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As we’ve taken our small-screen destiny into our own hands—skinny bundles, “over the top” content, a device-agnostic smorgasbord of streaming—our hands have become empty, idle. Channel surfing feels futile, if not obsolete. TV is no longer a remote-controlled menu to peruse as much as it’s a Tube Goldberg machine carrying our eyes from one diversion to the next. Choice is everywhere; agency, not so much.
Algorithms forever recommend what to watch. Autoplay functions cue up the next episode without waiting for your input. With nothing left to do but gaze and glaze, a viewer’s chief responsibility is to not fall asleep (lest you wake to find yourself five episodes into an unwitting binge of Hell’s Kitchen). It’s strange, then, given its role as the architect of programmatic passivity, that Netflix is handing back the reins via choose-your-own-adventure experiences it’s calling “interactive content.”
Starting in late 2017, Netflix piloted the idea in a handful of children’s shows, peppering installments of Puss in Boots and Buddy Thunderstruck with moments that asked viewers to pick a prompt: Should Puss kiss Dulcinea or shake her hand? Should Buddy and Darnell have a Wet Willie contest or work out and “get jacked”? The decisions gave you a glimmer of control, but Netflix’s latest ambitions lie more in a Sliding Doors or Clue direction: complex stories for grown-ups that reward their choices with starker consequences.
Netflix’s first concerted push into interactive TV, “Bandersnatch,” aired at the end of 2018. A standalone episode of dystopian sci-fi satire Black Mirror (of course), it told the tale of a videogame designer who tries to adapt a choose-your-own-adventure novel that drove its author insane (oh, of course). Not a fourth wall was left standing. The result, a time-bending existential thriller with terrifying overtones, was twisty and meta enough not to feel like a gimmick. But it’s difficult to imagine another, less shrewd show pulling off such structural contortions.
Not to say they won’t try. As Todd Yellin, Netflix’s vice president of product, told me before “Bandersnatch” premiered, “We’re starting to hear other stories. There’s a rich vein.” Corporate coquettishness aside, more experiences are in the offing—and judging by the company’s prodigious investments in anime, romantic comedy, and other genres, plenty of them.
Netflix knows the value of our choices well. We’re already being prompted to navigate narrative junctures; it’s called “personalization.” We watch shows, so we’re offered new shows. We watch those shows, then learn about still other shows. Each time we bump from one to the next unravels a Boolean knot, an if-then dance of demographics and precedent—who you are, what you’ve watched—that seeks to keep you right where you are rather than discovering the charms of another streaming platform.
Interactive TV may support more insidious ends, though. We’re already on the cusp of relinquishing our subconscious to technology: VR headsets that track our gaze and see our pupils dilate; virtual assistants that read our mood; sneakers that can tell we’re getting tired because our running stride falters. These are reactions, not choices. They don’t have an opt-out feature. And while they might not seem it, our narrative choices add up to a near-biometric signature too, a portrait visible only in aggregate. Do we seek chaos? Play it safe? How long does it take us to select an option about breakfast cereal versus one where we can urge a character to commit suicide? Netflix already famously pores over every byte of viewer behavior data. Now the buttons we choose, the prompts we pick, the tastes they suggest could become part of that great graph that defines how the company sees us. Television in the age of psychographics.
Officially, Netflix sees the interactive option as a “lean in” alternative to the “lean back” nature of conventional TV. But what really changes, experientially? Choose-your-own-adventure storytelling is, at its root, curiosity dressed up as control. By the third time you’ve followed one of the paths in “Bandersnatch” to an arbitrary ending, the only reason to loop back to try another tributary is a completist’s sense of duty. (What’s a watercooler moment when everyone at the watercooler saw only a portion of what’s possible?) When the show finally ends, you feel respect for creator Charlie Brooker’s ingenuity, but you don’t come away feeling changed, as you might after a tightly written, sharply edited, well-constructed hour of television. The more malleable the story, the less cogent the experience.
Videogames, the only real analog for interactive storytelling, have always balanced the trade-off by choosing their illusion, giving players pockets of free will in a straitjacket. You may not affect the outcome in an adventure game like God of War or Red Dead Redemption 2—you’ll get there or you won’t—but navigating the challenges in the story offsets the determinism with a visceral sense of autonomy. (Multiplayer games like Overwatch and Fortnite do away with explicit narrative entirely, baking their lore into the background so as not to interfere with their compete-die-repeat Groundhog Day-ness.)
Netflix’s choose-your-own-adventure content will find its audience—first through novelty, then because creators will tease ever more fireworks out of the form. But interactive TV starts at a disadvantage: It is arriving just as we’ve learned, in so many ways, not to interact at all.
This article appears in the February issue. Subscribe now.
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