Netflix’s interactive experiment is (a) Good (b) Bad

In Jorge Luis Borges’s short story The Garden of Forking Paths, a book is described that contains all possible outcomes of every event. “In all fiction, when a man is faced with alternatives he chooses one at the expense of the others,” explains the narrator, adding that, in this strange, labyrinthine book, the writer chooses not one possibility, but all of them. “He thus creates various futures, various times which start others that will in their turn branch out and bifurcate in other times.”

The executives at Netflix may or may not (probably not) have discussed Borges’ story in a recent board meeting, because there have been reports that the company plans to experiment with choose-your-own-adventure TV shows. The idea is that viewers will be able to make choices during the runtime of a show, directing characters down one forking path and not another. Should the hero run or stay? Should they trust their enemy? Should they kiss their friend? Slap them in the face? All are possible.

I reached out to Netflix to clarify whether or not these reports were true. The company told me it first introduced interactive elements to kids series, Kong, in April 2016, and that it will “continue to experiment in this format to learn more about what our members enjoy”. From the sounds of it then, more interactive shows will be coming.

The same week, news surfaced that a branching narrative-style film, Late Shift, will be making its way onto PS4 and Xbox One, after previously being released as an iOS app for Apple TV. In a plot that isn’t a million miles away from 2015’s Victoria, the movie follows Matt, a student from London who gets caught up in a robbery. Instead of sitting back and watching Matt’s exploits, viewers/players will have to choose between a series of binary choices to direct his actions. There are apparently 180 decisions to make over the four-hour runtime, leading to one of seven possible endings.

Late Shift’s release on PS4 and Xbox One is a telling sign of the inherent game-ness of choose-your-own-adventure stories. The actors might all be human, the camerawork all done by cinematographers, but the result is more of a game than a film. Indeed, full-motion video (FMV) was once a popular medium for game developers. When PCs and consoles started using CD-ROMs in the early 1990s, it became technically possible to store more than few seconds of video in a game. This led to a slew of (generally terrible) games that combined filmed actors with interactive scenes.  

FMV games such as Phantasmagoria, Sewer Shark and the infamous Night Trap were not known for their high production values, and the technique faded into obscurity by the end of the decade. The style has had a slight return in the shape of Sam Barlow’s 2015 game Her Story, which is structured around filmed footage of police interviews, but the industry has generally steered clear of using video in favour of computer-generated scenes and characters.

The most recent precedent to Late Shift, and perhaps an indication of where Netflix will go with their interactive experiments, is Supermassive Games’ Until Dawn. Also released in 2015, the survival horror follows a group of teenagers in a remote cabin, under attack by a psychopath. While there are minimal point-and-click elements, the bulk of the gameplay is made up of branching choices. Depending on what you choose to do throughout the narrative, either all, some or none of the eight characters will be alive when the curtain closes.

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(Above: Until Dawn, which starred Mr Robot’s Rami Malek)

Like many choose-your-own-adventure stories, there is a fine balance in Until Dawn between giving players actual control over the story, and giving them the illusion of control over the story. Making an actual Garden of Forking Paths is totally impractical (pity the actors, let alone the writers), so branching stories tend to divert and converge. Sometimes it is enough for the player to feel that their decision has consequences, even though it doesn’t actually change all that much in the story. This is something Telltale mastered with The Walking Dead, with messages that flash up informing you characters will “remember” what you have done – regardless of whether it actually impacts future events. See also Don’t Nod Entertainment’s Life is Strange.

Here is the appeal of branching narratives, and why they can offer something different from standard TV: regret. When you feel that you, personally, have directed the course of action, and when those events inevitably spiral out of control (how boring would a show be if everything went well for the character?), the presiding feeling will be regret, guilt, culpability. How would a show like Happy Valley, for example, work if you felt like your own decisions had led to a victim being abducted – even if the writer knows it would have happened regardless? That, handled well, could be a powerful tool for a storyteller.happy_valley

(Above: Happy Valley)

There are of course many reasons why it is a bad idea. Video games already exist, and some are doing infinitely more complex things with agency and consequence, so why import these techniques into a medium that many associate with watching, not performing? On the other hand, letting audiences make directorial decisions runs the risk of devaluing the currency of character-led drama. Mad Men would be absolutely terrible if viewers could decide whether or not Don Draper cheats on Betty. Compared to the nuanced, implicit decisions expressed by actors, the explicit, life-or-death stakes signposted in Until Dawn and The Walking Dead look infantile.

Who has time for Netflix and infinity?

In Borges’ story, the novel that contains all possibilities remains incomplete – no wonder, as it contains an infinite amount of temporalities. Who has time for Netflix and infinity? Even a few branching paths may be too much for viewers who want to sit in their pyjamas and watch half an hour of something innocuous. Perhaps YouTube, with its network of interlacing links, is better suited. Perhaps the whole thing is an ill-advised attempt to cater to a generation of audiences accustomed to screen-based interaction. Perhaps it will be brilliant. I don’t know. I guess it depends which path they take.

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