There’s a fabulous moment in Netflix’s new Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt interactive film where Jacqueline (Jane Krakowski) is sucking on a straw for a little too long – waiting for me to decide what lie to tell – which made me realise that this is the closest thing to live performance I’m going to get at the moment.
Our decision, it turns out, doesn’t really matter – either way, what ensues is a long and hilarious subplot of spiralling farce. Like being in a theatre, standup or improv audience, we’re being tacitly acknowledged and even given the delightful illusion of some agency – but really we’re fully in the hands of great writers and performers as they play with our expectations and emotions.
As creator Tina Fey said, “It’s like when you ask your kid, ‘Do you want an apple or an orange?’” Either way they’re getting a piece of fruit.”
In this way, interactive feels very suited to comedy. The continuous flow of the story on streaming platforms is so unlike any previous clunky versions of interactivity. When choices are presented, they don’t disturb the scene, and you can find yourself looping through the same decision again and again, seeing something different each time, peeling back layers of character comedy – as the writers use the interactivity to do gags that wouldn’t be possible in any other form without derailing everything.
For example [Spoiler and Easter Egg alert] there’s a point where you can call the same voicemail several times and not only unlock several minutes of lovely silliness with Kimmy and her backpack, but then a reel of outtakes.
It isn’t about multiple endings, it’s about what you see and who you meet on the journey
I watched together with my family – and although we hadn’t watched any of the four series of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, we felt instantly immersed us in its world. The obvious depth and history of the characters are a perfect launch pad for Fey and her co-creator Robert Carlock to push the possibilities of interactive storytelling – exploring everyone’s relationships in different directions, indulging and quashing fantasies, showing us multiple different perspectives on the same events.
Perspectives are at the heart of this. Unlike Charlie Brooker’s Bandersnatch which won huge audiences and last year’s Emmy for best TV movie but divided critics, Kimmy versus The Reverend isn’t about finding multiple endings, it’s about what you see and who you meet on the journey. There are various wrong turns which loop back around, but ultimately you’re driving towards one happy ending with different callback gags depending on what’s gone before.
“We all really enjoyed this interactive process” Tina Fey
Brooker complained that writing Bandersnatch was “Like doing a Rubik’s Cube inside your brain. There aren’t any tools aimed at screenwriters used to writing scripts. Everyone went a bit bananas.” His partner Annabel Jones said, “If we’d known how difficult it was going to be, we might not have done it.”
A year and a half later, Kimmy shows the difference made by the development of Netflix’s in-house writing tool, Branch Manager.
Like Stornaway, it now helps writers and producers to plan, write and preview their stories. “It was really a helpful way to do it,” said Fey. “I love all those people and I enjoy those characters, and I think we all really enjoyed this interactive process too. I would happily try that again. I could see other shows having a lot of fun with it.”
This is our goal with Stornaway, putting this new form in the hands of great writers and producers to explore new worlds, to seek out new ways of telling stories. To have fun while playing with layers of complexity – and without coding!
Interactive filmmaking may seem on the surface like it’s a geeky convergence of film and games – but Kimmy, Jacqueline, Titus and Lillian show that it’s more of a convergence of writers and audience – of television and theatre. A writer’s playground!
As the guy at the end of the Unbreakable theme tune says, “That’s gonna be a, a you know, uh… fascinatin’ transition!”