The concept of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure storytelling isn’t a new one; just ask any ’80s kid who grew up reading the classic book series, where you jumped from section to section based on your own decisions. But Netflix has now evolved the experience off the page and on the screen — taking advantage of the streaming model in new ways for TV storytelling.
The animated young adult series “Stretch Armstrong and the Flex Fighters” recently debuted a special episode titled “The Breakout,” in which the three heroes at the core of the series have to track down a number of escaped villains causing chaos in their city.
“The Breakout” features an impressive voice cast, including Clancy Brown, Yvette Nicole Brown, Gary Cole, Keith David, Will Friedle, Kelly Hu, Walter Koenig, Kate Mulgrew, Wil Wheaton, and Steven Yeun, but more importantly there’s a twist to the action — watch it on your computer or via select devices, and you’re able to choose the direction of the action, leading to a multiplicity of different storylines.
The idea to create the special came from Netflix during a story meeting. According to writers Chris “Doc” Wyatt and Kevin Burke, a Netflix exec mentioned that the company was developing the technology, and asked if the show would be interested in experimenting with it. “We immediately said, ‘Yes!'” Wyatt said. “We were fans of choose-your-own-adventure books growing up. The idea of branching narrative is extremely interesting to us. So we jumped at the chance.”
Added Burke: “We write a lot of shows, but we’re always looking for new ways that people and kids are trying to experience things. Like, how are we getting media today? How are we interacting with media?”
This wasn’t the first time a Netflix program utilized this interactivity. Previously, special episodes of the animated original series “Buddy Thunderstruck” and “Puss in Boots” had implemented it. “But ‘Stretch’ is the first one when we’re doing a two-branching narrative, where you reach different endings and you explore different storylines that you wouldn’t branch back to,” Wyatt said.
“This one was definitely very advanced,” Burke said, adding that “it wasn’t a situation in which you make a half-hour of television and there’s a system. There really wasn’t a system for us story-telling wise… There was a lot of troubleshooting from the script stage, from the beat-sheet stage, all the way to the final product.”
To track the story, a wall in the writers’ office was covered in index cards tracking story beats, connected with yarn — “almost like we were trying to solve a crime,” as Burke explained it. “It was not like any story break we’d ever had, just because there simply wasn’t a linear path. So, in some ways it was fun, because anything we thought could happen, we could write in there and make it happen. You know? And most times you pitch a bunch of ideas and throw out all of them except for one, but in this case we could maintain most of the ideas.”
Thus, while a typical episode of “Stretch” might be around 27 or 28 pages long, the “Breakout” script ended up being “a massive 114-page thing,” Burke said. “Carrying it around was like a phone book.”
It required triple the amount of footage as well: “For a typical 22-minute episode, we ship 2,000 feet of footage overseas to be animated by our animation studio in Korea. And for this episode, we actually shipped 6,000 feet. So we used 3 episodes worth of footage to tell the story,” Wyatt explained.
“Your experience could be from, I believe it’s like 13, 14 minutes is your shortest way to get to an ending, and I think it goes up to about 44 or 45 minutes to play the longest path connecting. And then there’s a lot of variations in between that. So it’s the kind of thing you can spend all weekend doing,” Burke added.
What was important for the team was making sure that no matter what direction the narrative took, it still fit into the continuity of the series, which debuted with 13 episodes last November.
“We wanted it to be an actual story, not a novelty that fit with the continuity of our series. And so we have consequences,” Wyatt said. “We had to do a real dance to negotiate between making a story that would have consequences going forward, and making a story that could have diverse endings.”
There is a linear version of “The Breakout” for platforms that can’t support the interactive technology, though creating it was a bit of a disappointment for the team. “We’d spent so much time creating interactivity that to then have to collapse it back down to a linear was, you know, it was painful,” Wyatt said. “We had to choose the paths that would entail. So we didn’t love doing that because we designed it to be interactive.”
Added Burke, “We never looked at it thinking, ‘There’s one singular path; there’s a better or worse path.’ So when we worked through that version, part of that was for length because it had to be cut to a certain time. Part of that was for, what path can you take where you start to see a glimpse of as many stories as possible? We don’t look at it thinking this is the definitive version; the straight-through version. It’s just more like this is a series of choices that you could make that give you an idea of the overall story, but please go for the interactive, because that’s really where all the exciting content is, and that’s where the fun is.”
One thing both Wyatt and Burke acknowledged was the fact that this technology could be applied to no shortage of other properties under the Netflix umbrella. “It can offer itself to a lot of different shows, and a lot of different types of formats,” Burke said.
“And there’s a lot of story-telling potential in this kind of thing,” Wyatt added. “What [Netflix] was saying to us when we were working on developing this, they feel like when you’re watching the show, you’re sitting on the back of your seat. You’re all the way relaxed sitting on the back of your seat. When you’re playing a video game, and you’re actively engaged with a shooter, you’re on the very edge of your seat sort of constantly. What they wanted to do with this was be in the middle. You’re not relaxed, you’re not leaning forward on the edge of your seat. You’re sort of halfway between those experiences.”
Burke felt that these first interactive experiments have been oriented towards young audiences because “kids are inherently more open to trying something like watching and playing a game or trying a new show that they haven’t seen before. And to some extent, adults will turn on a show they’ve watched. They may not want to actually have to make the choices on it if it’s their favorite show. They may not want to interact.”
But that being said, he did believe that “there’s nothing inherently different about the storytelling technique that would make it be children-based vs. adult-based. Not at all.”
As to the future, Burke and Wyatt couldn’t share details about what Netflix may or may not be developing, but IndieWire did reach out to a few creators with shows that currently stream on Netflix to see what they thought about the possibilities of this technology.
“At this point, I very rarely sit down in front of a TV without two or three other screens happening — phone, laptop. I think we’ve been interacting with shows as we watch them at least since things like live-tweeting and wikis became popular,” “The Magicians” executive producer Sera Gamble said. “I think it’s clever for TV to sort of snatch control of your attention back by providing those extra layers of stimuli and interactivity.”
“The Joel McHale Show With Joel McHale” executive producer K.P. Anderson was a bit more hesitant about the concept of interactive TV. “I’m of two minds,” he said. “The one channeling my cranky father wants my TV shows to find a way to entertain me without me having to draw them a friggin’ map. The writer/producer who loves a challenge thinks it’s a great way to see how many variables can be thrown at me and still manage to turn out a good product. Actually, I’m of three minds.”
Gamble felt that given how “The Magicians” manipulates timelines and the decision-making of its characters, it was “hard to think of a character or storyline that wouldn’t lend itself to that kind of multiple choice storytelling. It would certainly up the craziness, and we do love a big crazy clutter of stories on ‘The Magicians.'”
However, she added, “to be totally blunt, it sounds like it could quickly spiral into an epic shit ton of extra work, and I imagine it could also require a pretty big extra chunk of change. But hey — who doesn’t want to try a new way to tell a story, even and maybe especially if it’s kinda challenging? We got into this line of work to try things out and innovate.”
Anderson, meanwhile, felt that “‘The Joel McHale Show with Joel McHale’ is a kind of interactive show already, because we are in constant reaction to what the world gives us each week. In terms of how we would execute an episode where the audience can pick what they want to see, I guess we’d just have one option where Joel takes his shirt off and another where Pizza Ghost haunts the ‘Vanderpump Rules’ cast and that would pretty much cover what everyone would want to see.”
When asked what kind of programming they’d personally want to see use this tech, Wyatt’s first answer was “Doctor Who”: “If, when I was growing up, if I could have played various endings to a ‘Doctor Who’ episode, I might have liked that.”
In general, Burke noted, “There’s certain things like the horror genre, or the mystery genre or something like that where you have a character that is solving clues and puts together a puzzle. I think they would very much benefit from this sort of storytelling. Where you actually make a decision to try to follow people along. This isn’t necessarily the best thing for an ensemble genre, where you’re just choosing when dramatic things happen, but just if it’s a story like ‘Doctor Who,’ or like a mystery, or even a horror film in which your characters are making choices that’s gonna save the day, or put them into trouble. Like, that would be a lot of fun to interact with.”
“Could you imagine if who shot J.R. changed depending on your choices?” Wyatt said.
“Yes,” Burke replied.
“Stretch Armstrong: The Breakout” is streaming now on Netflix.