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How Netflix makes its choose-your-own adventure movies

Director Ben Simms sits down to explain the process of designing interactive stories

the undertaker at a row of computers, plotting something devious Image: Netflix
Petrana Radulovic is an entertainment reporter specializing in animation, fandom culture, theme parks, Disney, and young adult fantasy franchises.

Netflix isn’t just about movies and television anymore — it’s also about interactivity. The streaming platform currently boasts 15 interactive titles, each with varying levels of viewer agency. (And fun!) But behind every one of these interactive specials, there’s a team making sure that they reach a certain level of, well, interactivity.

The newest of these titles, the WWE tie-in Escape the Undertaker, is one of the platform’s most interactive yet, following three wrestlers as they journey to the notorious WWE villain’s mansion to steal his magical urn. Escape the Undertaker comes from director Ben Simms — who is also responsible for Netflix’s three Bear Grylls interactive survival specials. We sat down with Simms to dive into the process of creating these specials, and find out how he engineers them for maximum interactivity.

the undertake on an ominous throne Image: Netflix

Step One: Find the ‘ultimate success’

The first thing to figure out — beyond the actual concept and key characters — is the “ultimate success.” Whether that’s getting Bear Grylls off the mountain where he’s stranded, or destroying the Undertaker’s urn once and for all, depends on the title, but the win condition has to be established before all the other endings are plotted.

“The big thing, especially with Netflix, is making sure there’s a variance in endings and different levels of success,” explains Simms. “So once you have what the ultimate success might be, everything else is built around that, and different iterations come from whatever that ultimate success is.”

Step Two: Plot out the other endings — and balance them

After deciding on that ultimate success, the team has to figure out the less-than-successful endings. It’s not as easy as simply coming up with alternatives, though. Playtesting starts really early in the design process — not just to figure out the title’s technical aspects, but to make sure the entire experience is enjoyable.

“You want to make sure things are balanced enough so that there isn’t necessarily a lopsided path you could take, that’s going to just be more exciting and look and sound much better than the rest,” Simms says. The team pays close attention to balancing out the different paths. In the case of Escape the Undertaker, for instance, the paths take viewers through alternate routes through the house, exploring new locations. That way, Escape the Undertaker escapes (ha ha) some of the pitfalls of other Netflix Interactives, where choices aren’t really choices, so much as brief segues.

Step Three: Figure out when an ending is an ending

One of the recurring elements of a Netflix Interactive is how some choices let viewers go back after a bad choice, and make a new one. Simms says that when creators are figuring out when to start viewers back at a checkpoint, the team must take audience investment into account — if you’re deep in a story, you don’t want to have to start over from scratch, but if you’ve just started, it’s not as much of a hit.

“It usually ends up being somewhere on the midpoint, and somewhere around the beginning of the third act, where you’re invested enough in the stakes,” explains Simms. “The stakes get raised a bit so that your choices, hopefully along the way, seem to matter more and more.”

Step Four: Integrate the Choices

The biggest difference between titles like You vs. Wild and Escape the Undertaker is how the choices themselves are integrated into the narrative. Regardless of the storyline, the goal is to make the choices cohesive — but that comes easier in some stories than in others.

“You don’t want it to feel too intrusive. If it’s a title where the character, the talent or the person within the story, is breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience, that’s a little bit different, and can be done a bit easier,” Simms says.

bear grylls holding out a lantern Image: Netflix

Ultimately, the trick is streamlining the scenes as much as possible to highlight the choice — while still making them feel like scenes and not prompts. Simms adds, “It should be as good of a scene as it possibly can be without it being interactive — it just happens to be interactive.”

Step Five: Film the Special

There are “extra layers” to shooting an interactive special versus shooting a regular movie, says Simms, and the biggest challenge comes in filming the same scenes over and over with slightly different contexts. Thankfully, in both projects Simms worked on, the performers were used to adapting and thinking quickly.

“[Bear Grylls] is very good in the moment, and is used to being on his toes in extreme situations. For him, it was very natural to adapt or completely change and pivot the tone of the scene,” says Simms. “The same goes for all the WWE talent. They’re live performers, so it was very advantageous to work with them and be able to say ‘Ok, now you’re happy. Now you’re sad.’ It’s obviously not that simplistic, but they can, within a moment, pivot and understand that we’re doing a different version of the same scene.”

Endgame: The future of Netflix Interactives

If Netflix Interactives continue to get more complex — and so far, that seems to be the trend — Simms says that improved production quality could lend itself to even more interactivity. The coolest possibility?

“I could see some scenario of almost a personality test based on choices as a viewer — whether it’s based on your Netflix history, or based on your online history,” says Simms. “I could just see it getting more and more personalized in that capacity.”

Escape the Undertaker and the You vs. Wild titles — as well as the other Netflix Interactives — are available to stream on Netflix.

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