[Ed. note: This ranked list is being continually updated as Netflix adds more interactive specials.]
Since 2017, Netflix has been investing in interactive specials — hybrid movie and game experiences based on pre-existing franchises, letting viewers participate in the stories they’re watching. It’s an ongoing experiment, closely tied to Netflix’s desire to get into game production, but it’s had mixed success so far.
Netflix’s initial interactive titles were all tailored toward kids, but with the release of 2018’s Black Mirror: Bandersnatch and 2019’s You vs. Wild, the streamer’s ambitions clearly started expanding. Most of Netflix’s interactive specials take place in the worlds of existing series, though Bandersnatch largely stands alone since Black Mirror is an anthology show, and You vs. Wild is just Bear Grylls hamming it up in nature. Each of these shows prompts viewers to choose how events unfold. But just how fun are these specials? How interactive? Do the choices we make even matter?
With a third You Vs. Wild interactive out now, we took a look back on all of the Netflix interactive specials and adjusted our ongoing rankings, based on how much fun each one is, what kind of stories they’re telling, and whether the viewer’s choices actually have any effect on the story.
Honorable mention: Headspace: Unwind Your Mind
[Disclosure: Unwind Your Mind is a collaboration between Headspace and Vox Media Studios, a unit of Polygon’s parent company Vox Media.]
OK, so this interactive experience shouldn’t even really count as an interactive experience, but it falls under the Netflix Interactive label, so we’re counting it. Basically, the only interactive part of this is just picking which Headspace program you want: meditation, relaxation, or sleep. You can customize from there, but it’s basically just a glorified menu. Useful for what it’s meant for, but not so much for a fun and engaging experience.
14. You Vs. Wild
The original Bear Grylls interactive special is, honestly, really boring. Each episode drops Grylls into a new environment, where his adventures play out like an episode of his show Man vs. Wild, except technically, the viewer gets to choose his survival actions. But almost every choice either ends in instant failure or prompts you to the “correct” path. The series never really feels interactive, and it plays out like a pop quiz in how well-versed audience members are with Grylls’ personal survival preferences. (Yes, he wants to eat bugs — he always wants to eat bugs.)
The premise sounds wacky, and it could have been played for laughs. (A possible grandiose failure might include Grylls freezing into a cartoonish ice cube, for instance.) But the producers take the idea very seriously, which means it’s just a forgettable experience.
13. Buddy Thunderstruck: The Maybe Pile
Buddy Thunderstruck: The Maybe Pile follows a simple premise. Stunt-driver dog Buddy and his pal Darnell from the stop-motion series Buddy Thunderstruck need to decide what wild thing they want to do, so they consult their bag of “maybe” ideas and pick two. Viewers get to choose which one they try. There’s no overarching narrative whatsoever. Player choice is limited between two ridiculous options — drink three espresso drinks or make a pizza with every possible topping, for instance.
While each fun choice results in a different scene, the one immediately following plays out exactly the same as if you’d picked the other choice. When you choose between trying to get super powers and exploring a sewer, you get different scenes, but both of them toss Buddy and Darnell to the same doctor afterward.
What gives The Maybe Pile a slight uptick, though, is that it’s actually kinda funny, and at the very least more entertaining than You vs. Wild. It’s very much the type of humor that will send a 10-year-old boy rolling on the floor: It’s basically Jackass, but for kids. And hey, sometimes the perfect late-morning pick-me-up is seeing Buddy and Darnell dive into a sewage pit, rejoicing about how they’ve found the Fountain of Youth, then realizing what they’ve done.
12. Kimmy vs. The Reverend
The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt interactive special takes place after the events of the series finale, with Kimmy set to marry a handsome prince played by Daniel Radcliffe. But after discovering a mysterious book in her backpack, she suspects that the reverend who kidnapped her and held her in an underground bunker for most of her life may have another bunker full of women somewhere, so she sets off to free them.
Kimmy vs. The Reverend has its funny moments, and to its credit, the scenes and jokes leading up to the choice selection are some of the most entertaining of all the interactive specials. The characters actually riff about the choice selection, instead of just reiterating the options, or staring expectantly at the audience. But the choices themselves are disappointing. Pick the “wrong” one, and the story instantly ends in failure, which isn’t fun. The quick fail is a trend that carries on in some of the other titles, but it feels all the more jarring in Kimmy vs. the Reverend, because the characters call you out on diverting from the sitcom’s characterizations. This one is also longer than most of Netflix’s interactive shows, so getting a “Game Over” really grinds the experience to a halt.
On a more metatextual level, it just seems a little odd that even though you’re supposed to be helping Kimmy find agency and heal from her past, the game basically takes away any agency by forcing certain options on you. The only actual difference in endings comes from a side plot with Kimmy’s friends Titus and Jacqueline.
11. Captain Underpants: Epic Choice-o-Rama
Epic Choice-o-Rama features grade-school cartoonists George Beard and Harold Hutchins saving their beloved treehouse from being demolished by the controlling Principal Krupp. This involves appealing to their neighbor, who may or may not be a retired famous action movie star.
The Captain Underpants special has only a few choices that really make any impact. Early on, when making what seems like the first big choice, two of the options just play out hypothetical situations and force you to pick the third. Many of the options have a clear right and wrong — with the wrong one just immediately segueing into the “right” choice. Most of the choices are purely to play a different clip, like when Harold and George argue over which movie to watch. In general, there are just fewer choices between the long, rambling segments. Not a very fun play, unless you’re very into Captain Underpants.
10. The Last Kids on Earth: Happy Apocalypse to You
Another interactive adventure based on a Netflix cartoon, The Last Kids on Earth: Happy Apocalypse to You follows the characters of Netflix’s post-apocalyptic adventure series. Jack, the plucky leader of the title’s last kids on earth, wants to throw a party for his crush June, so the four protagonists cross the monster-filled wasteland where they live, trying to find necessary party components: cake, balloons, and a nacho-cheese fountain.
There are a few branching choices in Happy Apocalypse to You, but the ultimate ending still pretty much boils down to Instant Failure or Success. Some of the choices do affect specific endgame conditions, but not enough to drastically change the story or its outcome. But for the most part, the choices are at least entertaining and frequent enough to feel engaging, even if some of the options just amount to cute interludes. Make a “wrong” choice here, and you might get an extra fluffy scene, then revert back to the two other choices.
9. Spirit Riding Free: Ride Along Adventure
Based on Spirit Riding Free, an animated series loosely inspired by the 2002 DreamWorks movie Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, Ride Along Adventure follows a plucky group of young teenagers and their horses. This show technically takes place in the Wild West, but you wouldn’t be able to tell from the very modern-looking clothes and attitudes. Three out of four of the horse girls distract the fourth’s horse for the day so the girl can prepare a surprise party for her steed. But what starts off as a simple riding adventure turns into danger, as the horse gets kidnapped and the girls must rescue it.
Spirit Riding Free: Ride Along ultimately falls into the same pitfalls as a few of these lower-ranked specials. If the viewer picks “wrong” choice, the story just pivots seamlessly to the “right” one. For the most part, no matter what you choose, it plays out the same storyline. A few early choices do affect the endgame scenarios, however, which does give this one a leg up on the entries that generally don’t factor in earlier conditions.
8. Animals on the Loose: A You Vs. Wild Movie
Credit must be given where credit is due — the second Bear Grylls interactive adventure is leagues better than the first. There is now a loose overarching narrative: the electrical fence at a nature preserve has mysteriously shut down, and Bear must fix it and corral some escaped animals. He has a few separate missions to embark on, and the order you pick them in affects the resulting choices. There is a branching path here!
There are a few instant-endgame choices, but they don’t end the entire experience, just the individual mission. The choices are also much more entertaining than the ones in the first You Vs. Wild interactive experience. One sees Bear battling a boa constrictor in the water, while another gives him a choice of luring a lion with meat or offering himself as bait. Some of the choices don’t matter (no matter which grub you eat, for instance, nothing seems to change), but there is enough variability to make for a fun time.
The only downside is the long swaths of time where there is no choice whatsoever, where Bear kinda just does his wilderness thing. You may miss an upcoming choice if you zone out when he muses about coastlines, or hikes around, grunting.
7. Carmen Sandiego: To Steal or Not to Steal
The Carmen Sandiego interactive adventure is currently one of the only Carmen Sandiego games readily available to play. After Carmen’s friends Ivy and Zack are kidnapped by the evil organization VILE, the game unfolds with various heists Carmen must undertake to appease VILE.
While definitely one of the most aesthetically pleasing Netflix interactive adventures — the animated series itself has some stunning moments — it jarringly forces viewers down one path at the beginning. The viewer is prompted to rescue Zack and Ivy, or steal for VILE. The former results in an instant endgame. Lots of other choices unfold in frustratingly similar ways: pick a course of action, and you’re seamlessly pushed into the option you didn’t select. There are a few choices with consequences which affect whether the endings are successful. But toward the end of the story, there’s only one clear branch. Carmen will still take on most of the missions, and only the order is shuffled around.
6. You vs. Wild: Out Cold
This time around, Bear Grylls’ creative team understood the assignment! Each iteration of the You vs. Wild interactive franchise has vastly improved on the last, and the third one is an actual survival adventure, with the viewer’s choices actually making canonical sense. In this interactive special, Grylls wakes up after a plane crash, and he’s forgotten who he is — and all of his survival skills. He has vague hunches about what he’s supposed to do, but he asks the viewer to contribute at each step.
The initial set of choices — seeking food, water, or shelter — do skew into the usual territory, where if you pick the wrong choice, the story immediately segues into the right one, or into endgame. But once Grylls gets his basic survival necessities, he must embark on a rescue mission. Here, the big branching choice happens: Should you trek over the mountains, or go through some spooky tunnels? And that choice isn’t the only major one in the story. Each path offers other, smaller choices — does Bear press through his altitude sickness, or wait it out? Does he mark his path with tiles or knots?
Each of these questions affects the endgame conditions, and determines which extra steps you must choose to get him to safety. Grylls’ acting is incredibly wooden at times, but overall, this interactive is a massive improvement over the first You Vs. Wild experience, and it’s an engaging play itself.
5. Puss in Book: Trapped in an Epic Tale
Based on the Puss in Boots animated Netflix series (which spun off from the Shrek movie franchise), Puss in Book: Trapped in an Epic Tale tosses the swashbuckling feline hero into a magical book where a cheeky narrator intends to keep him trapped so he can play out the events of various fairy tales. Viewers are prompted to pick which stories to play out (a Sinbad-style pirate tale or a Snow White homage, for instance) and then control smaller choices within the story.
Puss in Books, overall, offers some branching and different endings. You can pick which fairytales to play out, and you can break out of the book in a few different ways. But the best part of the Puss in Boots interactive special is the tone. It repeatedly breaks the fourth wall with more gusto than Black Mirror: Bandersnatch’s sly references. Puss begs the viewer to make certain choices, while the narrator delights in torturing him, and getting the audience to participate as well. In one branch, Puss realizes how to gain control of the narrative, prompting some genuinely hilarious moments as he wildly forces former opponents to sing and dance.
4. Stretch Armstrong: The Breakout
Stretch Armstrong: The Breakout follows the Flex Fighters, three high-school students with superpowered suits, right after their high-tech billionaire mentor turned on them and framed them as criminals. After a mass breakout of villains, the Flex Fighters must save the city and stop the real villain.
Coming into this game without heavy knowledge of the show puts viewers at a disadvantage, initially, but after just a few clicks, the story makes more sense. Much like with the Carmen Sandiego game, The Breakout tends to respond to “wrong” choices by pivoting you back to the “correct” one. But unlike the Carmen Sandiego or Kimmy Schmidt special, fewer of those wrong choices end in insta-failure. While some of the choices are inconsequential, there are enough to offer distinct branches with specific consequences. Choosing to follow lumbering villain Multi-Farious means taking down a high-tech skyscraper, while getting Multi-Farious to follow the Flex Fighters means a different battle against an electric-powered bad guy. There are actually different ways things can unfold — with only a few frustrating game-overs.
3. Boss Baby: Get That Baby!
Who would’ve thought that the Boss Baby interactive special would crack the top 3? But every one of these specials could learn a thing or two from Boss Baby: Get That Baby. It’s not that the special has more branching paths than some of the others — it’s that it’s that the presentation itself makes some early endgames actually enjoyable.
The entire setup of the Boss Baby interactive special is that it is a training simulation, designed to see which department at Baby Corp makes the most sense for the player. That means even early endgames feel like successes. Three villains in the Boss Baby universe are also out for revenge, and you must guide the Boss Baby and his older brother to foil their schemes. No matter which villain’s scheme you pick, the characters start out in a hay bale maze. Winning or losing the maze means that the next sequence of events unfolds differently. There are clear choices with ramifications. There are also some puzzles to solve, some of which are pretty hard for what I assume is the young, target demographic!
Overall, Get that Baby! one of the more engaging interactive specials, with endings that never felt like premature pitfalls and some surprisingly funny riffs about corporate culture.
2. Black Mirror: Bandersnatch
The standalone, Emmy-winning episode of Black Mirror follows a young game designer set on creating an interactive game. Meta, right? Unlike Puss in Books’ approach to joyously interrogating the fourth wall, Bandersnatch does it darkly, fueled by paranoia and drugs, and commenting more on the illusion of free will than the actual nature of the medium. But we wouldn’t expect anything less from Black Mirror.
Many choices in Bandersnatch are inconsequential, but there are enough big ones to sharply pivot the narrative. There are also multiple different significant endings, which is rare for a Netflix interactive experience. Bandersnatch doesn’t have a “good” ending — all of them are terrible for the protagonist to some degree, which makes it a grim experience. But it’s a more intricate one than some of the other specials.
1. Minecraft: Story Mode
Minecraft: Story Mode is the only one of Netflix’s choose-your-own-adventure stories so far that actually plays like a game and not an interactive video. Perhaps that’s not a surprise, given that it’s a partnership between Netflix and Telltale Games, and it’s based on a game. Does that make it inherently better? It sure makes it feel more interactive, like you’re actually participating in the story. You aren’t just guiding characters to a choice — you are in the Minecraft universe.
From the get-go, Story Mode viewers are prompted to pick between two versions of the main character, which gives the story a more game-like feel. The choices come frequently, and while not all of them drastically branch off into separate narratives, they customize the actual experience of the gameplay. Your character can be nice to rivals, a bit of a jerk, or somewhere in between. Sometimes there are puzzle sequences to solve. Not every choice significantly affects the story, but they all feel like they’re expanding the experience. It’s closer to being a visual novel than any of the other titles.
Also, Minecraft: Story Mode is more robust and long, running at five nearly hourlong episodes with multiple parts. (Most of these other titles, especially the ones for kids, clock in at just over half an hour.) It’s a meaty game to dig into, especially for Minecraft fans, and definitely the Netflix interactive experience that actually feels the most interactive.