Red pill, blue pill

Re­ac­tive en­ter­tain­ment comes to Net­flix.

HWM (Malaysia) - - THINK - by Michael Low

In­stead of pas­sively watch­ing a show from be­gin­ning to end, view­ers are given the op­por­tu­nity to in­flu­ence the out­come of the story by choos­ing be­tween two op­tions at se­lected branch­ing points.

Stress comes in many forms, which is why we crave es­capism in dif­fer­ent ways. Some go on dig­i­tal detox hol­i­days in the name of off-the-grid re­lax­ation, while oth­ers un­wind by curl­ing in bed with Net­flix, or catch­ing up on their fa­vorite shows when­ever time al­lows.

The TV land­scape was for­ever changed the day Net­flix en­tered the stream­ing and con­tent pro­duc­tion space with one game-chang­ing move: giv­ing view­ers the free­dom to watch all episodes of Net­flix Orig­i­nal shows at their own pace. That same free­dom and pas­sion for push­ing cre­ative bound­aries re­cently led Net­flix to in­tro­duce in­ter­ac­tive sto­ry­telling into its bur­geon­ing and di­verse con­tent li­brary. The first of what looks to be a promis­ing lineup is Puss in

Book: Trapped in an Epic Tale, pro­duced by Dream­works En­ter­tain­ment and star­ring the lov­able Puss in Boots (of

Shrek fame). In­stead of pas­sively watch­ing a show from be­gin­ning to end, view­ers are given the op­por­tu­nity to in­flu­ence the out­come of the story by choos­ing be­tween two op­tions at se­lected branch­ing points. Think of this as ‘Choose Your Own Ad­ven­ture’ game­book meets in­ter­net TV.

Ac­cord­ing to Dr. Carla En­gel­brecht Fisher, Di­rec­tor of Prod­uct In­no­va­tion at Net­flix, the idea of branch­ing nar­ra­tives was first floated a lit­tle over two years ago. A qual­i­ta­tive re­search study was con­ducted on kids and par­ents us­ing an early pro­to­type to in­spire con­fi­dence in the in­ter­ac­tive for­mat. “Our find­ings

showed that kids are em­pow­ered to be able to se­lect their own story di­rec­tion, while par­ents liked that their child had choices,” added Dr. Fisher.

From there, the stream­ing com­pany ap­proached con­tent cre­ators who yearn to tell non-lin­ear sto­ries, one of them be­ing Ryan Wies­brock, Head of De­vel­op­ment and Pro­duc­tion at Amer­i­can Greet­ings. As the se­ries cre­ator of Buddy

Thun­der­struck, a stop­mo­tion an­i­mated se­ries with an en­tire first sea­son on Net­flix, Wies­brock was ex­cited by the prospect of let­ting the view­ers drive the story with their de­ci­sion mak­ing.

In Buddy Thun­der­struck: The Maybe Pile (avail­able to stream on July 14), view­ers get to de­cide what hi­lar­i­ous stunts the tit­u­lar truck-rac­ing dog and his handy­man fer­ret pal Dar­nell will pull in this self-con­tained side story. “We worked closely with Net­flix through­out the whole pro­duc­tion. Thanks to their toolsets, sup­port, and trust in our vi­sion for the show, we have less lay­ers of com­plex­ity on the tech­ni­cal side to man­age. The en­tire process didn’t feel as lim­it­ing as I ex­pected it to be. Rather, it felt very open ended, to be able to write the strong­est story pos­si­ble, and to make every choice as strong as the other,” said Wies­brock.

Be­hind the scenes, op­ti­miza­tions were made to the data pipe­line, where the adap­tive stream­ing al­go­rithm has to work with mul­ti­ple video streams in­stead of one. As the scrub bar no longer runs on a lin­ear path, a new UI was in­tro­duced to al­le­vi­ate the is­sue.

“Dur­ing our re­search, the kids were a nat­u­ral when in­ter­act­ing with a tablet, but were less sure when faced with the TV screen,” com­mented Dr. Fisher.

This led to the creation of short tu­to­rial seg­ments be­fore the in­ter­ac­tive con­tent be­gins, which helps set the con­text for the de­ci­sion­mak­ing se­quences.

Both Puss in Book and The Maybe Pile also stand out from reg­u­lar con­tent, as they are de­noted by an ‘Un­lock’ icon on the main menu. As the user in­ter­ac­tion is kept sim­ple, the ex­pe­ri­ence is seamless and in­tu­itive, re­gard­less of the de­vice. Dr. Fisher fur­ther en­thused, “I love non-lin­ear sto­ry­telling. For me, there is some­thing fas­ci­nat­ing about en­gag­ing the view­ers, and we’re al­ways look­ing at new ways to tell great sto­ries.”

When watch­ing from a touch­screen de­vice, tap on the left or right page to ad­vance the story in dif­fer­ent di­rec­tions.

Here’s an over­view of the de­ci­sion tree from Buddy Thun­der­struck: The Maybe Pile, where one of the scenes in­volved choos­ing be­tween ‘gain­ing su­per­pow­ers’ and ‘ex­plor­ing the hatch’.

In­ter­ac­tive con­tent like Puss in Book: Trapped in an Epic Tale are de­noted by an ‘Un­lock’ icon.

Ryan Wies­brock, Head of De­vel­op­ment and Pro­duc­tion, Amer­i­can Greet­ings.

Dr. Carla En­gel­brecht Fisher, Di­rec­tor of Prod­uct In­no­va­tion, Net­flix.

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