Tap To Control: Interactivity and Narrative Control in Netflix's "Buddy Thunderstruck: The Maybe Pile"

Curator's Note

 Admittedly, this post will be unlike most of the pieces presented this week in that it concerns a media object that is not produced, marketed, named, or thought of as a video game. Buddy Thunderstruck: The Maybe Pile is the second of two interactive cartoons produced by Netflix this summer, and lets viewers on iOS devices choose different paths for the protagonists to follow at six different junctures. Though none of these branching paths (save the final set of choices) actually change the end result of the story, all of them affect how the narrative itself is told.

In a Rolling Stone article this August, Carla Engelbrecht Fisher, Netflix's director of product innovation, is quoted speaking on a specific toolset Netflix has designed that allows users to make one of two choices, which she notes allows artists to “tell very broad and engaging and varied types of stories.” Fisher later goes on to note that Netflix is intentionally targeting young audiences with their forays into interactivity. “They're just completely used to swiping and tapping on touchscreens to make things happen,” Fisher says, “and that's one of the few things they really get ownership and agency around.”

In this unclear time, the words of Marshall McLuhan come back to new relevance. In The Medium Is The Massage, McLuhan argues, “the alphabet… is a technology that is absorbed by the very young child in a completely unconscious manner… It is impossible to understand social and cultural changes without a knowledge of the workings of media” (McLuhan, 8).  For a child who has never lived without having their world mediated through tapping and swiping, a touch is as intuitive as a letter. To comprehend this new generation of media and its users, we must first know how viewing and interacting intertwine.

Traditionally, there has been two ways to approach what Hideo Kojima called a “convergence” of movies and games: bring the movie to videogame console, or the game to the DVD player. While there are game studios such as Telltale Games angling at the former and movies like Funny Games gamifying audience expectations, Netflix is defying both paths. By distributing media objects that require a special, intimate device used for both swiping and watching, Netflix may have finally found the middle.

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