Interactive Video Killed the Storyline Star
Interactive Video Killed the Storyline Star

It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

“Okay, class, clear your desks. Books away. I’m going to need your full attention up on the television.”

With great effort, the fifth graders organize their spaces and ready their minds for the activity. The brown nosers’ heads swivel to offer annoyed looks at the straggler kids in the back. Why can’t they get their acts together?

What will it be this time? A Nat Geo short on King Tut? Or what about Anne Frank. Either way, the TV always brought an excuse for all to zone out accordingly.

“Ok everyone, this is not an excuse to zone out! This movie is actually going to require your participation. We’ll follow along and watch what happens, and then, as a class, we will make decisions on how to handle each scenario. Sounds pretty cool, right?”

The teacher ignores the collective response (fervent head nodding contrasted by wails for recess time instead). She pops in the VHS and flicks off the lights.

On screen, the credits roll:


The scene opens on a school drop-off setting. We pan over to the side of the building, shielded from grown-up view. There’s a group of four boys, positioned awkwardly.

“HOW OLD IS THIS VIDEO? LOOK AT THAT KID’S DUMB GLASSES!” squawks back-row Teddy in the untucked-shirt.


The teacher glances at the VHS sleeve. 1992. Yikes, that was six years ago. Why do they make me show this stuff?

Back to the video and the group of boys.

[Brandon] has apparently just pushed [Marcus] down, stealing his glasses and threatening to break them.

Two onlookers, [David] and [Ryan] witness the incident. [Ryan] laughs loudly and eggs on the torture of [Marcus.]

[David] however, must choose his path.

We zoom in to [David’s] full face. He’s conflicted. Thinking.

The middle-aged female VO sets us up:

“Brandon is bullying Marcus behind the building during school drop-off. He knows that no teachers can see him and is going to take this chance to be mean to Marcus. Marcus gets better grades than him, and Brandon is jealous. David and Ryan watch Brandon push Marcus down and steal his glasses. Ryan isn’t being a good friend by laughing and urging Brandon to continue. But David has not yet chosen a response. What do you think David should do?”

A set of options type out on screen as the scenario freezes in place:

Should David:
A.   Step on the glasses as he says, “Welcome to Loserville, Marcus. Population one … you. We told you to let us cheat off of your homework, scrub!”

B.   Help Marcus up and say to the group, “Guys, I don’t feel comfortable with your actions right now. We are not being good friends to Marcus. Let’s resolve this situation together.”

C.   Offer Brandon a cigarette and tell him to chill out.

“OH A. AAAAAA! A, please, A!”

Coming as a shock to no one, Teddy and his back-row mates want A.

But the class majority looks past the lameness and falls in line: B is selected as the correct answer.

“Ok everyone, let’s see what happens when we choose B!” says the teacher, feigning enthusiasm as she wishes for more recess time.



Whether or not you participated in (or have heard of) this type of interactive activity, you get the premise: interactive video experiences such as these appeared at the intersection of VHS technology and middle schoolers who had to be taught that calling someone a “scrub” was going to get you in trouble.

Notwithstanding the larger value of interactive learning, one must wonder – how impactful could this lesson have been, if not playing instead to the whim of story control or collective decision making? Could the class have gotten the opportunity to feel some raw emotion or follow a real-life storyline? Perhaps we should have seen what came next after option A. The scarring emotional effects to Marcus through adolescence. Or the part where adult Brandon can’t hold a steady job and picked up a misdemeanor from a bad night at the bar. Something immersive. Unsettling. Thought-provoking.

Because isn’t that the allure of great storytelling? That you don’t actually know what happens next?

This is likely the biggest hurdle with pathway (aka “choose your own adventure”) interactive video. Given the option, you’d probably let Mufasa live, right? Sure, you’d feel good in the moment but at what unknown detriment to the larger story?

While the category of interactive video is very broad, on the whole it suffers from this looming question: is it all just a gimmick?

Under this umbrella title you’ll find 360-degree video, clickable hotspot video, pathway video, data input video, quiz-driven video, etc. All designed – and validated by marketers everywhere -– to enhance engagement.

As reported in AdWeek, 87% of consumers use a second screen device when watching tv. So now more than ever, your content has to be especially good enough to hold attention. Interactive video has been painted as the silver bullet to this problem. According to this study, it grabs and keeps a user’s attention and can result in a whopping 591% lift in user activity.

But while a user might be “engaging” with clicks in the moment, what sticks with them after that interface? No marketing study can record how Romeo and Juliet stays with you, affects your decisions and makes you wonder why people are always blindsided by prejudice. The kids in the classroom won’t remember “B.” But they’d probably remember “Brandon” wrecking the school track meet because of his new cigarette addiction.

So brands: if you can’t get someone to immerse in your story without a gimmick, maybe it’s just not very good. Make it better. Millennials’ increasing desire for choice or control doesn’t change the fact that they are human. They still feel anger, sadness, joy and humor. And great stories will always hold more influence than a passing click.

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