The Stranger, from director Laurence Maybury and writer/star Chris Cosentino, is a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure style series of Youtube videos, each roughly a minute long, that follows Howard Kingsley, a man waking up from a terrible dream where he was kidnapped by a cult only to find that may have been more than just a dream.
Given the close proximity of their releases and similar structure, it’s tempting to look at the last season of Black Mirror, Bandersnatch, as a potential influence for The Stranger but the timing makes this unlikely. In fact, this genre which has its foundation in the Bantam Books series of the late 70s and 80s has had incarnations on Youtube for years, my first experience being with the fantasy series FearFighter in 2016, which was itself ported from a DVD series released in 2012. There’s even one from 2014 that looks like Clue and stars Tay Zonday, you know, the Chocolate Rain guy.
My personal experience with this genre could be summed up as limited and underwhelming. FearFighter gets some points for being a relic of a bygone time but the short ~5 minute long segments and limited budget made certain stretches a chore. Well, The Stranger’s segments are much shorter and the budget is approximately not any. That’s not to say that there isn’t anything that works, it’s just that you have to work for it, going back through a number of minute-long segments that still manage to fit in a fair amount of filler, to find some occasionally charming, dry, British humor. Luckily for completionists, the whole thing isn’t very long so you won’t find yourself having to backtrack through several bookmarks when things go awry as we all did with the books because what do you want me to do, start from the beginning? You start from the beginning. As a bonus for your perseverance, there’s even a special bonus link you can uncover by finding all of the normal endings. It’s something I haven’t seen before and is one of the funnier segments, especially if you get the reference. Unfortunately, judging by the decline in views by that point, with the opening video having 246 views and the secret ending having only 9 at the time of the review, few have decided to stick around long enough to get there.
The Stranger is a fun experiment and it seems like everyone likely had a good time making it but as a viewer, the format doesn’t do it any favors. The inescapable problem any non-linear narrative faces is that you have to invest time and resources into parts of the story that some people will never see. That can be a problem for even the most well-funded projects like Black Mirror, let alone in a case like this where resources are already stretched thin. It’s always interesting to see horror find a footing outside of traditional film and I hope the process of taking on the logistical quagmire of a branching narrative has been insightful to the cast here because the writing shows some bright spots that are just too often snuffed out by its various constraints.