This Netflix innovation won’t have a happy ending

By Adam Westbrook 8 March 2017

It's a story that's all too predictable.

The news is as predictable as an episode of Hemlock Grove.

Netflix is apparently working on technology to allow viewers to choose how episodes of their favourite TV shows will end.

We’ll be given on-screen options about a decision Frank Underwood must make in House of Cards, for example, and the outcome of the episode we’re watching will change depending on our decision.

I say ‘apparently’ because all the coverage of this story cites the same Daily Mail article, which itself cites “a source”.

“We’re doing work on branch narratives so you are actually making choices as you watch” this source told the Mail. “All the content will be there, and then people will have to get through it in different ways.”

Netflix Stranger Things has been a cult hit. Pic: Netflix.
Netflix Stranger Things has been a cult hit. Pic: Netflix.

But let’s indulge ourselves that this might actually be true for a moment.

A story we’ve heard before

Well, here’s one ending we don’t have a choice over: this experiment will fizzle out.

And we know this because we’ve been here before.

Repeatedly over the last twenty years, publishers have tried to use technology to make storytelling ‘interactive’. The last fad was at the start of this decade with a flurry of experiments which gave the audience chances to explore documentaries in their own way.

There was much excitement that this might somehow be the coveted “future of storytelling“, but – as we have seen repeatedly – industry hype was not matched by public interest.

Don’t get me wrong, the projects were innovative and well made, and some even won awards.

But most people just aren’t interested in interactive stories, particularly on screens.

A lot of pain for little reward

Now it’s true that interactive storytelling is popular in other media.

Many of us fondly remember the choose-your-own-adventure books popular in the 80s and 90s; of course video games thrive precisely because of player agency.

But this experience is at odds with the experience that Netflix (and cinema and television before it) have worked hard to create.

Whether it’s Orange Is the New Black or Stranger Things, when we click play on our Netflix queue, we do it for the comforting experience of being spun a yarn by a group of people who know what they’re doing.

The enjoyment comes from having our curiosity, our joy, sadness and fears expertly manipulated by masters of the craft, in front of and behind the camera.

It’s Netflix-and-chill, remember, not Netflix-and-actively-participate-in-the-decisions-the-protagonist-must-face.

So I don’t think audiences are clamouring for this.

Meanwhile I can’t see this experiment going down well with the writers, directors and actors who actually tell the stories either.

It would involve writing, shooting and editing multiple versions of scenes, exponentially complicating the process.

“Great scene Kevin, now we just need to do it three different ways in case Dave in Wootton Bassett chooses another outcome.”

Telling a coherent story this way – especially in film (the most complicated medium there is) – is near impossible, and it’ll rob the filmmakers of the pleasure of crafting an intricate story over many hours of drama.

Storytelling doesn’t need reinventing

Notice how whenever this innovation rears its head, it always comes from industry initiative, not audience demand.

When have you ever heard anyone say “I loved Stranger Things, I just wished I could have controlled the actions of Eleven”?

This reflects an insecurity rife throughout the industry: that stories are struggling to compete with the growing number of digital distractions.

Looking at the falling box office returns and the collapse of TV viewing figures in the last 20 years that’s a fair concern.

And it’s right to say that the answer is to tell more engaging stories that create a genuinely immersive experience for audiences.

But the mistake is to think that this is a problem technology can solve.

Storytelling doesn’t need reinventing, it needs mastering.