Red pill, blue pill
Reactive entertainment comes to Netflix.
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.