Is “Interactive Storytelling” the Future of Media?

Or does passive and active content serve different purposes?

On December 28, 2018, Netflix officially launched Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, an interactive film that allowed consumers to make decisions for the protagonist throughout the story, with each decision branching into a different storyline and ultimately, ending. This was not the first ever interactive show or movie — Netflix had previously launched a handful of interactive children’s fare, while HBO debuted the six episode Steven Soderbergh directed interactive series Mosaic in 2017.

Bandersnatch was, however, the first interactive film to gain widespread media attention and acclaim. Following its release, articles appeared with hyperbolic headlines such as “The TV of tomorrow is now here,” and “WILL BLACK MIRROR: BANDERSNATCH’S INTERACTIVITY CHANGE CINEMA FOREVER?

The critical success of Bandersnatch encouraged Netflix to “double-down” on interactive storytelling, and other media companies have followed suit. YouTube recently announced it was developing interactive programming, NBCUniversal has released an app named “Series: Your Story Universe” which pairs some of its notable IP with interactive storytelling, and Walmart invested $250 million in a joint venture with Eko to produce interactive content.

Meanwhile, 20th Century Fox (now part of Disney) had already licensed the film rights to the “Choose Your Own Adventure” book series, and is working with a startup called CtrlMovie to release interactive films in theaters, in which audiences could collectively vote on narrative choices throughout a film.

Is the recent hype and investment in interactive storytelling justified? Or was Bandersnatch appreciated by audiences simply as a novel experience — one which was admittedly well produced? If “interactive content” is the future of media, what form will it take, and how can it best be implemented?

What is Interactive Storytelling?

While “interactive storytelling” sounds like a hot-new category for the future of entertainment, it’s a vaguely broad term. Let’s be clear that interactive content has existed for decades — we just called them video games. Games are fully interactive, with users making every possible decision within an experience. Some games have little to no “story,” while others have narratives within them that may or may not be influenced by a players’ actions. Red Dead Redemption 2 has an expansive universe of narratives and relationships, while Fortnite features seasons and storylines. In both games, consumers have near full autonomy to control their characters and make decisions within the game’s rules and universe. Games also have an objective, and can usually be “won” or scored.

What media execs and investors are excited about in this new wave of interactive media is the blurring of lines between high quality passive filmed or animated content (movies and TV shows) and consumer-decision driven active video game content. In this context however, there’s no “winning.” Viewers have minimal control, and the quality of the outcome is completely subjective.

Why now?

What has spurred the sudden investment in interactive films and series? Mostly, technology. Until recently, post-production of multiple storylines was extremely difficult, script writing software for branching narratives did not exist, and TVs and movie theaters didn’t have the necessary user interface for realtime viewer input. Backend software development, streaming platforms, and smartphones have unlocked the ability for storytellers to produce interactive content and consumers to engage and make decisions with little friction.

Choose Your Own Adventure narratives have existed in other mediums — like books — for decades, yet have not found large audiences. This is interesting because reading is already an active task, so the introduction of choosing which page to turn to doesn’t add much friction. On the other hand, interactive TV is taking a passive activity (watching TV), and adding in small amounts of interactivity, making semi-interactive content in which viewers make a handful of decisions, and then passively watch how the story unfolds.

Passive vs. Active Content

The question that media companies need to ask themselves before investing significant capital into this new format is “What unmet need does semi-interactive content serve in consumers lives?” TV/film and games have historically served different purposes and use cases for consumers, with passive TV viewing often serving as a way for people to unwind or “chill.” As Matthew Ball notes in his REDEF series about Netflix:

“Less than half of daily TV time is spent on the living room couch in front of the TV, let alone alongside loved ones. It’s instead spent while cooking dinner, running on a treadmill, tidying up, playing bridge or attending to a crying infant. Here, TV is background entertainment; it’s mostly just helping to pass the time. And even when ‘dedicated’ TV time occurs, its purpose is often to help an audience member relax and unwind after a long day or week. They didn’t turn on the TV to be challenged by it, but to be indulged.

The question is whether adding a few viewer decision points in otherwise passive content elevates the quality or experience of said content. Can interactivity entice viewers to watch content they otherwise wouldn’t have? Is there a possibility that giving viewers the power to make narrative decisions actually detracts from the viewership experience?

Game of Thrones, arguably the last vestige of “appointment viewing” or “watercooler” shows, inspires fans across the internet and social media to predict and react to the narrative direction of each episode on a weekly basis. Would this be the case if each viewer had their own experience? My presumption is that viewers wouldn’t care nearly as much if they chose the “wrong” path — the power and impact in narrative fiction today is that it is definitive, whether you like it or not. In a world of interactive TV, if a consumer doesn’t like the direction a story takes, it’s partially their fault! Having multiple narrative branches is the easy way out for storytellers — it lacks any conviction or authority. Would the controversial ending of The Sopranos still be discussed today if it was only one of myriad of endings?

Personally, I don’t remember the first ending of Bandersnatch that I reached, but I tried a couple of different paths subsequently and then gave up, and read about all the potential endings online — none of which seemed particularly powerful or “right.” Given the choice (!), I’d prefer to rewatch any other Black Mirror episode than return to Bandersnatch. But Bandersnatch was notable in that the story was meta — revolving around the development of a choose-your-own-adventure video game. What does Stranger Things look like as a choose-your-own-adventure title? We know one thing for sure — a lot more expensive.

Challenges, Business Models, and Format

One major hurdle to interactive storytelling is the increased production time and expense. Quality filmed content can cost $100,000+ per minute of final run time, and adding branching narratives & endings to the same movie greatly increases the costs associated. How can media companies recoup the additional capital needed to produce interactive content?

Traditionally, there are three business models in the media and entertainment world: subscription, transactional, and ad-supported.

  • Subscription: Interactive media for subscription platforms like Netflix, HBO, or cable must justify the increased production cost through additional customer acquisition and/or retention — do people subscribe in order to view interactive content specifically? Do those who do view interactive content remain subscribers longer than those who don’t?
  • Transactional: Transactional business models include one-time purchases (movie tickets, some mobile/video games, renting/buying movies or TV shows, purchasing songs/albums) as well free-to-play games/content that feature in-game purchases, such as Fortnite. Creating interactive content for transactional models requires consumers to either specifically pay out of pocket for one piece of interactive content, or make purchases within the experience that allows them to make more decisions or unlocks other narrative options. This is the route that NBCUniversal’s “Series: Your Story Universe” app is taking.
  • Ad-supported: Ad-supported content generally has lower production budgets than subscription or transactional models, which may be prohibitive to investing in interactive content. However, this is the model that may have the most to gain from increased engagement and viewership — if consumers engage with a piece of free content longer, more ads can be served, and the average revenue per viewer increases. Advertising/sponsorships can also be built into the content and/or viewer experience. This is YouTube’s reported interactive content strategy:
“YouTube is developing choose-your-own-adventure-style shows, exploring a new storytelling format that could increase viewers and ad sales for the world’s largest video website.” — Bloomberg

Due to the costs and complexity of branching narratives, it’s likely that most interactive content is movie-length or shorter (which makes amortizing costs once again difficult) with a limited number of viewer decisions. Season-long choose your own adventure stories would result in an unwieldy and expensive undertaking, as Steven Soderbergh commented on the making of six-episode series Mosiac:

“The trick, Soderbergh says, was to introduce just enough interactivity to enhance the narrative without making it feel like a video game. But he was taken aback by the complexity of creating a branching narrative. The creators initially planned to include as many as 45 decision points, but scaled them back to a relative handful to improve the flow of the story.” — The Verge

Once again — does this Frankenstein child of TV and video games result in an “enhanced” experience, or a gimmicky, semi-interactive experience aimed at making something to please everyone, which in reality fails to please anyone? Having limited control with no specific goals or scoring system seems frustrating. Of course, this is dependent on the types of choices that viewers are given and the depth of their impact — are you choosing what type of cereal a character has for breakfast? or whether a character lives or dies?

Perhaps interactive content could be made more social, with groups of friends voting on decisions and seeing them play out, or viewers voting on end of season cliffhangers for next season (Do Jim and Pam kiss?!). Virtual reality — which is already an active experience — may be a better platform for this type of interactive storytelling, experienced in a fully immersive world.

The prospect of synthesized media, or content generated automatically, quickly, and cheaply utilizing machine learning may make interactive storytelling more attractive in the future, empowering viewers to make many more decisions (in which case, is it just a game?)

At the end of the day, humans love stories, and we love for them to be told to us. Do viewers of passive TV content really desire the ability to make a few narrative decisions along the way? The best content can be controversial, with viewers divided over loving or hating it — but there’s power and depth to the finality of it.

So, is interactive storytelling “the future” of entertainment? Likely only in the same way it has been — as games — whether played on a mobile device, console, PC, live, on-demand, voice-based, in AR/VR, or whatever the next wave of gaming platforms brings. I doubt, however, that “Interactive Storytelling” such as Bandersnatch will play a significant role in the future of entertainment. What do you think: A) I agree! B) Totally Disagree