In Puss in Book: Trapped in an Epic Tale, Netflix’s first foray into interactive programming, the first choice viewers are asked to make is whether the swashbuckling tabby should fight a muscle-bound brute, or take on a tree instead.
In the stop-motion children’s series Buddy Thunderstruck, on the other hand, the first choice you make is whether Buddy downs three triple espresso shots, or eats a pizza.
“Yes,” deadpans Buddy Thunderstruck writer Tom Krajewski, “ours is funnier.”
Produced by American Greetings Entertainment and Stoopid Buddy Stoodios (the company behind Robot Chicken), Buddy Thunderstruck follows truck-racing rat terrier Buddy Thunderstruck (voiced by Brian Allen) and his best friend Darnell (Ted Raimi), an albino ferret.
Aimed mainly at boys ages 6–11, the show is certainly safe for kids — a character exclaiming “Fartnugget!” is as crude as it gets — with an attitude recalling Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time or Regular Show. But it also suggests a shared DNA with The Simpsons, The State, 1980s comedies, and classic Adam Sandler and Will Ferrell. Voice actors are encouraged to improvise when recording their lines, and Buddy himself comes off as a cocky cross between Ricky Bobby and Matthew McConaughey.
Buddy Thunderstruck will also become the second Netflix program, after Puss in Book, to release an interactive episode. Among the choices viewers get to make: Explore the Hatch or Get Superpowers; Wet Willie Contest, or Get Jacked. At one point, it’s up to viewers to select the soundtrack for a car race: “Take it Easy” or “Rock.” Both sequences use some of the same race footage, but the scene unfurls differently based on the music.
The episode, The Maybe Pile, places the audience somewhere between the passive spectacle of regular television-watching and the intense engagement of video gaming. It’s less about steering the protagonist through a series of perilous situations than about coolly deciding which optional scenario has more potential entertainment value. The stakes are refreshingly low. “It feels more like we’re hanging out with them and deciding to do this stuff together,” says series creator Ryan Wiesbrock. “We didn’t want any one path through the story to feel like the ‘right path’ and all other choices seem lame. We knew that once the initial cool factor of actually getting to control an episode wore off, we had to deliver on a fun, interesting episode, equal to what you’d find in any other episode from the series.”
“The audience is watching mainly to laugh,” agrees Krajewski. “They’re not precious about what happens to the characters.”
The fundamentals of the creative process on this were essentially the same as on any Buddy Thunderstruck installment, starting with Krajewski and Wiesbrock bouncing gags and ideas back and forth. “Tom and I looked at this as any other story hook,” says Wiesbrock. “Instead of ‘the guys learn kung fu’ or ‘Buddy thinks his truck is talking to him,’ our hook was, ‘the viewer gets to make choices.’ Netflix really wanted this to be driven by the storytellers, and in that respect, treat this episode as we would any other episode.”
The script for the episode took twice as long to write as a regular episode, with double the amount written and shot — 22 minutes instead of the usual 11. As ever, the voice actors riffed and improvised while recording their lines.
“We created our own unique script format,” says Wiesbrock. “We had to draw little maps for each other in order to track the different story paths. I often found myself in a Doc-Brown-explaining-alternate-1985 situation, where I’m drawing a timeline and showing where forks happen in the narrative.
Krajewski and Wiesbrock realized early on that, even for this relatively low-stakes interactivity, there’s something fundamentally different about the psychology and expectations of an interacting viewer.
“When watching a normal TV episode, a story moves from scene to scene, and you’re along for the ride,” says Wiesbrock. “When you introduce a decision point, and a user makes a choice, we realized there is a different expectation once that choice is made. We’ve highlighted this moment, so we’re on the hook to pay it off in some way. As a result, it becomes a little vignette and has its own beginning, middle, and end before going back to the spine of the story. Each scene is really packed full of flavor.”
The different threads proceed along a central story spine, with a harder split toward the end that sets up four different endings. (One technical requirement was that the episode had to work on non-interactive platforms — web, Apple TV, Chromecast, Android. For these, choice-point decisions are fixed and predetermined.)
A typical “play” of the episode is around 11 minutes long, though theoretically, viewers can pursue a narrative path that loops back to the beginning, ad infinitum. The episode boasts probably more than twice the usual number of gags, albeit distributed through separate story threads, giving it twice the replay value. It gives an idea of how Netflix stands to benefit from gamifying television: this is seriously “sticky” content.
For now, Netflix’s interactive content is geared toward its youngest viewers. In 2018, its yet-to-premiere animated series Stretch Armstrong will go interactive for one episode. As a Netflix press release stated, young viewers already behave as if content is interactive — talking to the television, tapping at laptop screens. “They hunger for the ability to interact with their favorite characters and are already naturally engaging with screens,” Carla Engelbrecht Fisher, Netflix’s director of product innovation told The Verge via email.
And according to Netflix reports, more than half of its subscribers worldwide view children’s content anyway.
Asked whether Netflix’s interactive ambitions extend to adult fare, Fisher said, “We don’t have anything to announce on that front… The intention is to learn and see what our members like, and how they’re interacting with it.”
Even so, the approach with Puss in Book, Buddy Thunderstruck, and Stretch Armstrong hints at a possible model for the streaming service’s future experiments in the form: one-off interactive episodes as experiments, appealing to audiences who aren’t prone to hyper-critical analysis, but are inclined to explore all the story possibilities offered.
While it seems unlikely that viewers will get to meddle with the fates of characters in Netflix originals like House of Cards, Anne with an E, or The Crown anytime soon (“Invade Suez Canal? Y/N”), the potential for choose-your-own-adventure, gamified episodes of other Netflix programs feels within the realms of possibility. It’s tempting to wonder how viewer participation might complement the formal mischievousness of Arrested Development, the delirious weirdness of The OA, the anarchic comedy of another Wet Hot American Summer series, or the technological themes of Black Mirror. (Think of the metafictional possibilities.)
Buddy Thunderstruck: The Maybe Pile provides a clue about the future of interactive, mainstream television for adults as well. Viewers can expect more programs that prod and play with the form, and they should expect more invitations to get hands-on with their favorite television shows. That’s something worth looking forward to, says Wiesbrock.
“Watching a normal episode of TV is like unwrapping one big present,” he says. “When watching an interactive episode, it’s like getting a bunch of little presents all along the way.”