In the world of storytelling, the path not taken has always held a powerful interest for the audience. DVD extras contain alternate endings. Fanfiction explores what might have been if the characters had made a slightly different choice. Open world video games and tabletop RPGs invite the player to take control of the story, and the player decisions shape the narrative. So why not movies? Why not shows?
Netflix, streamer of thousands of movies, purveyor and maker of shows, says why not indeed? And who would be more enthusiastic about this new format than kids? Kids these days: they think everything is a screen, they try to swipe book pages. They want to interact and participate, and Netflix is making that possible with new interactive shows Puss in Book (released June 20th) and Buddy Thunderstruck: The Maybe Pile (set to release July 14).
These shows are an experimental push, and if they are well received, we may begin seeing more interactive media on Netflix aimed at an older audience.
How does it work?
Each show has a number of binary choices that can be made at various junctures in the story, such as whether the bears are friendly or mean, whether Puss in Boots should kiss the queen or shake her hand, and whether to fight or make friends with various opponents. Some choices result in the same outcome either way, and some send the story in a new direction, complete with new ending. Anyone who has ever read a story from the Choose Your Own Adventure series, popular in the ‘80s and ‘90s, is familiar with the format, and the writers for Buddy Thunderstruck call the structure a “string of pearls,” in which the character hijinks vary, but the core progression of the story—the string tying it together—does not.
This kind of episode takes significantly more work to write, animate, and produce than a traditional linear story, but promises more entertainment as well: the idea is that the kids can go back and watch it again, making different choices, until they have experienced all of the different story lines and endings.
What could be the future of interactive stories?
The implications of this new-to-tv format are awesome. Anyone who enjoys non-linear story-based video games already knows what I’m talking about. Player/viewer choice does more than increase the entertainment factor: it invites the audience to become a character in the story, and could create a more immersive experience. Think about how much entertainment the audience could get from a single show or movie if the story were even more non-linear than the “string of pearls” model, allowing more than one core story line, and more than two branches from each decision. Of course, the amount of work that would go into a more sophisticated choose-your-own-adventure Role Playing show or movie would be substantial, but so would the market for it.
With competition between media streaming companies at a fever-pitch, those of us excited to see television and movies experimenting with this exciting new structure can’t help but watch with bated breath. May the best media streaming service/production company win!