Netflix has always been at the forefront of online video tech. It's been a pioneer in streaming HDR and in streaming 4K, in offline viewing and data saving. Its most recent launch, though, is pioneering something very different: an interactive, choose-your-own adventure episode of Puss in Boots that lets kids decide how the TV show's storyline unfolds.
In Puss in Book: Trapped in an Epic Tale, Netflix teamed up with Dreamworks to create a one-off, specialised 23-minute episode of TV that has a series of branching storylines. If you're on an iPhone or iPad, or what Netflix calls "TV experiences" — smart TVs and game consoles — you'll be able to use your TV remote or console controller to choose one of two different narrative options at up to a dozen different points within the episode.
Kids are able to prompt Puss to choose between wishes from a genie, to kiss an evil queen or give her a handshake, and so on — every choice within the branching narrative is fun, but has also been written to be equally interesting with no clear preferred storyline. Netflix is going into uncharted territory here; it's done focus testing that shows that kids love the concept, but it doesn't quite know exactly which options in Trapped in an Epic Tale they'll choose, and whether they'll come back and try again.
New viewers are taught exactly what to do at that start of the episode, too: Puss breaks the fourth wall and talks to whoever's watching, saying that this is a very special experience, and that kids will have to hang on to the TV remote or PlayStation controller throughout the story, with prompts on when to flick left or right to choose one of the two options. Each interaction is timed, too, so if no input is made a default choice will be selected to push the story along.
Writing and producing an interactive title, Netflix says, takes somewhere around twice as much effort as a regular episode. Around 40 minutes of content was created for the 20-minute show, and Dreamworks' writers had to put in much more time and effort to craft a story line that had choices, but still followed an overarching theme throughout — and that could also loop in on itself at one or more point throughout the episode to simplify viewing and maximise the time that kids were interacting.
A second title — Buddy Thunderstruck: The Maybe Pile, based on the Netflix Original series Buddy Thunderstruck — will be out on July 14. Netflix says it's excited by the prospect of bringing the interactive narrative style and technology to adult titles, but wants to use these launch TV shows to see how its viewers actually interact with the choose-your-own-adventure titles, and whether they interact with them at all — on non-iOS and TV-style platforms, the episode will play out in a linear fashion.
Half of all the Netflix accounts around the world watch kids' content, so this isn't just some niche experiment that the world's largest streaming movie and TV provider is trying out. Netflix accounts are trying out kids' content at a faster rate than more accounts are being added, too — so there's plenty of growth potential for the company to continue its interactive narrative development even if it keeps it squarely within the realm of children's programming.
Netflix has experimented with videos that were more than just traditional, lean-back entertainment in the past. Kong: King of the Apes in 2016 had achievements that popped up as you viewed, and certain videos could only be watched if you'd unlocked them by watching others in the series. This kind of gamification is popular in the mobile world, but Netflix's experiments show that kids found programs with it integrated funnier and more rewatchable, and parents were more likely to recommend them. [Netflix]
Gizmodo travelled to Los Gatos, California as a guest of Netflix.