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Russian Doll’s Love Letter to Video Games

Charlie Barnett and Natasha Lyonne in Russian Doll.
Charlie Barnett and Natasha Lyonne in Russian Doll. Photo: Netflix

“All right,” Natasha Lyonne’s Nadia Vulvokov says in the opening minutes of Russian Doll, as she surveys a birthday party we’ll come to know very, very well over the next eight episodes. “Let’s make some choices.”

It’s a declaration of intent that would fit just as naturally at the start of Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, another Netflix show that follows a game developer through branching narratives complicated by guilt and grief. Coming on the heels of that Black Mirror special and the bonkers noir thriller Serenity, Russian Doll is the third recent release to map the trappings of gaming onto the reality of trauma. Crucially, though, its superior grasp of how games are constructed and received — both what makes them compelling when done well and what makes them horrifying when they go wrong — allows it to succeed where the others fall short.

In that first scene, Nadia doesn’t know yet that the choices she makes will invariably kill her, triggering a hard reset that takes her back to the bathroom where she started the night. It’s a trope we’ve seen in Groundhog Day and countless genre films since, but the universe of Russian Doll owes more of its structure (and its scares) to games like the ones its protagonist designs. Nadia, like main characters in Bandersnatch and Serenity, is a programmer, and she’s best known for a title that — per her partner in perennial death, Alan (Charlie Barnett) — is nearly impossible to beat. Russian Doll works because it recognizes and re-creates the propulsive appeal and grim satisfaction of clawing your way through a particularly punishing game: You die, respawn, and try again, a little wiser to the dangers of the world than you were the first time (and a little more impatient with the obligatory cutscenes).

These highs and lows will be familiar to players of open-world role-playing games, and the homage appears to be deliberate. In the first episode, Nadia says she works for Rock and Roll Games — a nod to Rockstar, the company behind genre-defining franchises like Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption. GTA V’s Los Santos will kill you as wantonly and as unceremoniously as Russian Doll’s East Village, where car crashes, staircases, and gas leaks all lead Nadia to an untimely end. And that expansive, often hostile environment isn’t the only parallel: Nadia’s ill-fated attempts to retrieve Emily of New Moon before a breakfast with her ex’s daughter essentially function as a “fetch quest” gone awry. It’s exactly the kind of transactional interaction you’d find in an RPG, where delivering the book might improve your standing with the character who put the task on your to-do list.

While Nadia doesn’t live long enough to reap that reward, her endless respawns reveal the influence of another gaming convention. The way conversations unfold recalls the dialogue wheel pioneered by BioWare, a developer renowned for its focus on the relationships between a protagonist and non-playable characters. The wheel allows players to choose how they respond to NPCs (say, by threatening or flirting), whose perception of the protagonist changes accordingly. They might become love interests, allies, or enemies on the basis of those decisions — a system on full display as Nadia veers between anger and affection during recurring back-and-forths with her best friend, Max (Greta Lee), and when Alan tests a range of responses to his soon-to-be-ex, Beatrice (Dascha Polanco). Nadia and Alan, as player analogues, remember how those interactions went the next time they’re rebooted; their counterparts, like any NPCs, are clean slates. Across multiple “playthroughs,” they come to understand those dialogue trees’ limits and learn how to antagonize, persuade, and progress as they intended.

The show mines the accidentally uncanny aspects of gaming for horror, too. The eerie sequences later in the series as partygoers begin to vanish resemble nothing so much as a glitchy game world whose NPCs are behaving badly. When it launched last year, Rockstar’s own Red Dead Redemption 2 had a bug where animals disappeared from the world, followed soon after by any “nonessential” human characters — not unlike the fate of Nadia’s beloved cat, Oatmeal, who blips out of existence early on, a harbinger for the increasingly barren world to come.

What sets Russian Doll apart is that these are more than just superficial similarities. The mechanics are even baked into the characters’ emotional arcs. Just as open-world games throw up barriers until you’re equipped for the next beat in the main story (and inundate you with side quests along the way), Russian Doll’s forward momentum is stalled by Nadia and Alan’s unresolved personal “missions,” forcing them back to the same spawn point until they achieve a breakthrough that’s all the more satisfying because we saw the many figurative “game over” screens that went into getting there.

With Netflix leading the charge on interactive storytelling, it’s fair to expect more Hollywood experiments at the intersection of games and film in the near future. Not all of them will land, of course. Serenity is only interested in RPGs to the extent that they can provide a deus ex machina or an unforeseen obstacle: Its this-is-not-reality twist hand-waves away the kinds of rules by which games are defined. And while Bandersnatch is more conscious of those constraints and how they can be integrated into the story, its branches get away from the creators so that catharsis never comes, generating a narrative that’s self-aware but not quite self-sufficient.

Russian Doll understands these game mechanics — and how they can be applied to human emotions, experiences, and impulses — on a deeper level, and its creators shape the narrative accordingly. The resulting insights into autonomy and trauma feel real and earned, and unlike in Serenity and Bandersnatch, it’s not simply a question of who’s “really” in charge. Nadia and Alan have more freedom in their own lives and less control over others than either one appreciated at the outset. The characters around them have their own needs and desires — innate limits on what they’re able or willing to be to each other — and plying them with gifts or charm will only unlock so much. But there’s a rich, open world for them to explore, if only they can pick up the strategies and do the work that will prepare them for the next phase of their journey instead of forging ahead too soon and finding themselves unable to overcome what follows. For both Nadia and the genre in which her story sits, familiarity with the rules of the world can go a long way, provided you learn from the attempts that have come before.

Russian Doll’s Love Letter to Video Games