Bandersnatch, Yea or Nay?
Reception and User Experience of an
Interactive Digital Narrative Video
Professorship Interactive Narrative
Design, HKU University of the Arts
Utrecht, 3500 BM Utrecht, The
Professorship Interactive Narrative
Design, HKU University of the Arts
Utrecht, 3500 BM Utrecht, The
The Netflix production Bandersnatch represents a potentially crucial step for interactive digital
narrative videos, due to the platform’s reach, popularity, and ability to finance costly experimental
productions. Indeed, Netflix has announced that it will invest more into interactive narratives –
moving into romance and other genres – which makes Bandersnatch even more important as first
step and harbinger of things yet to come. For us, the question was therefore how audiences react
to Bandersnatch. What are the factors driving user’s enjoyment and what factors might mitigate
the experience. For example, novelty value of an interactive experience on Netflix might be a
crucial aspect or the combination with the successful series Black Mirror. We approach these
questions from two angles – with a critical analysis of the work itself, including audience reactions
and an initial user study using Roth’s measurement toolbox (N = 32).
• Human-centered computing~HCI design and evaluation methods
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TVX '19, June 05-07, 2019, Salford (Manchester), United Kingdom
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ACM ISBN 978-1-4503-6017-3/19/06.
interactive video, interactive narrative design, user experience study, interactive TV
ACM Reference format:
Christian Roth, Hartmut Koenitz. 2019. Bandersnatch, Yea or Nay? Reception and User Experience of an
Interactive Digital Narrative Video. In Proceedings of TVX '19: ACM International Conference on Interactive
Experiences for TV and Online Video (TVX '19), June 05-07, 2019, Salford (Manchester), United Kingdom. ACM,
New York, NY, USA, 8 pages. hps://doi.org/10.1145/3317697.3325124
Interactive video is not a new phenomenon by any means. Its history can be traced back to at least
the 1968 experiment Kinoautomat , shown at the Czechoslovakian pavilion at the world fair in
the same year. This early system allowed the audience to vote on the progression of the experience
and used a clever back-folding structure in order to be able to with only two projectors. Later,
interactive TV services like BBC Red Buon (since 1999) using technology like the ShapeShiing
platform  provided the foundation for the wide-spread deployment of video-based interactive
narratives. However, productions like Accidental Lovers  have proven to be more an exception
than the norm and interactive TV seems to have been in a continuous state of ‘the breakthrough is
just around the corner’ for nearly two decades now (for some of the challenges, see ).
In this context, Netflix’ entry into interactive digital narrative (IDN) video is significant, as it
reflects a changed technical environment in which set-top boxes are no longer necessary and
broadband internet has become ubiquitous while the audience has grown up with interactive video
games. Bandersnatch is not Netflix’s first interactive artefact, but the first one aimed at a mature
audience, positioned as a part of the well-established and critically acclaimed dystopian sci-fi series
Black Mirror. In addition, the company is looking for possibilities for interactive treatment across
several genres such as comedy, horror and romance, as stated by Netflix’ vice president of product,
Todd Yellin1. This means Bandersnatch is not only interesting by itself, but also as harbinger of
future works and an indication of the challenges for the design of such experiences. Consequently,
the work invites a number of related questions. How do audiences react to the work? Does it
capture their interest? What are the limitations in the current design? Was the adaptation of the
formula of episodic TV format for interactivity successful? As a prerequisite to addressing these
questions, we need to define interactive digital narrative first before we provide a critical
perspective and then take a closer look at the audience reactions we captured in a user study.
1.1 Interactive Digital Narrative
Interactive Digital Narrative (IDN), is an emerging expressive form of narrative in the digital
medium, implemented as computational system which allows users to participate in the
experience, and influence the unfolding of one narrative out of a space many potential narratives
(for explication see  and , further developed in )
This understanding builds on David Herman’s definition of narrative as cognitive function,
which can be evoked by a variety of forms, a “forgiving, flexible cognitive frame for constructing,
communicating, and reconstructing mentally projected worlds” . Essentially, interactive
narratives allow the audience to influence the narrative progression and their own experience. As
explained by Janet Murray , in interactive digital narratives, the audience has dramatic agency -
the ability to make “meaningful choices” and to see their eects.
2 Bandersnatch – A Critical Perspective
Bandersnatch is set in the 1980s UK, following the path of aspiring game designer Stefan Butler to
enter commercial game development. The audience has control over important decisions in the
course of Stefan’s journey – for example, whether to accept a job oer by an established games
publisher early on. Decisions are implemented as choices between two textual prompts. It is
possible to watch Bandersnatch without interacting as one of the two choices will be selected
automatically aer a certain amount of time. This feature enables a “passive” consumption more
akin to a standard Black Mirror episode, and thus enables audiences not interested in interacting to
experience the work. The work invites replay to revisit decisions and find additional paths and
outcomes. Dierent topics – psychological issues, drug-induced hallucinations, deadly violence, or
experiments with mind control – become more prominent on dierent paths.
The first couple of choices in Bandersnatch help interactors to get acclimated with the user
interface and the role of Stefan. They do not seem to have much impact on the overall narrative.
This perception changes rapidly when the next choice plays out: at the game studio, Stefan can
decide to work alone on his game or within a team. Choosing the laer fast forwards the narrative
towards an ending which has the game release to a mediocre reviews as the consequence of
Stefan’s inability to work in a team. This outcome seemingly hinges on a single choice and thus
alerts interactors to the limits of their control – this path, at least, is an early dead-end for
interactivity. Other paths oer more opportunities for interaction and are more under the control
of the interactor. Yet even in these cases, interactors’ influence on the course of the narrative is
oen limited, for example there are no alternatives to using violence in some cases. This goes
against the notion of granting autonomy to the interactor, further limiting perceived agency (cf.
The overarching topics of Bandersnatch are game design and control, both of which are explored
in parallel – in the diegetic world and the interactive narrative experience. For example, the
interactor accompanies Stefan’s struggles with finishing the design of his game, while
simultaneously, the interactor struggles to find their way. Bandersnatch invites reflection on the
technology and design itself, in particular the diiculty of not losing track of all the story branches
and the challenge of creating all the necessary content. The second parallelism is about control –
we see Stefan coping with the consequences of earlier decisions, of losing control in his struggle to
finish his creation. Yet, these decisions are the audience’s, not actually his, as becomes clear in one
of the branches that reveals the interactor to be in the position of an outside entity controlling
Stefan. This aspect breaks the identification with the role of Stefan and it invites a reflection on
agency and responsibility – to what extend do we control the character, how much responsibility
do we have and what level of control do we have ourselves?
Reactions by professional critics, personal blogs and in discussion forums run the gamut from
cautious enthusiasm (71% on Roen Tomatoes2, 61% on Metacritic3, both accessed Feb 1, 2019) to
disappointment4,5,6,7. To beer understand these mixed reactions, we are interested in the following
issues: What drives enjoyment for the audience? How are the limited options and the forced
violence perceived? Do interactors identify with the main character that they only partly control?
How do audiences perceive the limited agency of the choose-your-own-adventure style? These are
some of the questions that motivated the study we will describe in the next section.
3 A Study of Audience Reaction to Bandersnatch
32 students of a seminar on interactive narrative at the University of the Arts Utrecht (HKU)
participated in our study. The sample consists of 15 female and 17 male students, between 18 to 27
(M = 21.28, SD = 2.29) of age, from dierent majors (game development, game art, music and
technology, arts and economy). Aer a short introduction, students experienced Netflix’
Bandersnatch for the first time, using their own laptops and headphones. The experience lasted
between one and two hours (M = 83.75 minutes SD = 19.07). Once participants decided to no longer
engage with Bandersnatch, they filled out an online questionnaire. We use a combined
quantitative and qualitative approach, specifically a slightly extended version of Roth’s
measurement toolbox  which consists of 14 validated 5-point Likert scales addressing dierent
experience dimensions (see Table 1). As a qualitative measurement participants were asked an
open question: “If at one point in the experience you felt confused and/or lost interest: describe
that moment and why you felt that way.”
Table 1: Aggregated experience ratings with gender based comparison, combined ratings and scale
reliability (N = 32)
Avoid killing dad
* signicance on p < .05 level; scale reliability: NA when Cronbach’s not available
The results show a very positive rating of system usability (M = 4.5), reflecting to the simple
interface of the work. Both local eectance (direct input within a scene) and global eectance
(impact on the progression of the narrative over time) were rated rather positively (M = 3.6 and M
= 3.7). This indicates that, overall, interactors felt they had an impact on the narrative progression.
Simultaneously, the average rating of perceived autonomy was almost neutral (M = 3.2). One
might have expected a lower score here, as Bandersnatch oers only two options at decision points.
This limited autonomy becomes more evident when participants were asked if they tried to find a
way to avoid killing Stefan’s dad, which many did (M = 3.7). The choice of killing the father was
particularly interesting since it is the only narrative branch that results in the success of Stefan’s
game. One participant, rating his eectance and autonomy very low, commented: “For the majority
I felt like I had no agency, there wasn't even an illusion of choice.” Another participant remarked: “I
kinda lost interest when the game seemed to force a certain option.”
Bandersnatch did not convince our participants as an immersive experience, with presence (M =
2.9) and flow rated neutral (M = 3.0). One reason for this result could be character identification,
which got the lowest score of all experience dimensions, with an average of 2.3. On the other side,
character believability was rated positively (M = 3.8), as well as curiosity (M = 4.2) and suspense (M
= 3.7). This shows that participants were oen eager to find out how the narrative progressed,
likely trying to achieve a good outcome for the main character Stefan. “The more complicated it
became, the more interested I got. I wanted to know what was really the case.” However, having many
parallel storylines bears the risk of harming the impact of each single one. “Aer three or so
dierent endings I thought I finished the story enough times. Playing over and over just to see
dierent endings makes one specific storyline less unique, imo.” When asked about the moment of
losing interest, nine participants mentioned scenes in which Bandersnatch looped, rewinding to an
earlier, already known scene in an aempt to force interactors to try previously neglected options.
Overall, enjoyment was rated with an average of 4, which shows that most participants had a good
time with Bandersnatch despite the aforementioned shortcomings. Meaningfulness (eudaimonic
appreciation ), showed a positive trend, albeit not a very strong one (M = 3.4). Aer experiencing
Bandersnatch, we find interactors to be in a more positive (M = 3.3) than negative mood (M = 2.4).
We observed dierences in the perception and rating based on gender. Males rated six
dimensions significantly higher than females (see Table1). A reason could be that the narrative is
populated with mostly male characters, including the protagonist Stefan. Interestingly, male
participants did not identify much with him. An explanation could be the weird and eventually
violent behavior of Stefan, killing his father and becoming increasingly paranoid throughout the
narrative. A multiple linear regression was calculated to predict enjoyment based on the measured
experience dimensions. A significant regression equation was found (F(3, 27) = 37.508, p < .000),
with an R2 of .806. Participants’ predicted enjoyment is equal to -.290 + .575 (meaningfulness) +
.350 (positive aect) + .336 (global eectance), all coded using 5-point Likert scales. The enjoyment
score increased .575 points for each point on meaningfulness, .350 points for each point on positive
aect and .336 points for each point on global eectance. Perceived meaningfulness, positive aect,
and global eectance were significant predictors of enjoyment. This finding shows the relevance of
transformational (personal meaning and aect) power of interactive narratives and the role of
interactors’ agency (global eectance) to create an enjoyable experience.Furthermore, narrative
coherence (“I found the individual narrative paths coherent” and “I found the overall narrative
experience coherent”) was rated rather positively (M = 3.4). The reported level of confusion (“I
found the narrative to be confusing” and “At some point I didn’t know what to do”) was rather low
(M = 2.5).
We expected the level of confusion to be much higher as our pre-tests showed that many
participants experienced a loss in interest, at one point, based on the confusion on the many
looping narrative branches and the struggle to find the “real” ending. Likewise, we expected the
perceived level of narrative coherence to be lower. This might be related to the composition of our
sample that consists of students interested in interactive narrative. Future studies need to replicate
these findings with a larger and more diverse sample.
The categorical challenge is at the heart of the mixed reactions: does Bandersnatch belong to the
category “game” or is it a “TV episode”? This is not only an issue for the analysis of Bandersnatch,
but also an important factor in regards to audience expectations. Framing an interactive experience
as an iteration of an established non-interactive TV series is thus a questionable strategy.
At the core of the design and enjoyment of Interactive Digital Narratives lies user agency (cf. [4,6-
8]), the power to impact the narrative progression. Ironically, the narrative of Bandersnatch is about
not having control. The main character is controlled by the interactor, who in turn is limited to
binary choices, one of which will be chosen automatically, if they do not decide before a timer runs
out. However, granting full agency seems not possible with the current Netflix technology and
prerecorded material. It is therefore crucial to identify design strategies for oering the audience
meaningful choices that use the limited agency this format provides to the best eect. We will
approach this question with further analysis of the sample data and with a focus on the qualitative
feedback, for example in more clearly identifying the point of losing interest. In addition, we will
investigate future interactive productions by Netflix and compare the results to the present study.
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