Netflix’s Attempt at Gaming Is Awkward As Hell

Netflix’s Attempt at Gaming Is Awkward As Hell
Photo: Brianna Provenzano/Gizmodo

Today, after months of reading and writing about Netflix’s highly anticipated, if bizarre, foray into gaming, I finally stretched my hands out like a cartoon character and sat down with my iPhone to see what all the fuss is about — and to get a better idea of what the most popular streaming platform in the world sees its role in the gaming space as being.

As an iOS user, I had to wait my turn; Android users were first able to download the new games from the Google Play Store on Nov. 2, which was also the day a new ‘Games’ tab showed up within the Netflix app on their phones. Those in the Apple ecosystem have to download the games in a similarly roundabout way, but in our case, it’s because Apple has strict policies that require games to be downloaded as standalone entities from the App Store.

Stranger Things 3: The Game (Photo: Brianna Provenzano/Gizmodo) Stranger Things 3: The Game (Photo: Brianna Provenzano/Gizmodo)

Just in case you’re curious, the five new games do seem eminently playable. Stranger Things: 1984 is a cutesy 8-bit RPG that does a good job of capturing the charm of the hit show itself (“Looks like I picked a bad day to quit smoking,” a tiny pixelated Jim Hopper laments when you tap on his ashtray in the game’s first scene). Stranger Things 3: The Game, which was actually first released in 2019 to mixed reviews, is there too; the other three games are not pegged to anything specifically Netflix-branded but are still fun in the way that getting a ball in a hole or playing cards can be fun when you’re trying to pass the time on public transportation.

But the fact that the games are pleasant isn’t necessarily a surprise. When Netflix acquired Night School Studio, the indie game developer that’s known for having a couple of cult classics under its belt, back in September, it was a good sign that the platform had its finger on the pulse of the gaming scene and wanted to nail the kind of narrative gaming it had set out to produce. In reality, the more compelling question has always been less ‘Are these games good?’ and more so, ‘What are they doing here in the first place?’

Stranger Things: 1984 has charmingly retro 8-bit graphics (Photo: Brianna Provenzano/Gizmodo) Stranger Things: 1984 has charmingly retro 8-bit graphics (Photo: Brianna Provenzano/Gizmodo)

While Netflix is still the undisputed king of streaming, it’s obvious that the platform has been having some anxieties about how to hold onto its crown — particularly as it watches relative newcomer Disney+ charge into its lane, threatening to supplant it by 2024. Netflix has market share to protect and shareholders to appease, after all; the company isn’t going down without a fight. But what has sprung forth from the platform in recent months has been nothing short of an unstemmed tide of efforts to set itself far afield of its streaming counterparts that, to put it bluntly, reek of desperation and are weird as hell.

In fact, Netflix’s strategies to shore up subscribers in 2021 seem like they could fit pretty comfortably into two buckets, both of which are what I’m sure executives imagine very cool young people want: Have Games and Be TikTok. Back in March, the platform unveiled “Fast Laughs,” the TikTok-like infinite scroll feed that serves as a highlight reel of the platform’s comedy offerings. Just one day before its games debuted on iOS, Netflix also announced that it was testing a “Kids Clips” feature that will ostensibly help to expose young viewers to its vast library of children’s content.

Everyone loves video games, but no one is going to subscribe to a streaming service just so they can play Shooting Hoops, a game that is, for some reason, not actually about basketball, but about getting a tiny basketball with a gun on the end of it into a hoop. That’s putting aside the fact that you have to download the games separately; you can’t simply stream them directly within Netflix.

Everyone loves TikTok, but no one wants to use an endless scroll feature embedded within the Netflix mobile app to watch 15-second clips of funny moments from the platform’s shows. I feel like I can see the beads of sweat forming on Netflix’s brow, and it’s making me uncomfortable.

You know where Netflix should really be ramping up investments? Its international programming offerings, where the platform has seen promising successes this year both in its adoption of more Africa-centric and African-produced programming and with Squid Game, the South Korea-produced undisputed runaway hit. But honestly, what do I know — I’m not a CEO, I’m just an idiot addicted to Shooting Hoops.

Netflix’s new games — Stranger Things: 1984, Stranger Things 3: The Game, Shooting Hoops, Card Blast, and Teeter Up — are now available for current subscribers on Android and iOS.