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Netflix experimenting with interactive children’s programming


The concept of “Choose Your Own Adventure” stories have been around for ages and in many forms. In books, it was always, “Turn to page 32” to run from the monster, and in those 90s FMV CD-ROM games, it was click on a button to direct whatever B-celebrity the studio had to do some insane stunt on a bad green screen. Today we have high-profile adventure games like Life is Strange and The Walking Dead that touts the idea of “choices matter” to affect the story.

Now Netflix wants to bring the “Choose Your Own Adventure” to your streaming devices. In what Netflix calls “branching narratives,” viewers can determine the path of a story and how it unfolds. They’ve planned for three interactive children’s shows going into early next year.

The first Netflix branching narrative debuted on June 20. Netflix partnered with DreamWorks Animation to create an episode of The Adventures of Puss in Boots with the interactive feature. Entitled “Puss in Book: Trapped in an Epic Tale,” the episode has 13 different storyline choices and 2 different endings. A second interactive show will be an episode of Buddy Thunderstruck, which will be released on July 14 and feature 8 storyline choices. Finally, a branching narrative episode of Stretch Armstrong will be released sometime next year.

The interactive shows are structured so that in certain points of the story, the viewer will be presented with a choice in what direction the narrative should go. You select the option with your input device, be it a touch screen, TV remote, or game controller. Choices are set to a timer, so if you do not select one, the show will choose one for you.

The length of an interactive episode can vary depending on your choices. “Puss in Book” can last anywhere from 18 to 39 minutes. The branching paths can also put extra work on the show creators. The interactive episode of Buddy Thunderstruck has 4 possible endings and enough animation for 2 full-length episodes.

With only 3 planned features, the branching narrative concept is currently only an experiment. Netflix will be monitoring what choices will be most selected and how often an episode will be rewatched to see the different paths of the story. If the format proves to be popular, Netflix will consider bringing it to other shows, not necessarily limiting it to just kid’s shows.

“The children’s programming space was a natural place for us to start since kids are eager to “play” with their favorite characters and already inclined to tap, touch and swipe at screens,” said Carla Fisher, Director of Product Innovation at Netflix. “They also talk to their screens, as though the characters can hear them. Now, that conversation can be two-way. It’s really about finding the right stories – and storytellers – that can tell these complex narratives and bring them to life in a compelling way.”

Netflix’s branching narratives will be available on most streaming devices, including most smart TVs and iOS. The interactive shows are not currently supported through web browsers, Android devices, Chromecast, and Apple TV. Playing an interactive show on an unsupported device will simply play a default linear version of the show without the choices included.

This will be an interesting experiment for Netflix. We might actually see an HD (or even 4K) revival of those cheesy 90s CD-ROM games. Could you imagine Night Trap on Netflix? Okay, maybe not that one.