It has been four years since Black Mirror: Bandersnatch disrupted visual storytelling, so what does Netflix have to offer in the way of TV interactivity today?
Ever since Bantam Books launched its “Choose Your Own Adventure” series in the 1970s, people have relished the chance to command protagonists and steer plots. The format happily spilled from page to screen first with video games and later with shows like Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, and it has never been more popular than it is today.
Andy Weil, Vice President, Comedy Series, Netflix says: “The power and importance of choice is what drives their engagement. This narrative framework puts the audience in the driver’s seat”.
The digital shelves at Netflix are now crammed with a melange of titles under this rapidly evolving new genre. Including Bandersnatch, let's look at five of the best:
Although imperfect (thin characters and weak narrative), Charlie Brooker’s Bandersnatch was—and still is—a big deal. About a computer programmer who descends into madness as he develops a branching-path video game in the 1980s, this mind-bending sci-fi special cleverly melded tech and non-linear storytelling.
Bandersnatch was the very first show to facilitate a seamless transition between instantaneous decision points, heralding the dawn of truly sophisticated interactive telly.
Also by Charlie Brooker, Cat Burglar is a gloriously bonkers animated short that invites the audience to answer questions like “What was big in the 1990s—Tamagotchi or Teppanyaki?” These help the eponymous cat burglar Rowdy plunder a museum guarded by a pooch named Peanut.
Cat Burglar is a wonderfully observed love letter to Tex Avery-style cartoons. Trevor Devall (who voices the museum director) grew up with these cartoons and reveals that being part of one “was a great thrill”.
The short offers players an equally rip-roaring time during each unique turn, but unlike Bandersnatch, participation doesn’t involve choices that intentionally influence the narrative. Rather, Rowdy takes a random step closer to his loot with each successful round, while failures see the feline thief croak—likely why Andy Weil explains that Cat Burglar has been mostly popular with “trivia and animation fans”.
You vs Wild
You vs Wild puts the audience in control of a different sort of hero than those in fiction: the one and only Bear Grylls. This interactive, somewhat quizzy spin-off from survival series Man vs Wild sees the daredevil plonked in harsh, hair-raising environments—think frigid mountain pass and scorching desert canyon. Viewers must make important decisions that help Bear make it through each tough experience unscathed (or not).
The true beauty of You vs Wild lies in the opportunity it gives participants to release their inner psychopath, twistedly forcing a real human into perilous scenarios without consequences. Alternatively, they can guide Bear to safety, but, ya know, snooze!
Buddy Thunderstruck: The Maybe Pile
The Maybe Pile is an interactive episode of Buddy Thunderstruck, an outrageous stop-motion comedy series. It follows stunt-driving pooch Buddy and his handyman ferret pal Darnell as they enact some truly nutso plans from their “maybe awesome ideas” bag. Viewers, of course, get the pleasure of picking those ideas.
Each sketch stands alone, meaning there’s no wider narrative at all. This may rub some players the wrong way, as may each decision leading to a similar outcome. For instance, whether the crazy pair scarf down fart-inducing garbage pizza or three caffeinated drinks, a fellow diner customer winds up fuming for one reason or another. The escapades preceding those outcomes, though, are uproarious.
Kimmy vs The Reverend
In the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt interactive special Kimmy vs The Reverend, Kimmy is poised to marry a handsome prince played by Daniel Radcliffe, but after discovering a mysterious “Choose Your Own Journey” book in her talking purple backpack, she must first locate her former captor’s second bunker and liberate the women inside.
Just like the original series, Kimmy vs The Reverend is super witty, and Andy Weil admits that: “Comedy fans loved its myriad of joke-driven choices”. The special is also quirky and charming and goes a step further by placing viewers in control. Decisions bring the story to a prematurely grinding halt, but early “endings” always pivot to a new choice that extends the plot towards the same happily ever after!
What’s coming next?
Trevor Devall thinks TV interactivity will become more common “as technological norms move closer to virtual reality”. Whether or not he's right, it seems Netflix plans to experiment further with this type of content.
Andy Weil states: “We have every intention of continuing to innovate, exploring new ways to interact and unpack a variety of genres. There is much more on the horizon. For example, our new daily trivia series Trivia Quest starts next month. In it, we’ll be exploring not only all the ways a member can make a choice but how choices can do more than move the narrative forward. Watch this space!”.
Featured Image Credit: Courtesy of Netlix
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