In Going Interactive, Netflix Relearns Lessons From The Past

In Going Interactive, Netflix Relearns Lessons From The Past

Roberta Williams was used to choosing her own path. Not only was she a woman in the male-dominated world of video games – she was arguably the creator of the action-adventure genre, and her pioneering work on the King's Quest series by Sierra On-Line – the company she and her husband Ken founded in 1979 – had re-imagined what storytelling could be. She'd taken Grimm's Fairytales, combined it with pixelated graphics and a logic tree and created a form of interactive storytelling that would be the foundation for Sierra's success.

By the early 90s though, Roberta was ready for something different. She knew interactive storytelling had the capacity to deliver more compelling narratives. The rise of CD-ROMs suddenly meant PC-games could contain infinitely more data than they had the decade prior. When that growth in file storage paired with improvements in green-screen video capture, First Person Video (FPV) was born. Roberta would utilize this emerging interactive video technology to create “Phantasmagoria” – an interactive horror film, released for the PC in August of 1995.

No longer would the player control an animated icon on the screen. Instead, the player watched a film and made choices for the protagonist – where to go, who to speak to and what to ask them. The player collected items and could share them with other characters in the film to see their reactions. You were no longer the passive witness of the film – you were the one solving the mysteries and driving the action.
Phantasmagoria showed the amazing potential of interactive filmmaking. However – it also showed many of its pitfalls. Originally planned for release in late 1993, Phantasmagoria took over two years to produce. At nearly 550 pages, the script was almost 4x the length of a normal film script due to all the possible dialog trees that can exist in a world where the player has free-will. As such, an original budget of under a million dollars ballooned to over $4.5 million.

Even with all that time and budget, Phantasmagoria still suffered from many of the clichés of both action-adventure and FPV games. As the action of the film is driven by your own participation, if you get stuck on a particular issue, you can find yourself grasping at straws, showing every character in the game every inventory item you have - asking them about any topic the game will allow. Because you can theoretically ask any character about anything, more often than not the response given is an oft-repeated variation of “I don't know anything about that.” Combine those frustrating dead-ends with the less than top-caliber acting talent and it's easy to see why FPV games didn't last long. For every promising piece of mid-90s interactive storytelling like Phantasmagoria, Under A Killing Moon, or Gabriel Knight: The Beast Within – there were dozens of other poorly produced titles that quickly banished FPV to the discount bins and nearly killed the action-adventure genre in the process.

The problem with interactive films is that a solid storyline can only be so fluid. If your goal is to tell a story, how can you truly give free-will to the viewer? What's provided instead is the illusion of control – the feeling that you have choices, even if all paths lead to the same destination.

It's this premise the Netflix series Black Mirror explores so well in the interactive episode Bandersnatch. Don't worry, I won't provide any spoilers here, but the general plot of the episode involves a young man with a combined interest in video game programming and choose-your-own-adventure books. At various points in the episode a menu is presented to the viewer that provides two options. The choice the viewer makes then informs the rest of the scene. This ranges from mundane instances like choosing which music you'd like to play on your Walkman, to key decision points in the storyline of the episode.

While Bandersnatch is certainly enjoyable and a fun proof-of-concept of a potential differentiator for Netflix and other streaming services from traditional cinema, they somewhat skirted around the key issue with the interactive storytelling genre – the genuine lack of real choice and consequence – by making that part of the plot. The question is how this technology could be used to tell a story that doesn't acknowledge the interactivity itself. Can a compelling story be told, in which the user can genuinely affect the storyline with their choices?

One genre where this is happening particular well these days is back in video games. Rockstar Games' latest effort Red Dead Redemption 2 tells the story of a band of outlaws during the final days of the old west – and as the main protagonist Arthur Morgan, the player has a good deal of free-will to determine what type of person he will be. The game incorporates a rating system – negative actions such as robbing someone lowers that rating, while positive actions like helping a stranger or petting a dog will increase it. This rating acts as your reputation and the actions you take and the way you treat people reverberates throughout the game. Return to a town where you previously committed a crime, and random passers-by will question “haven't you done enough already?” Walk into a local business and the proprietor might remark, “didn't expect you'd show your face around here again.” While the storyline still progresses much the same, the experience each player has is most certainly unique to their choices – and the game even provides alternative endings based on those decisions. The open-world nature of video games also allows you to explore a huge landscape as you wish, often coming across side-quests and unique storylines that have nothing to do with the main narrative. I'm still trying to figure out where Gavin went….

It is estimated it takes over 60 hours to complete the story of Red Dead Redemption 2. That is the type of time investment video games can garner, but far beyond the level of commitment your average Netflix binge-watcher is likely to invest. Finding a happy medium between interactivity and entertainment is challenging. However, that doesn't mean providing choice is a bad thing – even if those choices are limited. For example, many streaming video services offer viewers the choice of which commercials to watch. While this doesn't affect the outcome of the content, it does no doubt engage the viewer more with the marketing that pays for that content. By choosing to watch a car commercial versus a soap ad, the viewer gets some small satisfaction in having free-will, and the marketers know they're getting a slightly more qualified lead.

The company I founded 15 years ago is called The Interactive Dept. I named it that because in the early days of the company we primarily developed Flash websites which were highly interactive. Borrowing from years playing those Sierra On-Line video games, I loved creating environments that users could explore. Discovery is the key to learning. Simply telling someone something isn't nearly as impactful as letting them come to that “ah ha” moment themselves. Flash websites – the good ones at least – allowed users to really explore, whereas most websites these days have become far more structured, and frankly, boring.

At The Interactive Dept. we've recently been playing with alternative interfaces for mobile websites that bring back a lot more interactivity. Rather than providing the user with your standard landing page and site navigation – we engage the user with a few choices and make their experience on the site unique based on that feedback. In addition to making a mobile website feel more like an app, customizing the experience based on real-time customer choices helps to streamline your messaging and define unique sales funnels for customers to take. Measuring the responses customers have to specific questions/prompts provides us with far more data about customer preferences than looking at page views in Google Analytics.

In addition, we've also been exploring how interactivity can be used in education and training with emerging technologies like VR and AR. We've been playing with some cutting-edge VR tools by Techolution that allow you to easily create VR environments and embed prompts throughout the space. While currently VR tools are being used primarily to sell real-estate, the potential here for training and all forms of education is immense. For industries like construction or security where many hours of training have to occur before an employee can even step foot on the job site, the ability for someone to interact with that environment and explore and make choices in that virtual space is a game-changer.

I'm hopeful this isn't the end of interactive Netflix. While the pitfalls of interactive storytelling are deep, I still feel the potential to convey a story that the viewer “discovers” themselves is immense. I'm hopeful creative filmmakers will look for non-hokey ways of interacting with the viewer and eventually produce a piece of work that upon completion the viewer feels fulfilled – not immediately going back to explore all the other paths that could have been – but satisfied with the story they discovered.