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Business News/ Opinion / Should TV be interactive? (Read for yes, skip for no)

Last month, Netflix debuted some original content two years in the making. This was accompanied by uncharacteristically little fanfare. An extension of DreamWorks’ animation Puss In Boots series—originally voiced by Antonio Banderas—the film is called Puss In Book, where the cat in shoes finds himself trapped within a book. The twist here is that the viewer gets to choose what happens next—whether Puss has to fight a god or fight a tree, for instance—and the story proceeds based on where you click.

This is the modern-day remote-control version of the Choose Your Own Adventure storybooks we encountered as children, and I remember sending my heroes down increasingly imperiled paths to see the villains win. In my case these were mostly G.I. Joe or Three Investigators books, though I remember once sending a significantly ill-equipped Doctor Who to battle far too many Daleks. These didn’t make for very good reading, but storytelling issues were compensated for by something most plot-driven adventures didn’t have: repeat value. I went back to see just what would happen if I chose to attack Cobra Commander head on, or hid in the bell tower past midnight. Or if heroes could be villains.

Netflix followed up Puss In Book with Buddy Thunderstruck: The Maybe Pile—the ingenious set-up involves a truck-racing dog sifting through a “maybe" pile to decide what comes next, making random choices inherently a part of the premise—but this, too, is not something I would recommend to an imaginative child. It isn’t particularly clever or challenging—an imperative requirement for the highly competitive 7-plus marketplace—though children who already like Puss or Buddy might be as amused as I used to be by books that let me decide what Snake-Eyes does next.

Given that children are used to touch screens and routinely end up pressing on television sets (and their parents’ laptops), even the basic power to make decisions—and click on things—should feed right into their shortening attention spans.

The format, unsurprisingly, works. It is a primitive two-choice algorithm that is executed simply enough via your television remote or your smartphone, and while these current animations can be looked on as novelties, they feed directly into the grand Netflix objective of making us watch more hours by making us watch hours again. Producers have tried interactive content before—there are YouTube videos that let you choose, very primitively, what bits of the video to watch next—but the integration in this Netflix experiment is seamless. This means there is now the potential to create truly groundbreaking interactive storytelling that could change the way we watch television.

Imagine, if you will, an episode of Better Call Saul where you can choose just how warped lawyer Jimmy McGill gets: Should he embrace the law-firm opportunity he has craved for so long or should he go ahead and become a grifter with a stolen name? The idea of exploring a character as fascinating as the one played by Bob Odenkirk is incredible even if the choices eventually circle back to the same place. For the running time of two extra episodes and some cunning storytelling choices, showrunner Vince Gilligan could create a season you would watch three times over.

The what-if concept isn’t the only way ahead. Revolutionary shows like Lana and Lilly Wachowski’s recently cancelled Sense8—about eight individuals around the world who are mentally and emotionally linked—could potentially push the envelope in even more thrilling directions by allowing the viewer to construct their own episodes, switching from character viewpoint to character viewpoint and experiencing something unique in a manner similar to changing camera angles on a sporting broadcast. Every roulette-spin of a viewing is new and exciting.

Since the Netflix interactivity experiment began with animated shows, how about grown-up ones getting into the mix? In a perfect world, creator Adam Reed—who appears to be disinterested in making more seasons of Archer after the 10th one next year—could script an Archer “film" that could run from 22 minutes to 90 minutes based on the choices you make (and knowing Sterling Archer, I expect us all to make some highly dubious ones), and we would play it like a beloved video game, over and over. The mind boggles as to what Raphael Bob-Waksberg would do with a similar brief for BoJack Horseman—the best show on TV right now—but it would certainly be special.

Or at least—herein lies the catch—we already believe it would. It’s not anywhere close to happening, but I find myself smacking my lips at the possibilities and sensing some of you are poised on equally unsubstantiated flights of fancy. We’ve bought in and we want more. Like the children letting Puss In Boots muddle through something basic or pre-teen me making sadistic decisions for Doctor Who, we television junkies are as susceptible to the idea of endless variations on themes we have decided we already love. This is what makes interactive television such a smart idea for a creator like Netflix: We have gladly invested our time and trust—to a series, a character, a premise—and now we can keep diving in, logging in more and more Netflix hours on something we’ve already seen, albeit in a (slightly) different shape.

The possibilities are intoxicating—creators adding little character revelations that, once chosen and glimpsed, give us an entirely different point of reference for the show, or alternate endings becoming a part of the storytelling—but I should stop hypothesizing. Here’s one last glimpse of this future, though: If we’re very lucky, David Lynch will get to play with all our heads while making us think we’re the ones choosing.

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Updated: 28 Jul 2017, 12:16 PM IST
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