<center><h2>You Pick. No Really.</center><center> <h3>An Interactive Media Piece About Interactive Media</h1></center>
It happens as you’re scrolling through Netflix.
You’ve spent half an hour trying to pick a movie and you’re nowhere close to a consensus when suddenly, a synopsis catches your eye. “An interactive film.” <i> Now that sounds promising </i>, you think. You wouldn’t be the only one. Since 2017, Netflix has been offering interactive content in which watchers can decide the path of characters at certain points of the story instead of just passively watching. Previously, Netflix has only developed interactive films as children’s movies, but with the debut of <i>Black Mirror: Bandersnatch</i>, a horror/thriller about a videogame developer, the interactive genre has made a big splash among all consumers.
This success is hardly surprising when you consider the way in which the 21st century teenager manages to text, do their math homework, and watch their favourite daytime television all at the same time. Contrary to popular belief, our attention spans aren’t shrinking—they’re evolving . Research done by Prezi in 2018 found that “our ability to maintain our focus on content is actually improving over time as we become more selective about the content we choose to devote our attention to.” It’s easy to have an hour long text-conversation or to spend an entire afternoon reading our favourite books without checking Instagram, because that interests us. This is key for any entertainers creating content in 2019—if the audience isn’t continuously interested in the story, it's easy to find something else to do, especially as our ever-present phones contain unending amounts of entertainment. This phenomenon creates a perfect niche for the interactive genre. Like fellow <i>Hothouse</i> writer Sydney Stewart said in her piece on video games (that you can check out on our website), there is nothing more engaging for modern consumers than to feel like an active agent in the outcome of the storyline by controlling the actions of characters—whether this be in video games or films.
[[Interesting, where did this start?]]
[[Woah, where is this going?]] The <i>Choose Your Own Adventure</i> books (which many of us remember from childhood, along with that rush of power that accompanied our directing of the characters) originated in 1975 when James Packard wrote the first of “The Adventures of You” book, as they were then called. The basic premise is created around a second person perspective which allows the reader to take the role of the main character and make decisions that affect the plotline of the story. Packard got the idea from when he would run out of stories to tell his daughters before bed. He would ask them to provide the next event in the plot, which he would then use to expand his stories. The first book he wrote in this style was <i>Sugarcane Island</i>, which was rejected by nine publishing houses before he finally convinced Vermont Crossroads Press to print it. The series was eventually renamed <i>Choose Your Own Adventure</i> books, and were some of the most popular children’s books throughout the 1980’s and 90’s, selling more than 250 million copies in a ten-year span.
Today, though the trademark of <i>Choose Your Own Adventure</i> is strictly enforced, books of the choose your own genre not under the trademark are commonly referred to as gamebooks. The genre is still mostly embedded with youth literature, and so doesn’t receive a lot of attention from more “serious” authors. There are some other genres that have adapted the gamebook to make the most of the format (such as fantasy, crime fiction, and erotica), but for the most part it is not often employed for “serious” literature.
[[Cool, what about movies?]]
[[Wait, what about literature?]] It is safe to say that we’re quickly approaching an expansion of interactive film in the future. After the success of <i>Black Mirror: Bandersnatch</i>, Netflix is preparing to make similar films; it is already adapting its app to accommodate two narrative strands rather than a single linear progression through a narrative. The next film has not been confirmed, but there has been mention.
Netflix isn’t the only platform interested in the progression of interactive film. In 2014, CtrlMovie was launched. The “novel interactive movie format”gives filmmakers the opportunity to create interactive movies that can be created for cinema, home entertainment, or mobile platforms. Fox has announced it is licensing the technology for an upcoming film based on the <i>Choose Your Own Adventure</i> franchise. The movie will make use of an app to control the cinematic events and hopes to create a seamless experience.
This new technology can change our media experiences in many ways. We are already interacting with technology more, as evidenced by the growth of “sentient” technology (for example, Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri both respond to cues through speech and touch). Furthermore, we have interactive security systems, vehicles, and smart devices. It’s not hard to see that we might take this to its natural next progression and become more active in the outcomes of our media.
[[This sounds unrealistic]]
[[Wait, what about literature?]] Although interactive films might be a new thought for some of us (I know the possibility was revolutionary to me!), it’s not quite as modern as you might think—the first movie to self-identify as an interactive film came out in 1967. <i>Kinoautomat</i> was written and directed by Radúz Činčera and screened in Montreal. A live moderator would appear onstage and ask the audience to choose between two scenes. After a vote, the scene the audience choose would be played. At the time, the movie was lauded for its experimental form as even Hollywood was eager to license the technology, but unfortunately the concept belonged to the Communist regime. They were obviously less than eager to share the workings of the concept.
The subsequent development of the genre for film in America was largely intertwined with that of video games, as both needed the technology that would allow for multiple “paths” for the storyline to follow. As technology has developed, choose your own adventure has been tried and tried again by filmmakers. So far, attempts in the theater—and even VHS tapes or DVDs—haven't found a lot of traction, with no big shift towards interactive film. However, it seems as though technology has finally advanced enough for us to give this a serious attempt at a cultural revolution. First, we must note the way in which the consumption of media has changed. Streaming services like Hulu, Amazon Prime, Netflix, and many others allow filmmakers to be more creative in the production of interactive films. Unlike something produced for the theatre, it’s easy to include individual viewers and give them an active stake in the outcome of the choices the characters make on a smaller screen. It is much easier, after all, to decide the fate of a character with four family members instead a theatre filled with forty people who have no interest in interacting with each other.
[[This sounds unrealistic]]
[[Woah, where is this going?]] Some will argue that taking an interactive role in the creation of a story will take away from the artistic purity of the work. If the audience plays such a big role in the outcome of the story, what is it saying about the creators of the story and their efforts? It must be accepted that this will be a revolutionary change in media and its purpose. I believe that in these CYOA movies, aspects like characterization and storyline will take the backseat in favour of thematic concerns. What does it mean when our best-intentioned decisions lead to the death of the main character over and over again? The balance between the autonomy of the viewer making decisions and the storyline guiding them there is a fragile one, but it can create very strong insights regarding human nature. The story forces the viewer to take an engaged interest in its outcome and creates a connection between the audience and the character—their loss is our loss because we have as much responsibility in the events as any other factor does.
It is of course entirely viable that the CYOA film genre will fail just as it has every time over the last fifty years when someone tries to expand it on a large scale. It may be that audiences have no interest in this kind of engagement, or that technology doesn’t deliver the story quite seamlessly enough. I do believe that now is the best chance the genre has ever had at success in films. Looking at the success of Netflix’s interactive films, it is safe to say I am not the only one. From its origins, the genre has been experimental—more than that, it’s meant to be fun. When Packard started with interactive story lines, he was aiming to entertain his daughters. I think it’s important above all to remember the genre’s simple beginnings and purpose.
[[Interesting, where did this start?]]
[[So what?]] So we’re standing on a precipice. We have the technology. We have the interest. We have the sheer audacity. This may the turning point we tell our grandchildren about as they flick through the options of their own holographic stories and sigh about our outdated slang. It might be that nothing comes from this “revolution.” It is undeniable, however, that in the next few years different studios will be trying their hands at interactive media. With the technology we already have and the success of Netflix’s attempts, it is no wonder that Fox is already planning its own debut.
Immersive role-playing is nothing new. From Dungeons and Dragons to video games like <i>The Witcher</i>(soon to be a Netflix show), there are countless ways to embrace escapism and take a stab at another life. The question arises: Is there room for literature to be taken seriously in this format or to even be considered “true” literature? It appears there is one big obstacle to literature flourishing in this genre, and it not just the stigma caused by the <i>Choose Your Own Adventure</i> books of your childhood. “Great” literature has many important aspects, and of those, characterization is perhaps most important. This is a big obstacle for the legitimacy of gamebooks—there can be no real characterization here, because every major desicion is made by an outside force. Not only that, but any main character remains removed, written from a second person POV, and the genre is more centered around the experience of the reader than of the experience of the characters.
However, these are not necessarily bad things. Gamebooks offer the exciting power of exploring the limits of a story, only to go back and make all the choices you hadn’t before. There is a comfort too in knowing that mistakes can be unmade as easily as flipping a few pages and finding oneself in a whole new scenario. A good gamebook will be not only engaging, but will allow the reader to explore human nature and the fickleness of luck and chance. It is, however, very hard to write something to be taken more seriously in this format because of the limits of the genre.
[[Cool, what about movies?]]