The Good, the Bad, and the Netflix of Gamifying TV

TV Features
The Good, the Bad, and the Netflix of Gamifying TV

Netflix is defined by choices, or more specifically our choices: it is what we choose to watch, refracted through the service’s myriad forms of data collection, that decides which shows get renewed, and which don’t. The rise of streaming saw Netflix at the forefront of a new boom in entertainment, and it was lauded as a place where creators could finally take “risks.” Recently though, it feels like we are facing the bitter afterglow of that boom—as the market continues to become more saturated, Netflix’s business model is consistently reaffirming its painfully risk-averse design. This is no longer a landscape defined by experimentation—perhaps it never was—but it is now transparently dominated by metrics and carefully calculated investments.

However, there is one area of innovation where Netflix has been quietly building a small monopoly, and that is interactive content. Whilst Black Mirror: Bandersnatch garnered significant attention upon its release in 2019, it did not usher in a new age of interactive television, but rather a slew of one-off kid’s show specials and trivia games. Type “interactive” into the Netflix search bar and you will be met with such offerings as Boss Baby: Get that Baby! or the deeply frustrating You vs Wild, a show which fundamentally fails to deliver on its premise by not allowing you to kill Bear Grylls. The current state of Netflix’s interactive content belies any real tact or ambition, it’s plainly all just for fun.

Then at the beginning of this year, the service finally dipped its toes back into the realm of interactivity with bank-heist caper, Kaleidoscope. The show’s primary hook was that, barring the finale, viewers could watch any of its color-coded episodes in whatever order they wanted. It sounded like a bold challenge to linear, serialized storytelling; it was proudly proclaimed that there were 40,320 ways in which viewers could experience its story, and yet… audiences quickly realized that none of this mattered if they were all equally hollow and inconsequential experiences, and it didn’t elevate the show to be any more than the sum of its average parts.

However, some critics went further in their critiques, arguing that the show’s use of interactivity wasn’t just gimmicky, but holistic proof of the limits of interactive storytelling. Bandersnatch received similar criticism from those who argued that no matter how successful an interactive show is, it will almost always be inferior to those told with traditional storytelling. There are many factors cited to back up this argument, but perhaps the most incisive was quoted by James Poniewozik in the New York Times, “you want the chef to prepare your dinner, you don’t want to have to cook the ingredients.” Whilst many of their points contain some merit, it’s disheartening to see the complex nuances of interactive storytelling written off so curtly, and it reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the genre’s true complexity and potential.

The dinner analogy elucidates a fascinating question: could an interactive story ever be as good as one where its creators have full authorial control? Interactive fiction practically breaks every rule of great drama—characters are defined by the choices they make, not the ones the audience wants them to. If we could choose for characters like Tony Soprano or Walter White to not be constantly self-destructing with their choices, those shows would not be half as good. Thus, a basic assertion of the argument against interactive storytelling is that with every branching choice, such a story is inherently devalued in comparison to if there was just one. Whatever we may gain in “immersion,” we lose in dramatic integrity and thematic coherence.

However, that argument somewhat ignores the lie at the heart of all interactive stories: the illusion of choice. A core tenet of game design mandates that no matter how much control players seem to have, everything they experience has been meticulously preempted by the game’s designers. Therefore, even in games with layered systems of choice and consequence, there is always a level of authorial control that creators don’t sacrifice. The reason why most interactive content is intended for children is due to the fact they are much more easily fooled by that illusion. Conversely, this is why creating genuinely effective interactive stories for a wider audience is so difficult and why many, including Bandernsatch, choose not to hide the illusion of choice, but have it play a thematic role in the story.

Despite its history, interactive storytelling is still in its nascent form, and whilst it is by no means superior to traditional storytelling, it absolutely has the potential to be just as effective. Games such as The Witcher 3 have proven that interactive stories can strike a beguiling balance between player agency and dramatically coherent storytelling. The choices in The Witcher 3 can affect the story in ways that could prove to be utterly archaic, but its storytelling is so rich and malleable that no one path ever feels like the “right” one. Experiencing a story that is not only impactful in and of itself, but seemingly plays out as a result of your influence, is profoundly satisfying. Of course, making Geralt’s choices for him has the potential to compromise a clear sense of character, but it also gives players the ability to fully align themselves with their protagonist; a concept that is not so alien in traditional storytelling.

Some may argue that videogames are not a suitable comparison for TV, and that it just simply is not practical for the purposes of a passive medium. However, there are lots of TV shows that demand your constant engagement, and there are a lot of games where you can completely turn your brain off. The distinction between interactive storytelling and non-interactive storytelling need not be as blunt as some purport it to be. Games like Her Story and Immortality devote much of their gameplay to players watching video clips, the gaming element merely comes from how you access and rearrange the footage. It’s hardly untenable that such a design couldn’t be re-structured to work more as a piece of television than a game. Coincidentally, Immortality is currently being published through Netflix Games.

Netflix has the unique opportunity to bring this type of storytelling to a wider audience. However, in order to create such effective interactive stories, it requires an unprecedented amount of time, money, and experimentation—three things that are anathema to Netflix. Despite this, it is likely we may see much more interactive content released from them in future, just for more cynical reasons. Pushing the boundaries of storytelling isn’t a high priority for Netflix, but building user data-harvesting into the very DNA of its content, is an offer they simply can’t refuse. Netflix even has a name for the information they garner from their interactive content: they call them “macro themes,” and they have the potential to influence Netflix on every level of creative decision-making. For showrunners, interactive content may be less appealing when the creative demands are so high. But, if adding an ad-hoc interactive element could give their show a better chance of standing out amongst the massive slate of shows Netflix is announcing that quarter, perhaps they might choose to. The future could be bright for interactive storytelling, but we may be on the wrong path for it.

Ewan Shand is a freelance writer and video essayist based in Edinburgh, Scotland. You can follow him @ewanshand27 and you can watch his video essays on his YouTube channel, OurEwan

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