police find you and arrest you, and the story ends. Compare that to TWAU, where I decide to go to one possible crime scene first, and by the time I get to the second, it’s been trashed… except I can still figure out where to go next from what the bad guys left behind, and the story continues. Lucky me!

In Bandersnatch, there are actually multiple branching paths and many endings (most reviews say there are at least 5 distinct endings, to TWAU’s 2 to 1 endings). You can experience a completely different story by making different decisions at key points, where in TWAU, the story stays basically the same. So, while TWAU and other Telltale games give the illusion of choice, Bandersnatch actually gives players a choice–their decisions do affect the story.

On the other hand, Bandersnatch still funnels the player towards certain endings. It encourages players to go back and make different choices at key scenes, or to replay the whole story, in search of the “best” or “true” ending–as I said before, even the “default” story does this. For example, in one path, you end up with the option to kill the protagonist’s father. If the player chooses not to, they will miss one of the endings.

The game subtly pressures the player towards the patricidal ending, and then to make the choice to kill the father to reach this ending. One of the creators says that this ‘choice’ makes the players “think they’re in control and then they realize they’re not.”

Still, the player can still decide not to go through with murdering their father (like I did), and there is a different outcome for that. While Bandersnatch may attempt to indirectly control their players, TWAU outright has similar choices mean nothing—if I had the same choice in TWAU, I can easily imagine that my father would die in some other way if I didn’t kill him, thus continuing the story down the same path.

So, while Bandersnatch may try to affect the players’ decisions, the choices are still significantly more meaningful than in TWAU. If that’s the case, then is Bandersnatch more like a game than TWAU? After all, the player’s decisions have a much more significant impact on the outcome. Should we consider Bandersnatch a game, and TWAU not—reversing the popular perception? Or is Bandersnatch still a film, just one with choices?

Other types of interactive fiction

So far, I’ve limited my discussion to Telltale games (specifically TWAU) and Bandersnatch. But what about other types of interactive fiction? Are they games?

One thing that TWAU and Bandersnatch have in common is the fact that players can make choices about the story, meaningful or not. What about text adventure games like Zork? You can make choices in this game, but they’re about solving puzzles and exploring your surroundings–you have little to no impact on the story, except for ending it early by dying. Okay, Zork isn’t really about the story, so maybe we don’t consider it interactive fiction. How about walking simulators like Gone Home? Gone Home is all about the fictional story, and you interact with the game… but again, you make no choices relevant to the story. The interactions with this game change the way you uncover the story, not the story itself.

In Zork, you’re not making choices about the story as much as you are exploring the story given to you. Trying to “take rug” doesn’t progress the story in any way, but “move rug” will. The challenge is not to change the story, but figure out how to continue the single story.

While we’re on the topic of walking simulators, what about The Stanley Parable? Like Bandersnatch, it encourages replay to reach different endings, but you don’t make actual story choices–the choices you make are about where to walk. At some points, there isn’t a “choice” at all–you either hit the button or walk to the next place, or the story just stops (like the Broom Closet ending).

The “Broom Closet ending” to the Stanley Parable. The subtitle says it all.
(For those who can’t read it, it says: “There was nothing here. No choices to make, no path to follow, just an empty broom closet. No reason to still be here.”)

Why don’t we move away from video games to other mediums of interactive fiction, like the very thing that Bandersnatch is based on–Choose Your Own Adventure novels. Sure, they’re analog print, not digital with video, but otherwise, the interaction is very similar to the film. You make a choice and it leads to a different scene, and you can have very different stories and endings. In fact, CYOA books are much closer to Bandersnatch than Bandersnatch is to TWAU.

In Choose Your Own Adventure novels, you flip to a different page when you make a choice instead of pressing a button, but it’s otherwise very similar to Bandersnatch.

What about the genre usually referred to as interactive fiction–those that are text-based only? I mentioned Zork earlier, but there’s a whole genre of text adventure games and interactive fiction that does let the player change the outcome of the story, hosted on Twine or similar platforms. In some of the, you actually do change the story outcome, and in some of them, you’re just uncovering the story that already exists. Some of them do a mix of the two. Can we call them interactive fiction? Can we call them games?

Let’s not forget visual novels. If TWAU is an “interactive graphic novel,” than so are visual novels, the main difference being that the graphics are static rather than animated, and the choices aren’t timed. Bandersnatch likewise similar, having with video and spoken dialogue rather than illustrations and written dialogue. Frequently visual novels are written to have multiple branching paths and endings (Doki Doki Literature Club being a well-known example). Some visual novels—freed by the medium of text instead of video—can have better stories, choices, and endings than Bandersnatch or TWAU. But once can still argue about whether they count as “games,” for all that they are interactive fiction. After all, the word “novel” is right in the title.

And then, of course, there are many other types of interactive fiction. I’m not going to cover all of them here, or argue whether each type counts as a game. I merely want to point out that the category of “interactive fiction” is as nebulous as “game,” and that the criteria for whether “interactive fiction” counts as a game will vary wildly.

So… what makes interactive fiction a game?

A common argument for the definition of a game includes that it’s digital, or “a piece of interactive software designed to entertain.” While that does make it easier to show, make, and react to player choices, there are many kinds of interactive fiction that don’t rely on the digital format. CYOA adventure books, for example, are practically identical to the digital Choice of Games stories–both only use text, and your choices take you to another scene. The main difference is that one is in a book, and one is on your phone. And outside of interactive fiction, there are plenty of analog board and card games. I don’t think a work of interactive fiction has to be digital to count as a game.

What about meaningful choices, or choices that affect the outcome of the story? This is a more compelling argument, but as I’ve said multiple times in this article, many pieces of interactive fiction–and many games in general–don’t offer meaningful decisions. There are plenty of games where the outcome of the story is the same no matter what you do (remember the outcry over Mass Effect 3’s original ending?), or where the only “choice” you can make is to quit the game (like certain parts of The Stanley Parable).

Most games with linear stories are like this–the “gameplay” is in the parts outside of the story, like running around shooting or assassinating people. However, I still consider such games to be games, and you probably do to. I even consider games that market themselves as interactive fiction, but without meaningful decisions, to be games–like TWAU. I am still making a choice, and changing my experience of the story, even if the plot or endings doesn’t change.

Perhaps we can redefine what we mean by “meaningful,” then. Are only choices that change the ending of the story meaningful? Or are choices that change the experience of the story—like I said—meaningful? I think it depends on what you think the meaning of the game is. Stories, and story-based games, are all about the experience and less about achieving some sort of goal or task (like in Tetris, for example). So if your choices change the experience, then that makes it meaningful, regardless of the ending. Maybe if I replay TWAU, I won’t get a different plot, but I can create an entirely different character for Bigby. Is that meaningful? I say it is.

But maybe you think that, no, you have to actually change the game state for the decision to be meaningful. I could read the exact same book twice over, but with a different interpretation each time (maybe reading it first for pleasure, the second to see how often female characters talk), and get a different experience because of it—but that doesn’t make the book a game. Nothing about the story has changed.

So then… how about interaction? Is that all it takes to make a piece of interactive fiction a game–some kind of interaction, meaningful or not?

In my opinion, yes. Interaction is the bare minimum to change a piece of fiction from something static, like a book or film, to a game. Even if my interaction does nothing to the story, even if it’s just QTEs or meaningless dialogue, the fact that I’m interacting changes the experience dramatically. Now, a story with meaningless interaction is not necessarily a good game, but a game it is. I have to actively engage with rather than passively experience the story.

So by this logic, I consider Bandersnatch a game, and have ever since I realized that “play” is the only word I can use to describe my interaction with it, even though it’s on Netflix instead of my PS4. I also consider TWAU a game. Basically, as soon as you tack “interactive” onto “fiction,” I’m willing to call it a game. But…

It’s not that simple

I’m sure there are plenty of people who will disagree with me, saying that Bandersnatch isn’t a game, or that TWAU isn’t a game, or that they are games, but for different reasons than what I’ve said above. To which I respond: sure! I think there are valid arguments to be made in all directions, because games, particularly interactive fiction, are by nature a slippery, genre-crossing medium. And as artists, writers, and creators continue to experiment and push the bounds of their mediums, it’ll be harder and harder to make those distinctions between those mediums.

And that’s okay. As a writer myself, one of the great things about the world today is how technology is opening up the way we tell stories. More and more, creators are experimenting with telling their stories in a transmedia fashion. And I am far less concerned with what we call the mediums for those stories than the stories themselves. Whatever you call your interactive fiction, whether it’s a film, game, novel, or something else, I’m happy to experience it and its story on its own terms.

TL;DR: Is Netflix’s “interactive film” Bandersnatch a game? What about Telltale Games’ The Wolf Among Us? What makes interactive fiction a game? I argue that Bandersnatch, TWAU, and any work of fiction that can be described as “interactive” is a game. That includes non-digital works like Choose Your Own Adventure novels, or works where the interaction has no bearing on story, like Zork or most linear story games. But most importantly, I think that we are moving away from defining creative works by medium like “game” or “film” and towards transmedia stories. I care less about whether a work of interactive fiction is a game or not, and more about the story in the fiction itself.

Thanks for reading!


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