The plot really thickens

New interactive dramas let viewers choose plot endings


Should I knock? Interactive drama queen Huang stars in His Smile

An ordinary girl called Qiannao graduates from university, struggles to find a job, but then lands on her feet by securing a role at the entertainment company Lingxi Culture as an artist’s assistant.

This is the plot behind the new interactive drama series His Smile – starring Huang Haoyue – which launched on iQiyi in June. Viewers get to make the decisions for her love life, choosing between five different men. All are striving for success in the music industry (yes, you guessed it, yet another boy band) and each one is chasing after her.

His Smile has a total of 21 ‘storyline selections’ and 17 different endings. Viewers take decisions for the protagonist when a selection option appears on screen, or simply ignore it and the drama will unfold uninterrupted.

The introduction of this decisionmaking means that audiences get more caught up in the story because they feel more involved with it, iQiyi says.

The idea for the project was first hatched in 2018 when Yang Qi, a senior director with iQiyi, and Bai Yicong, the founder of Linghe Culture, discussed an initial plot and decided that viewer interaction would add a new dimension.

iQiyi made an earlier effort to create two different endings for its drama The List in 2015. However, there were problems with the playback and technological glitches disrupted the viewer experience. But the advent of 5G will help the different sequences flow without lags or delays in real-time, iQiyi says. It announced a new Interactive Video Platform (or IVP) in May and a 100 million people are now paying to watch His Smile on it, according to Bai.

Late last year Netflix released Bandersnatch – another interactive film based on the dystopian series Black Mirror, created by Charlie Brooker.

It required viewers to make decisions for the protagonist, who was ironically enough a programmer working on a choose-your-own-adventure computer game. But Chinese media firms are trying to popularise the medium on a greater scale, including Tencent, which launched one of the first interactive dramas, The Origin of the Buddha’s Head in the Antique Bureau, in January. That show had just three possible endings, but achieved a 25% replay rate within five days of it’s release.

Not long after, Mango TV launched The No. 1 Suspect of the Star Detective in which viewers are given clues as the story unfolds, allowing them to participate in the investigation themselves. In a measure of the level of interest that series generated discussions on Sina Weibo that reached 133.8 million posts.

Putting together interactive dramas isn’t straightforward and the filming of the different plot lines means more time and money for production. But the flipside for online streaming channels like iQiyi is that they drive subscription revenues and keep viewers on the platform for longer as the format get watched and rewatched.

For its Chinese audience the choices heaped on the protagonist in His Smile also offer a form of escapism. Given the younger demographic, it seems that romance dramas may be the most bankable variety. Qiu Yuzhou, who directed His Smile told QQ News: “The interactive drama is completely selective and human. When you first watch the drama, you choose it according to your preferences. But after watching the ending, you are curious [about what might happen] and choose [to watch] again making different choices.”

Particularly addicted viewers might even want to check out every one of the 17 different plot denouements on offer – an outcome that will please iQiyi all the more.

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