Netflix's Choose Your Own Adventure experiment: are multiple endings the future of TV?

<b>Netflix's Choose Your Own Adventure experiment: are multiple endings the future of TV?</b>

You're alone, browsing The Telegraph website, when a dangerous-looking article catches your eye. Your hesitate, torn. Reading it will put your life at risk – but the article contains a vital piece of the ancient map you're after.

Want to play it safe? Click away to tamer pastures...although don't expect everything you encounter there to be friendly.

Want to brave the article? Keep reading.

* * * * *

Okay, so there's no map. And your life isn't in danger. But one thing that could be, judging by the latest Netflix-related headlines, is conventional storytelling. The online streaming service and content producer is reportedly working on making "choose your own ending" programmes, incorporating technology that will allow viewers to pick from multiple conflicting story threads.

"We're doing work on branch narratives so you are actually making choices as you watch," an alleged insider told the Daily Mail. "All the content will be there, and then people will have to get through it in different ways. We'll see how it plays out. It's an experiment. We'll see if it gets much success. For creators, it's new territory."

It's unclear at present whether Netflix is planning on making brand new shows to test out the interactive technology, or whether it will use the tool to enhance its existing favourites, handing a measure of control back to the fans. The most likely answer, as the quote above suggests, is that it's currently all up in the air. But if the gimmick takes off, the possibilities could be endless.
It's not just Netflix, either. Last year, it was reported that Ken Levine, creator of the game BioShock, is working on an "interactive" film, based on the science fiction The Twilight Zone TV series. And Steven Soderbergh's mysterious Mosaic, a HBO movie starring Sharon Stone and said to feature multiple narratives and audience participation, is also reportedly set to be released this year.
In one way, allowing viewers to directly influence storylines and pick their own preferred threads feels like a very modern phenomenon: a sort-of hybrid child of video games (where different choice-driven endings are par the course) and the internet, where fans of certain books, films and TV shows will often now create and share their own alternate narrative fictions.

Comic books, in fact, have been experimenting with multiple/alternate universes for years. Ever wondered what would have happened if Gwen Stacey instead of Peter Parker were bitten by that fateful arachnid? Since 2015, Marvel has been bringing out regular "Spider-Gwen" comics, set on an alternative Earth and exploring the possibility to the full.
Credit: Marvel Comics
But as anyone who grew up enjoying the Goosebumps You Choose The Scare books or the older Choose Your Own Adventure series will know, the tradition of handing control to the reader has its roots in children's literature.
Usually written in the second person, addressing the reader directly, these kind oftitles, sometims called "gamebooks" confront the reader with a series of choices, and instruct them to turn to different pages to discover the conflicting (but often very grim) fates lying in store.

Their invention dates back to the Sixties, and to an American lawyer named Edward Packard. Defying the usual lawyer-related stereotypes, Packard enjoyed creating new, inventive stories to amuse his children, and soon discovered that his listeners would be especially responsive if they were given a hand in the narratives.

Inspired by this, he created the very first Choose Your Own Adventure-style book: a tale called Sugarcane Island.

Publishers, however, were simply not interested: the experimental format was too unlike anything they had seen before...and it wasn't until 1975 that Packard's project would finally take off, all thanks to a small-time Vermont publisher named RA Montgomery.
On the hunt for children's books, Montgomery received Packard's manuscript, and, unlike many others, instantly sensed the potential. A savvy man, he decided first to test it out on its intended audience.

“I Xeroxed 50 copies of Ed’s manuscript and took it to a reading teacher in Stowe [ in Vermont]," Montgomery recalled during a 1981 interview with the New York Times. “His kids – third grade through junior high – couldn’t get enough of it.”
After publishing Sugarcane Island, and commissioning Packard to write more books, Montgomery also had the foresight to realise that his company, Vermont Crossroads Press, was too small to really do the concept and its potential justice.

He enlisted an agent named Amy Nerkower to help him pitch the series to bigger publishers, and in 1978 finally found a sympathetic ear (or eye) in Joëlle Delbourgo, a young assistant editor working at Bantam Books.

“I got really excited,” Delbourgo told Mental Floss years afterwards. “I said, ‘Amy, this is revolutionary.’ This is precomputer, remember. The idea of interactive fiction, choosing an ending, was fresh and novel. It tapped into something very fundamental.”

Thanks to Delbourgo's enthusiasm, Bantam agreed to pick up the series, and Choose Your Own Adventure went on to become a best-selling publishing franchise, popular with children across the world.

By 1998, more than 250 million books would have been sold.
Montgomery, who began working as a writer on the book series alongside Packard and the author Douglas Terman, initially decided that fantasy adventure stories packed with danger were the way to go: the likes of pirates, Mayan treasure, and abominable snowmen.
Later on, the company would experiment with sports-themed stories (which proved to be less of a success), a Star Wars spin-off line, and spooky horror narratives.

As the demand increased, more authors joined the fold – including, eventually, Montgomery's sons Ramsey and Anson – and the author-publisher hit upon the idea of bringing a book out every month, and of numbering the series to make it something children could collect.

Creating the books was an ongoing, experimental process, and Montgomery, who died in 2014, would have been the first to admit that not all the titles were equally successful.

"My favorites are The Abominable Snowman, Journey Under the Sea, and Mystery of the Maya," her revealed in a 2011 interview. "But maybe I’m not the best judge. I don’t particularly like House of Danger, don’t feel it’s very compelling, and yet it might be one of the fans’ favorites, judging from mail. The ones that didn’t work are the ones that probably didn’t interest me that much, or that I wrote when I shouldn’t have, when I was worn out from too much writing."
One somewhat less than successful concept he tried out, he explained, involved a the reader spending time inside a human body.

"I'd always been interested in medicine to a certain extent, so I thought what a wonderful journey, what branches you could take through the heart and the liver and the brain and the pancreas and the bones and the blood system — but it was a total failure! I couldn't do it," he said.

"I had a miniaturized you going through the body and I had white blood cells and red blood cells and platelets and oxygen transfers and I couldn't do it. I gave it up. I knew it was not turning out well it was not going to be a good book. Other writers I'm sure have had similar issues, where they started a title and it just didn't work out so they came up with something new. When a title doesn't work, it's quite obvious."
That said, with no disrespect intended to the late, great Montgomery, it's worth noting that, as the rise of video games began to erode the success of the books, some increasingly bizarre titles did begin to emerge.

Take, for example, Packard's You Are A Shark, in which the narrator, according to this Cracked article on the weirdest Choose Your Own Adventure Books, must inhabit the body of various animals...and suffer fates that include a) being a shark who eats an octopus or b) being the octopus. (As the author of the Cracked article notes, there's an uncomfortable auto-cannibalism subtext to this situation.)
Other impressively imaginative, but none the less very odd CYOA titles include Montgomery's Space And Beyond, which feature the nightmarish scenario below as one of its multiple endings:
The original run of Choose Your Own Adventure Books finally came to an end in 1998, and, these days, the concept of reader-controlled multiple ending books has long since lost its novelty – although new twists on the format, such as Ryan North's Shakespeare-inspired, Kickstarter-funded To Be or Not to Be: That is the Adventure and Romeo and/or Juliet are still finding eager readers.

It remains to be seen whether or not the Netflix news will spark a serious resurgence of nostalgic interest in the concept, or whether the expansion of the idea into TV-world will simply prove a short-lived fad. But either way, anyone working on new shows or stories would do well to heed Montgomery's advice: keep your audience on their toes, don't reward them for "being good" and never, ever play fair.
"A lot of people ask, and have asked over the years, is there a moral imperative behind the choices that are presented in Choose Your Own Adventure and the answer is: actually, no," he previously explained.

"Life throws you many curves. The choice you make might very well have a moral tone to it. Should you go in and save your friend in the ice fall now, or should you wait? Waiting may very well end up in his death, so if you choose to rush ahead, that’s a choice based on good morals, but in CYOA this doesn’t necessarily net a successful ending. This is accurate to the decisions you make in life.

"There's no way we could have programmed a moral ending for every storyline, unless every ending was happy-go-lucky and moral. Life isn't that way. Choose Your Own Adventure is not that way. Choose Your Own Adventure is a simulation that approximates, the choices that we face in our lives. If life were mostly really exciting and taking place in a dugout canoe or mountaintop or castle dungeon most of the time."