This week, Netflix released a new interactive reality show, You vs. Wild, featuring celebrity survivalist Bear Grylls.
The series drops him in various environments—such as a central American jungle or an abandoned mine in Europe—but the gimmick is that you, the viewer, make all the decisions that guide him on his mission.
In the first episode, Grylls is tasked with rescuing a doctor lost in the jungle after trying to deliver malaria vaccines to a remote village. After rescuing her, you decide how Grylls gets to the village to deliver the vaccines himself. Should he pack a slingshot with him or a grappling hook? Should he munch on some termites or a grub for energy? Challenge a crocodile or try to sneak by it?
“You decide!” Grylls repeats several times in the trailer, and throughout the series.
You vs. Wild is the second attempt from Netflix at interactive content aimed at adults (the platform already offers four interactive series aimed at children.) The first came with a big splash at the end of 2018 with Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, which allowed viewers to make choices for Stefan, a video game programmer who’s losing his grip on reality.
Due to the nature of the choices offered in each installment of You vs. Wild, which is usually between a sensible and a riskier option, you can go through the entire thing without hitting any snags, which is what I did my first two runs through the first episode.
It wasn’t until my third try—when I deliberately started to take more risks and directed Grylls to run across a shaky-looking log that snapped and landed him in a ravine—that I realized you could actually even “fail” a mission. It roughs him up, but doesn’t hurt him too bad; it’s not like you’re going to kill anyone. But make one bad move and it’s game over.
You vs. Wild is entertaining at times—there are lots of funny moments, and the novelty of having Bear Grylls speak directly to you feels like a grown-up version of Dora the Explorer. It also shows that after Bandersnatch, Netflix still has its eyes set on gamified content.
But in terms of interactivity, the limits of the format are glaringly apparent. The most enjoyable part of Bandersnatch was how many times you could play through and arrive at different endings, most plausible enough to be believable outcomes. In one ending the film’s main character, Stefan, kills his father and hacks up his body because he feels like he’s controlling him, and in another, Stefan learns that he’s actually being controlled as part of a Netflix special.
In You vs. Wild, no matter what path you take, you’ll eventually end up finishing the mission. Losing a mission just sends you back to where you messed up.
Bandersnatch wasn’t perfect, but every choice you made in the moment felt like it could carry some kind of weight, even though some ended up having no effect in the long run. You vs. Wild doesn’t feel quite the same.
Regardless of what Netflix plans to do with interactive content in the future—which has raised questions about what the platform does with the information collected from users based on the choices they make— You vs. Wild feels more like a stumble than a meaningful step in the direction of a new kind of television-viewing experience.
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