Netflix doesn’t just do movies and TV: it also does interactivity. For the last four years, the streaming platform has been investing in a flurry of interactive specials — hybrid movie and game experiences based on pre-existing franchises, letting viewers participate in the stories they’re watching.
Netflix’s initial interactive titles, released in 2017, 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 are clearly expanding. Each special takes place loosely in the world of its respective show, except maybe Bandersnatch, since Black Mirror is an anthology show, and You vs. Wild, which 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 the Boss Baby interactive special Boss Baby: Get That Baby! out now, it’s time to take a look back on all of the Netflix interactive specials and adjust our previous ranking, based on how much fun they are, and what kind of stories they’re telling.
9. You Vs. Wild
The 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.
8. 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.
7. 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.
7. 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.
6. 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.
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 hour long 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.
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