When Netflix approached Dreamworks Animation to pioneer a “choose your own adventure” style show, “Puss in Boots” writer-producer Doug Langdale accepted before they even finished the pitch.
“They came and started explaining the possibilities,” Langdale told Business Insider. “I don’t think they got through the word ‘interactive’ before I said ‘yes.’”
Dreamworks had already created a few seasons of “The Adventures of Puss in Boots,” and Langdale welcomed the fresh challenge of making multiple paths for kids to explore. (Making season after season of a TV show can get a tad monotonous, he admitted.)
For Netflix, it was a chance to make its kids content stand out from the competition, and emphasize how Netflix can use technology to open up new forms.
Netflix’s programming for kids has quietly become a juggernaut, but competitors like HBO, Amazon, and Hulu are also fiercely going after the market. There’s good reason: Half of Netflix subscribers watch children’s and family shows on a monthly basis, according to Netflix’s head of product innovation for the category, Carla Engelbrecht Fisher.
Fisher said that Netflix had been kicking around the idea of creating “branching” shows for most of the three years she’s been at the company, and that its first title, “Puss in Book: Trapped in an Epic Tale,” took two years to come to fruition. Netflix released it on June 20, and will release another, “Buddy Thunderstruck: The Maybe Pile,” on July 14.
A simple choice
A “branching” Netflix show works much the same way as a choose-your-own-adventure book. You are watching a TV show unfold, and eventually you get to a virtual fork in the road, where you choose one of two options. Then the narrative continues.
Here’s an example from the “Puss in Book” demo given to Business Insider. Puss in Boots shows up at a house populated by bears. Then the viewer is presented with a choice. Either the bears are “friendly” when Puss in Boots walks in, or “angry.” In our demo, it was simple and intuitive. All you had to do was press one of two buttons on screen, either with the remote if you’re watching on the TV, or with your finger if you’re viewing on a laptop or tablet. Then you’re back on the story path.
18 minutes or 39 minutes
While navigating every story choice is easy, it’s anything but simple to set up the narrative, Langdale told Business Insider.
“It’s a little more like writing a sketch show,” he said. “It’s more modular.” The story has to be able to fork and recombine, otherwise Dreamworks would be creating an insane amount of storylines. And that can cause big story headaches, Langdale said.
For the most part, the plot of “Puss in Book” is Puss in Boots trying to find his way out of a book he’s become trapped in. And the emotional arc is, generally, one of building frustration, Langdale said. It’s hard to have anything more specific, since your journey through the book could take 18 minutes, 39 minutes, or something in between.
The story constraints also meant that when Langdale wrote a specific problem to confront Puss in Boots with, it was sometimes hard to know how to have him react. In a specific instance, Langdale had to scrap a character coming back into the narrative, since it wasn’t clear whether Puss in Boots could say “Oh, you again.” Had he seen him before? Throughout the process, Langdale said he was the only one who really had general narrative structure in his head. He would give out bits to write to others, which he’d then fit together.
In creating a story that wasn’t too bland and wasn’t too confusing, it helped that Langdale was able to lean on a previously created “Puss in Boots” universe, both in story and with GGI models (which saved some resources).
The tech considerations
As far as technical constraints, Netflix said that for buffering reasons, no “choice” could last less than two minutes, and there had to be two choices in each brand, Fisher said. (However, in the future, Netflix would like to experiment with more than two choices.)
To help kids understand what’s going on initially, there’s also a short explanation of how to navigate the story at the start of the narrative, which in the Puss in Boots demo was slickly worked into the storyline. Early on in development, Netflix made an prototype of a choose-your-own-adventure show by chopping up previous episodes of “The Adventures of Puss and Boots.” While kids immediately understood what they were supposed to do on iPad, on a TV they kept talking to the screen, Fisher said. So Netflix decided to guide kids toward using the remote.
The big question is how much traction Netflix will get with these types of narratives. Choose-your-own-adventure books never really expanded outside the kid and young adult realm, and remain niche. But conversely, video games have continued to build more and more compelling plotlines, and are approaching this choice-driven cinematic experience from the other side.
Still, even if the “branching” narrative isn’t a monster hit for Netflix, it shows that one day Netflix might have an appetite for experimenting with things like virtual reality, or even augmented reality (which overlays virtual objects onto the real world), as these all give the company the chance to prove it can bring ideas to life that its traditional TV competitors cannot.