Choose-your-own-adventure books are hardly anything new; a childhood staple, the books opened with the main character encountering a crossroads a few pages in and having to choose between two ways their story could continue. But since the character was never decisive, the reader had to take control. It became up to them what journey the character would take, and there was no telling if the story would have the same outcome if different choices were made. (Unless the reader picked up the book again for a re-read.)
Now, the interactive style of storytelling has found its way into a new medium—television. Back in June, Netflix premiered “Puss in Book: Trapped in an Epic Tale,” an interactive episode of “The Adventures of Puss in Boots.” Unlike the series’ regular episodes, the narrative has no set time frame; the episode can be as short as eighteen minutes or as long as thirty-nine minutes. And with more than a dozen coin-flip choices that can appear throughout Puss’ quest to escape the storybook he’s sucked into, the viewer is just as much a part of the story, since their decisions determine how quickly the feline gets back to his adventurous, sword-fighting lifestyle.
The initial idea to produce an episode such as “Puss in Book” was the genius of Carla Engelbrecht Fisher, Netflix’s director of product innovation. Recognizing that the streaming service is an interactive device ecosystem, Fisher rallied her colleagues to explore the possibilities of television interactivity—beginning with the child demographic. “They’re touching everything. They think everything is interactive,” Fisher told “The Verge.” Not to mention kids are inherently curious, and seeing the aftermath of each choice will compel them to replay interactive episodes and experience every alternative storyline.
But while the television concept is sure to delight millions of young viewers, the episodes are not easy to put together. According to “Puss in Boots” writer and producer Doug Langdale, the writing team for the show’s interactive episode needed to keep the events that play out of each dual choice simplistic. “The story has to be able to fork and recombine,” Langdale told “Business Insider.” In order to make sure the episode’s storylines made a 360-degree rotation, the writers created a visual structure—a main spine that branched out into different scenarios before making a turnaround. And with the addition of multiple paths appearing throughout the episode, that meant both the writing and animation teams had double—maybe even triple—duty when it came to creating the navigational content. At least, that was the reality for the teams behind “Buddy Thunderstruck: The Maybe Pile,” the interactive episode for Netflix’s “Buddy Thunderstruck.”
The pressing question, though, is whether all the time and energy poured into developing interactive episodes has paid off. Melissa Camacho, a media theory professor at San Francisco State University, deems “Puss in Book” thoroughly engaging for young children: “Puss’s reactions to reader choices…adds to the amusement…and the interactive nature of the show makes it even more compelling,” she wrote on “Common Sense Media.” “Buddy Thunderstruck: The Maybe Pile” received an equally positive reaction by author Anthony Wendel: “The Maybe Pile wins…it makes you want more by showcasing how much fun can be had with the choose your own adventures style of presentation,” he wrote on “Monkeys Fighting Robots.”
Based on Camacho and Wendel’s acclaim for Netflix’s episodic endeavors, it appears that the streaming service is well on its way to mastering interactive programming. With the bar set so high after only two attempts, viewers are bound to expect all future interactive TV specials to be just as fun and engaging. And they won’t have to wait too long to find out; another Netflix animated children’s series, “Stretch Armstrong & the Flex Fighters,” plans to introduce its own choose-your-own-adventure title in 2018.
However, it still remains unknown how and when the streaming service will incorporate interactivity into adult programming, and whether or not the inclusion will receive the same favorable response. Right off the bat, it seems safe to say that adults won’t cast off interactive episodes targeted at their demographic entirely, if Camacho and Wendel’s praise of “Puss in Book” and “The Maybe Pile” are anything to go by: Just like younger Netflix users, adults seem to enjoy playing puppet master at every fork in an interactive episode, and are intrigued to go back so they can test out the other choices. But children’s television and adult television are nowhere near one and the same, and the interactive element in an adult or young adult series might come across as a drag, as older viewers prefer seeing a series arc play out from one episode to the next.
Granted, that doesn’t mean adults haven’t joked about their favorite Netflix shows getting episode makeovers since the interactivity inception: Casey Newton, an editor at “The Verge,” suggested an episode of “Orange is the New Black” where Piper must be guided through a prison break, while Madeline Buxton, a tech editor at “Refinery 29,” pressed for an episode of “Stranger Things” where the viewer has the choice to bring Barb back to life. Honestly, their ideas are enticing. (Who doesn’t want to see justice for Barb?) But interactive episodes for such shows would take away from the storylines viewers are already so hooked on; and even if the showrunners of “Orange is the New Black” or “Stranger Things” wanted to develop interactive TV specials, they’d have a lot of extra work on their hands.
For now, it seems like interactive television is better left for children’s programming; after all, most kids already believe their TV shows are supposed to be interactive, and that the characters actually need their help so they can reach a certain goal by the episode’s end. But even so, Netflix is determined to experiment with adult interactive episodes in the future, and while there’s nothing wrong with trying, it’s hard to believe interactive adult programming will last.