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Do I really have to choose my own adventure?

Do I really have to choose my own adventure?

Netflix may have overestimated the public’s appetite for interactive storytelling

Netflix may have overestimated the public’s appetite for interactive storytelling

Tim Martin | June 23rd 2017

“Imagine Choose Your Own Adventure books intertwined with internet television,” says the pitch for Netflix’s newest venture, a pair of short children’s films that pause intermittently so that the viewer can choose which way to direct the story. The first of these, which launches today, is “Puss in Book: Trapped in an Epic Tale”, which imagines the smooth-talking Spanish cat from Dreamworks’ “Shrek” films trapped in a magical book and struggling to escape. 

On the evidence of a brief preview and a press conference ahead of launch, this is less an innovation than a revival. Pleasing animation aside, there’s not a great deal in “Puss in Book” that wasn’t in “Dragon’s Lair”, a laserdisc arcade game from the 1980s that played different pre-recorded animations depending on the player’s button input. As they watch the cat’s adventures, children armed with a remote control or a games controller will find themselves in control of the narrative – but only at very specific points. 

According to Carla Fisher, Netflix’s director of product innovation, a representative choice might involve “talking to a giant or going into the story of ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears’.” The second animation, a stop-motion adventure for older kids called “Buddy Thunderstruck: The Maybe Pile” (July 14) presents eight choices and four separate endings. “One of them,” says Fisher cheerfully, “is actually infinite in length because it loops back to the beginning. You can just keep going and going…”

Illusion of choice? Viewers will be guinea pigs

Creators, Fisher claims, “want to tell these stories”; Netflix is merely providing the means. But do the public want to watch them? In a sense it’s an irrelevant question, because, like its competitors Hulu and Amazon, Netflix can afford to experiment. The success of streaming services depends on subscriber numbers, not on ratings for individual programmes, and Netflix users who are busy enjoying “House of Cards” and “Making a Murderer” won’t cancel their subscription because they think “Puss in Book” is a gimmick. This adventure, in every important sense, is chosen for them.

The other side of that coin is that Netflix’s subscribers provide a captive audience to do this kind of testing on. Fisher’s presentation is heavy on optimistic vocabulary about learning: Netflix “love[s] giving members choice”, she says, and is looking forward to seeing “how people are going to engage”. As they go through “Puss in Book”, viewers will be guinea pigs, feeding data back to the great brain in the cloud.

For what it’s worth, the two products look entertaining enough. But one shortcoming is immediately evident. The first commandment of screenwriting is that drama is about characters, and that characters change. Interactivity throws a spanner in the works. If writers don’t know what decisions the user has already made, they can’t accurately gauge the emotional state of a character at any point. “You have to keep it general,” says Doug Langdale from Dreamworks, the executive producer and writer of “Puss in Book”. “Writing this turned out to be almost like writing a sketch show. If you watch the 18 and the 39-minute versions” – that is, taking different paths through the branching narrative – “he’s the same amount of frustrated at the end, even though he’s gone through twice as much. It doesn’t feel weird when you’re watching it, but it feels weird when you’re writing it.”

Even hugely well-funded and well-developed video games struggle with the idea of choice and consequence: allowing decisions the player has made to affect a narrative’s direction or character development requires a vast amount of programming work, and provides endless opportunities for things to go wrong. With notable exceptions, the drift in games is increasingly towards providing large worlds to explore, with narrative and character taking a back seat. If experienced games developers have given up trying to do everything at once, that doesn’t bode well for the nascent genre of interactive TV

Netflix is tight-lipped about whether it plans to roll out choose-your-own adventures for adults, and I can see why: a wholesale lack of character development may work for “Buddy Thunderstruck”, where an example decision asks pre-teen viewers to choose between watching the protagonists eat loads of pizza or drink gallons of espresso, but it’s hard to imagine it working in “House of Cards”. Nor are the signs to date very encouraging: other forms of linear media that have flirted with basic interactivity – “Choose Your Own Adventure” DVDs, interactive ebooks – have notably failed to make a splash. It’s hardly surprising: humans spent thousands of years passively listening to myths and folktales, so we’re hardwired to appreciate a traditional beginning, middle and end. I suspect the days of relaxing in front of the TV may not be over just yet.

Puss in Book available now on Netflix

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