Netflix's Interactive Shows Arrive To Put You In Charge Of The Story

Netflix’s first interactive episode arrives on the service today, giving viewers a chance to shape the narrative through a series of decisions they make throughout the experience. The new episode of Puss in Book: Trapped in an Epic Tale gives users more than a dozen decision points throughout its length, giving young viewers reason to rewatch it several times to explore the branching paths. A second interactive episode, for the children’s show Buddy Thunderstruck, arrives next month. For now, Netflix is calling its interactive episodes an experiment. But if its 99 million subscribers like them, the format could come to the service’s more popular shows — and help bring a new form of interactive storytelling into the mainstream.

First, though, Netflix has to see whether the mainstream has an appetite for it. To begin, the company decided to focus on making interactive shows for children. “Kids are already talking to the screen,” says Carla Engelbrecht Fisher, Netflix’s director of product innovation, who oversaw development of the episodes. “They’re touching every screen. They think everything is interactive.” Children’s exposure to interactive stories in video games and mobile apps has left them with an expectation that TV will behave the same way. Netflix’s experiment suggests that eventually it could — at least in some cases.

To start with, the interactive shows will be available on some modern smart TVs, game consoles, iOS devices, and Roku devices. They won’t be available on the web, Apple TV, Chromecast, or Android devices, at least for now. You’ll use your device’s controller to make a series of choices in the narrative — there are a total of 13 for Puss in Book, and 8 for Buddy Thunderstruck — or, if you wait too long to choose, Netflix will simply choose for you. For each show, the creators created custom illustrations for each choice. “We think it’s important to feel as if it’s of the story world,” Fisher says.

The result is a show with a length that will vary significantly depending on your choices. The shortest path through Puss in Book is about 18 minutes; the longest is 39 minutes. Buddy Thunderstruck’s run time can be as short as 12 minutes and as long as... until your TV stops working, thanks to an infinitely looping narrative that spins out of one of those choices.

The company’s push into interactive entertainment began after Fisher arrived three years ago to work on products for kids. Before that, she had founded the game design firm No Crusts Interactive and worked for Highlights for Children and PBS Kids. Fisher says her work began with one overarching question: what stories can we tell at Netflix that can’t be told elsewhere? “Netflix is an interactive device ecosystem,” she says. “We’re not beholden to terrestrial television. We’re not beholden to linear schedules.”

That led the team to think about interactive storytelling — about whether it could offer a modern, televised version of the old Choose Your Own Adventure series, which sold 250 million copies in the 1980s and ‘90s. The multiple-choice approach to narrative was already the default for video games and educational software. And hit Hollywood movies had also played with branching narratives, from Clue to Sliding Doors to Memento. The fact that interactivity had not yet come to television came to look, from Netflix’s perspective, like a technical problem. And so it set about building.

Netflix approached DreamWorks Animation Television, makers of Puss In Book, and American Greetings Entertainment, which created the Netflix original series Buddy Thunderstruck, about piloting the interactive format. (The interactive Buddy Thunderstruckepisode lands July 14th.) A third interactive episode, Stretch Armstrong: The Breakout, is coming next year.

For Ryan Wiesbrock, the creator of Buddy Thunderstruck, interactive storytelling came naturally. He had previously worked in educational software, which often involves elements of user choice. The question became how to map that format onto Buddy Thunderstruck, a stop-motion animated comedy aimed at boys 6 to 11 that he describes as “Dukes of Hazzard meets Fantastic Mr. Fox.” (Buddy is a dog who races trucks in a small town.)

The writing team settled on a format they call the “string of pearls”: a main spine for the story that branches out to four possible endings. (The result is enough animation for two Buddy episodes.) In a demonstration I saw, the narrative choices resulted in different hijinks for his buddy and his friend without altering the core progression of the story. But Wiesbrock hopes the audience will replay the episode to explore all the alternatives. “We wanted every choice to be as good and as compelling as all the others,” Wiesbrock said.

For adult Netflix viewers, it’s fun to imagine what an interactive episode of one of its most popular series might look like. A House of Cards where you guide Frank Underwood to power — or undermine him? An Orange Is the New Black where you navigate Piper through a prison break? Maybe they would be full of narrative inventions — or maybe they would feel like modern-day full-motion video games, which had a brief moment of popularity as PC games in the 1990s before giving way to animations.

But Netflix is in a competitive moment. Amazon, HBO, Hulu, YouTube, and others are all competing for viewers’ attention — and their subscription dollars. To date, they have competed primarily on the quality of their shows. If Netflix can master interactive programming, it could bring the company a competitive advantage — one that it will take significant resources to match.

In the future, Wiesbrock said he would be interested in making a show in which every episode is interactive. “I’d love to come up with something like this that is interactive from the get-go,” he says. “Where you could be more complex, or offer more choices, or get into some of the mind-bending aspects of it.” Says Fisher: “There are some really awesome possibilities.”

Correction: June 20th, 2:39PM ET: Due to a Netflix error, this article originally described American Greetings Entertainment as the producer of Buddy Thunderstruck. It is the creator.