What is a game?
It’s a question that I’ve seen asked by gamers, developers, and academics alike, and nobody really seems to have an answer. I’m of the opinion that basically everything that could be a game, is a game. Shooters with clear objectives, competition, and win-conditions are games, but so are walking simulators, pen-and-paper role-playing games, interactive experiences with limited player options, make-believe scenarios concocted by children, and choose-your-own-adventure novels.
So, by this definition, Netflix has just released a game.
Buddy Thunderstruck: The Maybe Pile is a 15-minute interactive episode of the Buddy Thunderstruck Netflix original series, and was released on July 14. If watching on an iOS device or a smart television, viewers are able to make decisions during the episode that change which scenes they get to see.
The plot of The Maybe Pile revolves around the two protagonists – Buddy and Darnell – running out of good ideas and deciding to go back to their ‘maybe pile’ to see if any of those discarded thoughts are worth enacting. Darnell decides to pull out two ideas at a time, so they can choose between them. ‘Like a game?’ Buddy says. Yes, precisely.
If viewers are watching the interactive version, this is the point where they get to make decisions. As the pair look at the different ideas, the viewer gets to decide which they choose and see the related scenes play out.
But there is still a pre-determined narrative. No matter which choices the viewer makes, the story’s ending stays the same. And because there is also a non-interactive version of the episode, there is a ‘correct path’ of sorts – watching via Netflix on desktop removes the viewer’s ability to make choices, with the protagonists making those selections wordlessly instead, with no changes to dialogue. The choices that aren’t made in the non-interactive final-cut essentially become ‘deleted scenes’.
But this isn’t Netflix’s first choose-your-own-adventure show. Puss in Book: Trapped in an Epic Tale was released last month, as the first ‘experimental’ title to use this technology. It leans heavily on the fourth wall, with the narration regularly referring to the ‘reader of the book’ that Puss has fallen into. There are plenty more choices for the viewer in this narrative, which is also longer in duration by design.
Although this story also ends the same way regardless of the choices made, the viewer’s influence feels greater, simply because they are referred to more regularly. For Puss in Book, the narrator and Puss have been recorded saying two versions of many lines, to reflect that in the non-interactive version of the story, the choices are made by Puss instead of the viewer. This means that the visuals in some scenes are also different, with some made so that Puss is standing in front of the book and selecting what will happen next. These changes mean more work had to go into this short than The Maybe Pile; interactive narratives are enough work as it is, but altering a narrative so that it can be played in both interactive and non-interactive formats is even harder.
Overall, both of these shows were witty and fun. The added element of making choices was a great innovation, but also not entirely necessary to enjoy these rather linear storylines. Hopefully in future, these interactive stories will be playable on all devices – that might allow creators to focus less on making multiple versions of the shows, instead using that time to provide more choices, or even multiple endings.
Netflix’s next interactive show – Stretch Armstrong: The Breakout – is set for release in 2018.