Netflix teams with Robot Chicken studio for Interactive Toons

The streaming juggernaut is blurring the line between TV and games; should EA, Activision be worried?

Credit: Netflix

The latest episode of Netflix's cheerfully gross animated kid's series Buddy Thunderstruck has an interesting surprise. The premise is that the truck-racing canine protagonist and his ferret sidekick are digging into their "maybe pile" of possibly brilliant, or terrible, ideas. Should they overdose on espresso? Should they experiment with a recipe for "garbage pizza"? Should they engage in a no-holds-barred wet willie contest?

The twist is that the audience gets to make the decisions for the characters. The action pauses every few minutes, and by tapping the touchscreen or clicking the TV remote, each viewer determines how their particular version of the story will unfold. The typical viewing experience is 15 minutes or so, but viewers can loop back endlessly, exploring all of the different story possibilities.

"At one point, you choose between whether they should try and jump their truck over a creek, or whether they should try and jump their truck over a creek while they’re blindfolded," says Carla Engelbrecht Fisher, Netflix's director of product innovation. "The obvious choice there is to do it blindfolded – that sounds like it has much more potential for a crazy outcome. But doing it without the blindfold is hands-down my favorite choice point in the episode. What happens just has such brilliant comedic timing. ... I've watched it 150 times at this point, and it's still great."

The interactive cartoon, a collaboration with the stop-motion animation house that makes Robot Chicken for Adult Swim, is the result of two years of planning and R&D from the division of Netflix that has traditionally been more concerned with the design of the service’s user interface. "Our team's job is to ask ourselves, 'How do we innovate around storytelling?'," Fisher tells Glixel. "Interactivity just seemed like a natural thing to explore."

In terms of the sophistication of the narrative that unfolds, Buddy Thunderstruck: The Maybe Pile isn't necessarily a watershed – the choice points result in things like grievous bodily harm, uncontrollable flatulence, diving into raw sewage, and earwax consumption. But in another sense, the cartoon is a very important milestone. The streaming juggernaut is using its enormous reach to explore a new form of interactive entertainment. How long until Electronic Arts and Activision need to be worried?

Buddy Thunderstruck, released last month, follows another Netflix exclusive interactive cartoon from Dreamworks that was released in June. In Puss in Book: Trapped in an Epic Tale, the titular feline from the Shrek films is forced to reenact the storylines of several classic fairytales. The cat complains directly to the viewers when their choices displease him, like when they cast him in the starring role of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, or when they direct him to kiss an evil queen.

Another interactive cartoon is in the works for release next year. This one, based on the classic Stretch Armstrong toy franchise, will be far more ambitious. "Stretch Armstrong: The Breakout has more choices and more complex storytelling than Puss or Buddy," says Fisher. "The makers of that have pushed the bounds more. In terms of playable length, the average session is probably going to be 30 or 40 minutes."

But ultimately, Netflix isn't just thinking about interactive cartoons for kids. Fisher says that company is in the early stages of designing a toolset that will allow filmmakers to create interactive experiences that can be served to all of their 100 million subscribers around the world. "We have this toolset that allows you to make one of two choices, and we can already see that with that, you can tell very broad and engaging and varied types of stories," she says.

Fisher believes that many filmmakers will jump at the chance to create interactive content aimed at an adult audience. "Creators have been telling stories in non-linear ways for a long time," she says. She points to movies like Memento, Sliding Doors, and Clue, in which the narrative doesn't unfold in a straightforward chronological way. "If they're telling stories in different ways, what we're asking is what kind of stories can Netflix do that no one else can do? We're not tied to the formats of cable networks; our ecosystem is built entirely for interactive devices."

Interactive film and video is not new. In 1967, the Czechoslovakian filmmaker Radúz Činčera created a sensation at the Montreal Expo with his black comedy Kinoautomat, which paused at nine points for the audience to vote on what happens next. In 1992, the Loew's chain retrofitted several of its movie theaters with controllers that allowed audiences to vote on the decisions made by the star of an interactive feature film called I'm Your Man. The advent of laserdiscs led to the arcade sensation Dragon’s Lair, in which players guided an animated knight through a series of misadventures that were only slightly more interactive than Netflix's Buddy Thunderstruck. And this year marks the 25th anniversary of the release of Night Trap, an infamous full-motion-video slasher game that's developed a cult following. (It received a prestige rerelease on PS4 today.)

Fisher herself has been marinating in interactive entertainment ever since she first fell in love with the Choose Your Own Adventure novels as a child. "I was one of those kids who'd read the books with my fingers stuck in between a bunch of pages, so I could track where I've already been," she says. "I’d read them cover to cover so I was sure that I didn’t miss a single branch of the story. I also played text adventures like Zork and Hitchhiker’'s Guide to the Galaxy, and I loved the classic Sierra games."

She went on to get a doctorate in instructional technologies and a master's degree in media studies. Fisher founded the game design firm No Crusts Interactive, which released Sesame Street games for Wii and DS, as well as an interactive app for the Museum of Modern Art, and the beguiling mobile title Stride & Prejudice, which turns Jane Austen's classic novel into an endless runner. (You control the protagonist Elizabeth Bennet as she runs along on top of an endless scroll of the complete text of the novel.)

Fisher says it was only natural for Netflix's first experiment with interactive storytelling to target children. "Kids engage with media in ways that we don't," she says. "They're just completely used to swiping and tapping on touchscreens to make things happen, and that's one of the few things they really get ownership and agency around. But they’re also used to talking to the TV. On shows like Blue's Clues, Dora the Explorer, and Sesame Street, the characters literally turn to the kids and ask them questions, and invite them to say things."

Fisher knows from firsthand experience that young people increasingly expect their media to be interactive."My daughter is six, and she's so used to Pandora and Spotify that she keeps asking me to skip the commercials when we're listening to the radio," she says.

In one sense, interactive content seems like a perfect fit for the streaming service. But there were huge technical challenges to overcome. Serving a piece of interactive content is very different from serving a static movie or TV episode. "How do we encode a title like this, and assign a storymap in our system?” says Fisher. "How do we let the audience move around the timeline? Fast-forward doesn’t work when you don't know where you’re going. This really was Hollywood and Silicon Valley coming together to solve a very real problem."

There was also the issue of working with creators of traditional linear animated entertainment to create branching storylines. "The standard script writing tools we have don’t really allow for multiple choices," says Fisher. "We started from an outline and a story map to understand flow of narrative, and how things link together. Making sure that continuity matches for every possible story option was a big source of headaches."

Netflix had to create a fallback version of the cartoons that strip out the choice points. The interactive media version currently only works on smart TVs, newer iOS devices, streaming media players like Roku and game consoles. Anyone attempting to access the content from other devices will be served with a static version of the episode.

"Another question was, what makes a compelling choice?,” says Fisher. "It can’t just be choosing whether you go left or go right. How do you create stakes? How do you make viewers have [fear of missing out], so they want to go back and explore the other options?"

There's also the matter of training an audience that’s used to a passive viewing experience. "We went to a couple of different markets and did focus testing with kids five to 12," Fisher says. "We didn't tell them a whole lot; we just said that we have this show and we’d love to get your thoughts on it. On the iPad, they got it right away, and they were tapping around and were totally into it. But on the TV, it was not as quick. They’re used to pressing play, dropping the remote, sinking back on the couch, and letting the content roll."

"That taught us that building tutorials into the story was really critical," she adds. To make sure that Netflix viewers understand what they’re in for, the Buddy Thunderstruck interactive episode begins with the protagonist driving his truck through the wall of a cartoon version of the Netflix office, and explaining how the audience can effect the story. Then he destroys even more of the Netflix office as he drives off, and the opening credits begin.

Netflix still faces the same challenges that makers of previous interactive films and videos experienced. For starters, creating animation or live action video is very expensive. Adding another story branch to a Choose Your Own Adventure novel costs a few cents worth of wood pulp. But making enough story branches to create compelling experience in interactive video means spending money on content that most viewers may not see.

Fisher says that they continue to grapple with issues like that. In the meantime, she looks to the indie game scene for inspiration. "There's just incredible experimentation going on in that space,” she says. "You have these beautiful narrative experiences like Her Story, and you have people pushing technology to make games that are audio-only. Game designers play around with mediums in ways that few others do."

For now, Fisher is happy to see children enjoying the interactive animations on Netflix. She showed her 6-year-old daughter the Buddy Thunderstruck episode, and watched as the child directed the characters to explore a sewer, then gasped with horror when she realized that the motherlode of chocolate that they found there wasn’t actually chocolate. "I live for moments like that,” says Fisher. "It's just an absolute joy to enable parents to engage together with their kids and have moments of connection with interactive content."

"I also showed my daughter the interactive Puss in Boots episode, and she liked it so much that she went back on her own and started watching the other linear episodes of the animated series,” says Fisher. "Then she came to me and said, ‘Why doesn’t it ask me what I want to do?’"