Last month, Netflix released the latest episode of Black Mirror: Bandersnatch. In its first choose-your-own-adventure-style story, the anthology series notorious for its provocative and disturbing portrayals of technology puts the viewer in control. A once-passive audience now makes the choices for Stefan, an ever-more-reflexive character slowly losing his mind, as he himself experiments with interactive video game storytelling. It’s a new level of meta.
The beauty of interactive storytelling, best modelled through the world of video games – where a player’s decisions literally define the story – is when the character and player are no longer separate. In traditional storytelling, the character is simply presented to the reader, but with an interactive story, the protagonist is experienced by the reader. In Bandersnatch, however, the separation still holds. A viewer can (and, spoiler alert, might have to) kill Stefan, but they’d never say, as video gamers often do, that “they” themselves died. This is the central difference between the form of storytelling attempted by Netflix now, and what the video game industry has been perfecting for decades.
“You can never really understand a person…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it,” according to Harper Lee’s character Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird. It is exactly this that Lilly Ladjevardi, founder of Building Better Worlds, an education program encouraging empathy through experiential learning, is tapping into with a soon-to-be-released interactive story of a Syrian refugee on Minecraft.
I think what an animation has the power to do is create a safe enough distance, especially for kids. By telling a dark, harrowing, traumatic story - like that of a Syrian refugee - in an animated world, it allows them to engage with what they otherwise wouldn’t want to or couldn’t.
Along with her creative partner, Amy Lee, she’s building an interactive story in Minecraft that places the player in the shoes, eyes, and life of a young Syrian refugee. Ladjevardi is using the second best-selling video game of all time (behind only Tetris) to build empathy and understanding of the refugee experience in societies where refugees are arriving. Her goal, for now, is changing the largely exclusionary attitude of European societies. The ubiquity of Minecraft, however, with 154 million sales and over 90 million active users, means that it can just as easily gain traction anywhere, including the Middle East, where countries host the vast majority of the Syrian refugee population.
The game, ‘A Refugee’s Journey’, places the player in an adventure map in the bright, pixelated world of Minecraft, where you wake up as a 16-year old girl, in a family home in Eastern Aleppo in 2015. This is the height of the war. Aleppo has been the target of bombing campaigns for years, leaving much of the city destroyed. And yet, people are still here, trying to lead as normal a life as possible. And so the story begins in somewhat of a normal day in the middle of the war.
In 2015, watching the war in Syria unfold in the virtual reality we call the internet, Ladjevardi felt a pang of recognition. Her family is from Iran, where during the Islamic Revolution in 1979, her parents were targeted, their homes confiscated, and lives threatened. They were forced to leave Iran and relocate to New York, where Ladjevardi was born a year later. She grew up knowing, however, that her family’s story was the exception, not the norm. “My family were fortunate in that they had the means and the possibility to—when their lives were turned upside down—resettle somewhere new,” Ladjevardi reflects. “But all the people in the world who experience revolution, war, and famine. What happens to them if they don’t have that privilege?”
We’re trying to be as accurate as possible. So the builders are using photographs and the counsel of different Syrians from Aleppo to represent it…The makeshift schools, the basements, the hospitals—all of them will paint a picture of Aleppo at that time.
She decided that there must be a way to sensitise communities all over the world to the plight of young people who, through no fault of their own, have lost their home, their country, their communities, and are now being shunned by the rest of the world. “A lot of kids are fortunate enough to never have to know what that experience is like. I felt that there must be a way to tell a story that can touch their humanity and their hearts.” Of all things, Ladjevardi found her way in Minecraft.
As with all great, immersive video games, there is no narrator, no interfering exposition after a short 30-second prelude at the start of the game. You are dropped into the world and are expected to glean knowledge from the dialogue and surroundings as the story progresses. What seems like a normal breakfast actually sets the stage for the context of war. As you eat toast and feed the cat, you’re told you need to turn on the generator or there won’t be any running water. There are references to safety measures as the father speaks. The distant sounds of bullets and bombs float through the window.
You go about your day—school, market, hanging out with friends—until your life is disrupted even more catastrophically than it had up until that point. When your house is destroyed, your father—one of the last remaining doctors in Aleppo, staying out of a sense of duty—decides to send you and your 9-year old brother to Turkey. As you prepare to leave Aleppo, you have to decide how to pack up your life, which sentimental things from your home you will bring on the journey, because you can’t bring everything.
Where Bandersnatch truly shines is the profoundly uncomfortable positions it puts the viewer in as they make decisions for Stefan. At different times throughout the film, you have to choose between two synonymous choices, two identically bleak scenarios, or are forced to click on the single option that appears on the screen. This is what Evan Skolnick, video game writer and narrative designer, calls ‘ludonarrative dissonance,’ the unpleasant situation where the player is forced to do something they don’t want to do, or are prevented from doing what they want.
You go about your day—school, market, hanging out with friends—until your life is disrupted even more catastrophically than it had up until that point. When your house is destroyed, your father—one of the last remaining doctors in Aleppo, staying out of a sense of duty—decides to send you and your 9-year old brother to Turkey.
This discomfort is also integral to ‘A Refugee’s Journey,’ a series of deeply undesirable decisions that reflect the reality of millions. Under the care of your father’s lifelong friend, you must stay alive and get across the border into Turkey, so you can then plan your route to Europe. To stay alive, you have to make difficult decisions, as well as keep your phone charged, get enough food and water, not get shot by soldiers at checkpoints or on the border with Turkey. This is the journey that millions of Syrians have made for the past seven years, and that Ladjevardi is now humanising and bringing to kids around the world.
With over 90 million monthly active users, there’s hardly a teenager alive with access to a computer that is not familiar with it on some level. It’s a highly pixelated visual world, a form of virtual legos, where you can use building blocks that can be rearranged in different ways and build literally anything. Because of the absolute freedom of the procedurally generated game, it’s been taken to lengths far beyond the original purpose.
One such length is the phenomena of YouTube videos called Let’s Plays, where gamers record themselves playing a game, overlaid with their own commentary. The form grew to insane levels of popularity, epitomised by the world’s most successful YouTuber, PewDiePie, whose channel has amassed 19 billion views. The trend was picked up by what would be called Minecraft storytellers, who record themselves walking through and interacting in their own self-built universes, complete with their own characters.
Minecraft storyteller Amy Lee, Ladjevardi’s creative partner on ‘A Refugee’s Journey’, found the form to be a revolutionary, impactful way to reach her target audience of children aged 4-12. Her YouTube series, “The Land of Love”, features her adventures with a cast of sweet and mischievous creatures, teaching qualities such as kindness to wildlife.
Her impact is far-reaching, immediate, and powerful. Every single day, kids around the world submit letters and photos of themselves saving small creatures, hugging trees, and performing acts of kindness. She sometimes turns fans who submit stories into characters in episodes, creating an instantaneous feedback loop, validating and encouraging children in ways traditional media could never reach. While children’s books are considered successes when they pass the mark of 100,000 copies, Amy Lee’s videos average between 200,000 and 800,000 views each. It’s a level of impact completely unique to this point in human history.
...ludonarrative dissonance is the unpleasant situation where the player is forced to do something they don’t want to do, or are prevented from doing what they want.
Though she is one of many who have monetised and solidified their process in this way, the sheer abundance of the form with ever-younger creators speaks to a complete disruption of media. Ladjevardi had spent years working with different projects that helped YouTubers build content and monopolise their talents. Though the work of disrupting traditional media and democratising entertainment was exciting, she always felt the content was lacking. She wanted instead to harness the power of these YouTubers who had a unique relationship to a young audience, use their voice for a positive impact.
“Young people from nowhere with no editor and no middlemen were building massive audiences that were bigger than traditional publishers,” Ladjevardi says. “They were getting hundreds of millions of views a month. This is unprecedented. If you put all the children’s publishers in the world together, I’m not sure they would reach 400 million views.” To put things in perspective, the best-selling children’s books of all time, The Little Prince or Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (depending on who you ask), clock in at less than 150 million copies each.
The freedom that characterises Minecraft has enabled it to resonate with a huge age range. Adults from the age of 25 to 40 or even 60 come together online to build and play in incredibly complex worlds, while children as young as 8 flock to the game for its simplicity and freedom. More and more education programs—through schools, non-profits, and even UN agencies—are being built around the game for the same reason. Minecraft offers an alternate reality where they can explore, build, and interact without limits or rules. Where the physical world is controlled by adults, Minecraft is a platform where children can explore, exerting control and exercising agency.
Young people from nowhere with no editor and no middlemen were building massive audiences that were bigger than traditional publishers
There’s a central tension that’s created in ‘A Refugee’s Journey’, between this agency and the overwhelming nature of the story, between the proximity of its first-person perspective and a distance that’s necessary to its efficacy. The player sees the world through the protagonist’s own eyes, allowing the player to project their own imagination, appearance, and selves onto her. But this is all occurring in the unreal, block, pixelated aesthetic of Minecraft.
“I think what an animation has the power to do,” explains Ladjevardi on this productive tension, “is create a safe enough distance, especially for kids. By telling a dark, harrowing, traumatic story in an animated world, it allows them to engage with what they otherwise wouldn’t want to or couldn’t.”
Ladjevardi and Lee are still in the process of perfecting the adventure map that will be available for individual download in mid-2019. They were recently informed, for example, that they can now include multiple choices that lead to divergent pathways. This would mean that, like Black Mirror’s Bandersnatch, the game could include multiple different endings depending on player’s choices. Each of them, however, need to be meticulously designed, not least of all because Ladjevardi and Lee are cautious in their portrayal of real events and places.
My family were fortunate in that they had the means and the possibility to—when their lives were turned upside down—resettle somewhere new. But what happens to the people who don’t have that privilege?
“We’re trying to be as accurate as possible. So the builders are using photographs and the counsel of different Syrians from Aleppo to represent it…The makeshift schools, the basements, the hospitals—all of them will paint a picture of Aleppo at that time.” More than just aesthetic, the game’s faithfulness is also in a kind of archival practice, whereas the player walks around the city, they learn more about its history, present, and realities of 2015.
Ladjevardi has also designed an eight-week curriculum to be taught in European schools, in conjunction with the game. “The more I got into the story,” she reflects, “the more I realised that if you tell this story of losing your home, that’s really just the starting point.” The curriculum will engage questions of community, identity, and belonging in a way that’s both cerebral and affective. By doing so, Ladjevardi aims to counter the exclusionary, jingoistic, hegemonic stories gaining traction now, helping move European societies hosting refugee populations to tell stories that everyone can belong to.