Netflix goes out on a limb with its first 'branching' story
Netflix won’t let you pick an ending for "Stranger Things" anytime soon, but its first interactive video, "Puss in Book," lets kids choose their own adventure.
Joan E. SolsmanFormer Senior Reporter
Joan E. Solsman was CNET's senior media reporter, covering the intersection of entertainment and technology. She's reported from locations spanning from Disneyland to Serbian refugee camps, and she previously wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. She bikes to get almost everywhere and has been doored only once.
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Watch this: Netflix launches 'choose your own adventure' video
After Netflix spent years perfecting tricks to perpetuate your hands-free binge watching, now it wants you to hold the remote and click again.
Actually, not you -- your kids.
Netflix on Tuesday is rolling out its first-ever interactive video with "branching" story lines, moments in the tale when you pick which plot path to follow. And it's going after the same kids audience as those "Choose Your Own Adventure" books of old, starting with "Puss in Book: Trapped in an Epic Tale," a cartoon based on the Puss in Boots character from Dreamwork's "Shrek" universe.
"Puss in Book: Trapped in an Epic Tale" launches globally Tuesday, and Netflix's second foray into interactive TV comes July 14 with "Buddy Thunderstruck: The Maybe Pile," which Netflix made with American Greetings Entertainment and Stoopid Buddy Stoodios, the creators behind "Robot Chicken." A third, "Stretch Armstrong: The Breakout," is planned for next year.
Netflix isn't the first tech company to tackle interactive online videos, but it's the biggest. With more than 100 million subscribers, Netflix is giving interactive TV its best shot at reaching a wide audience. But for a company that prides itself on making viewing as effortless as possible, introducing interactivity meant starting from scratch. By sticking with kids content, Netflix is trying to keep its interactive experiments dead-simple.
And even that was complex.
"I don't think anyone else had the whole story in their head," Doug Langdale, the writer and executive producer of "Puss in Book," said in an interview on Friday. "I spent a lot of time saying 'Trust me it'll work, it'll make sense.'"
"Puss in Book" offers 13 "A-or-B" choices, with the possibility for two endings. Carla Engelbrecht Fisher, director of product innovation at Netflix, ballparked the number of story combinations somewhere around 3,000.
Going out on a limb
A project more than two years in the making, Netflix's dive into interactive video meant rethinking multiple aspects of how the service has trained its members to behave.
"One of the things we found pretty quickly was folks are used to … 'I press play, and put the remote control down, and I just lean back,'" Fisher said in an interview. "We actually need them to hang on to the remote control, we don't want it lost in the couch cushions."
The company is adding a brief tutorial at the beginning of each interactive title, that "just literally tells them to hang on to the remote," she said.
With nonlinear stories, fast-forward and rewind don't make much sense anymore, so the company decided to let viewers jump back and forth between the branch points in the story, like chapter markers. In contrast with the gear symbol everybody's learned that means "tap here for settings," the tech-using public doesn't have any idea what kind of icon suggests "this video will put you in the director's seat." So Netflix invented one: a red-and-yellow badge that looks like a padlock. (The company is still playing with that, Fisher said.)
At launch, the interactive titles will be available on most TV experiences as well as iOS devices. But it won't be available on Apple TV, Chromecast, Android devices or Netflix's website.
Even in keeping its interactive tools as simple as possible, Netflix still found the stories it made wildly complex.
Interactive online videos have been around for years. After YouTube's 2008 introduction of interactive annotations, spots on the video screen that could link to a different video, creators on the platform hacked together a rash of interactive quiz shows and gamified stories over the next couple of years.
Smaller companies, like startup Eko, have made a business out of honing the format, producing some complex films in the process. "Possibilia," for example, pulls viewers along all the possible ways a couple's breakup spat could play out. Starring Alex Karpovsky from "Girls" and Zoe Jarman from "The Mindy Project," the video lets the viewer toggle between branches of the same fight, which takes on silly, passionate or pissed-off overtones depending on the iteration you follow. The two characters crowd the house with their story lines, in a clever loop that eventually simplifies to two people sitting quietly across from each other before starting the cycle all over again.
Companies like Eko tend to disdain the "Choose Your Own Adventure" analogy for what they do, but in Netflix's case, that was exactly the trope the company was gunning for. The creators consciously chose to make the decision splits central to the arc of the story, Langdon said.
"It's got to be an emotional moment where the character has to choose or it won't feel like you've got a reason to get to that choice point," he said. "It's a crisis every two or three minutes."
So when will I choose my own "Stranger Things" ending?
Netflix wouldn't give any hint about when, if ever, interactive TV would be coming to programs catering to adults.
Children's programming was a natural place to start "since kids are eager to 'play' with their favorite characters" and already inclined to tap, click and talk at their screens, Fisher said in a blog post announcing the launch.
But before Netflix entertains the notion of letting you control parallel universes in "Stranger Things" or "House of Cards," it wants to find out what happens when its first forays into interactivity are unleashed.
Netflix is excited to see how its "power members" are engaging with this new format, Fisher said in the interview.
"Ultimately this is about telling great stories, and so from here we will see what stories our creators want to tell," she said. "We'll go from there."
It's one choice Netflix is holding onto that it will make itself.
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