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Netflix launches interactive TV shows with branching narratives

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Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

Netflix’s latest episode of television is an experiment in storytelling that will be familiar to people who are familiar with video games (or Choose Your Own Adventure books). The company launched an interactive TV show today, the first in a series of efforts that will allow viewers to decide which turns a story takes.

The first interactive offering from Netflix is Puss in Book: Trapped in an Epic Tale, a 23-minute spinoff of the Netflix kids series The Adventures of Puss in Boots. (The show’s titular cat originated in DreamWorks Animation’s Shrek film franchise; he starred in his own spinoff movie, Puss in Boots, in 2011.) Trapped in an Epic Tale lets viewers dictate the progression of the episode’s story, asking them questions like, in an encounter with strangers, “Should Puss fight them valiantly, or chitchat with them over tea?”

Netflix will soon expand its library with additional interactive shows. Buddy Thunderstruck: The Maybe Pile, an extension of the Netflix original series Buddy Thunderstruck, is set to premiere July 14. The third title is Stretch Armstrong: The Breakout, which will be a follow-up to this year’s upcoming animated series Stretch Armstrong & the Flex Fighters. Netflix said The Breakout is coming in 2018.

You may have noticed that all three of Netflix’s initial interactive shows are geared toward children, and the company did that for a reason: Consider the fact that Dora the Explorer asks kids to yell “Swiper, no swiping” at their TVs.

“The children’s programming space was a natural place for us to start since kids are eager to ‘play’ with their favorite characters and already inclined to tap, touch and swipe at screens,” said Carla Engelbrecht Fisher, Netflix’s director of product innovation, in a blog post today. “They also talk to their screens, as though the characters can hear them.”

Puss in Book: Trapped in an Epic Tale is available on a wide variety of devices that offer the streaming service. But at the moment, interactive shows will not function on Android, Apple TV, Chromecast or the Netflix website. You can still watch them on unsupported platforms — they’ll just revert to a traditional linear version without choices.

Netflix isn’t the only streaming service to explore interactive TV. Twitch is also looking to get into the field, the company said earlier this year.

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