Protagonist or Director

26 Dec 2020

At the London premiere of a branching-narrative movie, years ago, I was horrified to be part of a group of otherwise sensible people making terrible choices. Each time the voting prompt came up, offering us a few seconds to use our phones to influence the direction of the story being played on the cinema screen, I’d pick the correct option and then sit horrified as the revealed will of the majority dragged the narrative, and our protagonist, further into catastrophe.

It was over rather quickly. When the director walked onto the stage, he was shocked that we’d ended with the worst outcome in the narrative tree.

But I know what happened. It’s not that the audience didn’t know how to get a good outcome. It’s that they didn’t want one.

Where I was “playing as” the on-screen protagonist, trying to make choices that would lead to a good result for him, they were looking for a good result for themselves - the audience - which apparently meant watching a lot of people die. They were “playing as” the director, and the movie they wanted to direct was a tragedy.

Later, playing through Bandersnatch for the second time with a group of game-designer friends, we all very consciously switched gear. Shouting “THROW TEA AT DAD” at every opportunity, we played for maximum drama and excitement - but definitely not for maximum success.

Both options are valid. Fire Hazard used to encourage players to switch on the fly - “be big, be loud, be dramatic, and if you see an opportunity to make a cool story for someone else, take it”. Games, after all, offer an escape from having to take the sensible choice all the time. Sometimes you have to lose to win.

I find it useful, though, to make a conscious choice, particularly in group settings. It can be intensely frustrating to watch people light the world on fire just because they want to see it burn - but also, it’s a very satisfying moment, especially in a competitive game, when someone acts against their own interests just to make something cooler.

The Protagonist / Director split works outside of games, too. Obviously, in making life decisions, I’m acting mostly as the protagonist. But where the substantive outcomes are equal or uncertain, I find it useful to think as a Director for a moment:

All else being equal, which of these options makes for a better story?