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What is known from choose-your-own-adventure books, which let you decide how the story unfolds, might soon become a new trend in TV entertainment. Netflix is reportedly working on such feature that allows viewers to make choices while they watch. Will this long-standing storytelling tradition be revived and proof successful in TV series? In the following, I will briefly illustrate some existing ideas on this topic and share my own thoughts and vision.
Some argue that this would fundamentally misunderstand the appeal of television; that is to lean back, to be entertained, and to be surprised by what will happen next in our favorite TV shows and films. In my opinion, it depends on how often viewers have to make a decision. Every 5 minutes or every 30 minutes? Now that technology makes it possible, I believe that choose-your-ending stories will lead to increasing engagement with TV content.
I would suggest to perceive the new format as a rearrangement of chapters from a linear storyline to one in tree shape. Episodes might be as short as 30 minutes, at the end of which viewers are confronted with an essential decision. Corresponding to the decision made, they will then follow a certain branch of the "episode tree". I think, for curiosity watchers will most likely explore all tree branches in the end. In terms of engagement, the fact that different viewers come to different endings, will heat up the conversation between them and also increase the likelihood of wanting to watch several or even all branches.
In the figure below, a linear storyline is compared to what a choose-your-own-adventure arrangement might look like. The conventionally arranged series consists of 11 episodes while the TV show in tree shape consists of 21 episodes (lines), in total includes 10 decision nodes (squares), and offers 11 possible endings (triangles).
What does this mean for filmmakers? In my opinion, more footage will be required for one season of a given TV show. Instead of 11 episodes of 45 minutes each, 21 episodes of 30 minutes each might be necessary to make the concept work. In this example the total runtime would increase by almost a third. Budget restrictions might then lead to cutbacks on other areas of spending, such as actors. Also the number of seasons might be reduced or certain narrative branches might intersect at a later point in time again, ending collectively to save footage. Story will be the key and filmmakers will have to be creative in order to excite audiences. From a technological point of view, choose-your-own-adventure series might be easier to realize than other trends such as virtual reality. The filmmaking process and equipment remain the same here. Even smaller filmmakers can make the new concept a reality, for example, by publishing a series on YouTube and posting the links of the possible sequels at the end of each episode.
Ultimately, choose-your-own-adventure series might be a simulation of choices that we face in our real lives. The choices viewers make might very well have a moral tone to it. Should you go in now and risk your life to save the friend in a burning house, or should you wait for the firefighters to arrive? Waiting may very well end up in his death, but if you rush ahead, which is a choice based on good morals, this might not necessarily lead to a happy end. While this opens up new possibilities for educational messaging in popular entertainment content, it remains to be seen whether audiences are willing to take this much responsibility over the unfolding of a story or if they rather like to lean back and be entertained.
What do you think? Would you like to make decisions or do you prefer to let it happen? Feel free to leave comments and to share your thoughts.