Netflix Chooses Its Own Adventure

The concept of a solo adventure -- in which the player chooses their own path throughout a narrative -- has been around since the 1960s, expressed in print and later audio form. It's now getting an update for modern audiences, thanks to Netflix's new series for kids.

A Brief History of Gamebooks

The history of choose your own adventures is intertwined with the history of hypertext, in which text is interconnected and revealed gradually. We know hypertext today as HTML (HyperText Markup Language) on the web, but prior to that it was applied to print. The first notable print hypertext were non-fiction encyclopedias and dictionaries, but the format was eventually applied to fiction in the early 1960s.

The fiction format allowed the reader to control the narrative, with the reader choosing a path and then flipping to a page as instructed by the book. This continues until the reader reaches a satisfactory conclusion ("winning" the gamebook, although there can be multiple win conditions) or fails and the gamebook ends. Because a gamebook is static, the player can of course go back to the beginning and try again, avoiding paths that led to failure the first time.

Rick Loomis of Flying Buffalo brought the gamebook format to role-playing games through Tunnels & Trolls, a form of solo-adventuring that has been used in everything from Basic Dungeons & Dragons to Gamma World to many other role-playing game formats.

And of course, the hybrid gamebook is perhaps best known for its British offshoot, popularized by the Fighting Fantasy series kicked off by The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. Gamebooks have since been expressed in a wide variety of formats, including on the web and even via audio. It's even expressed in movies like Memento, Run, Lola, Run, and Sliding Doors.

Gamebooks filled a niche for role-playing games -- the ability to play the game by yourself -- that has since been filled by computer games. Solo play has never been easier.

Netflix Enters the Game

Netflix's entry into the solo gaming market was led by Carla Engelbrecht Fisher, Netflix’s director of product innovation. She previously founded the game design firm No Crusts Interactive and worked for Highlights for Children and PBS KIDS. Netflix pitched the idea to DreamWorks Animation Television about piloting the interactive format. And thus Puss in Book: Trapped in an Epic Tale launched on June 20, with a second interactive episode, Buddy Thunderstruck, arriving next month. A third interactive episode, Stretch Armstrong: The Breakout, is coming next year. Here's how it works:

To start with, the interactive shows will be available on some modern smart TVs, game consoles, iOS devices, and Roku devices. They won’t be available on the web, Apple TV, Chromecast, or Android devices, at least for now. You’ll use your device’s controller to make a series of choices in the narrative — there are a total of 13 for Puss in Book, and 8 for Buddy Thunderstruck — or, if you wait too long to choose, Netflix will simply choose for you. For each show, the creators created custom illustrations for each choice...The result is a show whose length will vary significantly depending on your choices. The shortest path through Puss in Book is about 18 minutes; the longest is 39 minutes. Buddy Thunderstruck’s run time can be as short as 12 minutes and as long as ... until your TV stops working, thanks to an infinitely looping narrative that spins out of one of those choices.

An interesting side note is that Hasbro has been trying to make a Stretch Armstrong movie for years, and that the agreement with Netflix could influence other Hasbro-owned properties like Dungeons & Dragons and Magic: The Gathering. There's precedent; Wizards of the Coast produced Scourge of Worlds in partnership with Rhino Home Video:

Scourge of Worlds -- A Dungeons & Dragons Adventure isn't just your ordinary computer-animated cartoon--it's a truly interactive DVD with 20 decision points where viewers can make different choices, which can produce some 900 different story arcs that will eventually arrive at one of four different endings. Produced by DKP Effects, one of Canada's leading 3D animation, effects, and compositing houses, Scourge of Worlds was made in close consultation with the Wizards of the Coast. While this is hardly the first interactive DVD, it is definitely the most sophisticated in the number of choices allowed and the various ways in which the different chosen paths can flow together.

It has a 6.7 rating on IMDB and a 56% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

The Future?

Just as Amazon is experimenting with the choose-your-own-adventure format for its Echo, Netflix's experiment has tremendous potential. Casey Newton posits:

For adult Netflix viewers, it’s fun to imagine what an interactive episode of one of its most popular series might look like. A House of Cards where you guide Frank Underwood to power — or undermine him? An Orange Is The New Black where you navigate Piper through a prison break? Maybe they would be full of narrative inventions — or maybe they would feel like modern-day full-motion video games, which had a brief moment of popularity as PC games in the 1990s before giving way to animations.

If the format is successful, we may see entirely new interactive series in the future.

Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, communicator, and a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to You can follow him at Patreon.
Michael Tresca



For adult Netflix viewers, it’s fun to imagine what an interactive episode of one of its most popular series might look like.
They left off the most obvious - and I think most applicable - show that would benefit from a CYOA treatment: Arrested Development.

And it could be just like one of the old-school CYOA books. Dozens of choices to make, none of them good, with every path leading to a bad ending to one degree or another.

I didn't even know I wanted this until right now.

Scrivener of Doom

This has been the most interesting of these articles. And, wow, this could revolutionise TV series! I wonder if the additional production costs will make it worthwhile?


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