I recently made the bold claim that interactive storytelling is about to take centre stage for broadcasters and brands. Perhaps I knew something was coming? Well I did, and this is it: Casualty: First Day, the inaugural interactive episode of Casualty – the longterm, hit UK primetime drama series.
The ink of this interactive story has not yet dried and already it’s being heralded as a critical and statistical success on the BBC’s Taster platform; their area for new ideas. And why wouldn’t it? Casualty is a British institution after all.
Using on-set, live-action footage, and with a selection of the show’s most popular characters, this online experience allows fans and new audiences to engage with the show in a refreshed, contemporary way. It puts you, the viewer, in the driving seat as you step into the scrubs of a junior doctor, making life or death decisions during a typical day within Holby City’s Emergency Department as you battle medical emergencies and cope with antagonistic patients. Are you a maverick who likes to go it alone, or do you take all the help you can get to find the best outcome for your patients?
Casualty: First Day – viewers to make decisions that affect the characters and direction of the episode
Casualty: First Day is an experiment, an answer to the question “can drama be made interactive?”. By taking a highly recognised brand like Casualty and using interactive video can we create a different, immersive experience? Can we engage Casualty fans, whilst appealing to a newer audience?
To begin answering those questions I would like to share some of the things we learnt during the making of Casualty: First Day.
Go to the Source
Whenever we extend an established IP we go immediately to the source. Bringing imagery, characters, talent and music from the established IP to the new experience is essential. Fans have an expectation and it’s really important not to disappoint. Imagine a Peppa Pig game with no Daddy Pig voice over? Or a Star Wars experience without the instantly recognisable original score?
So a direct relationship with the source allows us to get our hands on the raw assets, or better still, create something unique using authentic ingredients.
The goal for Casualty: First Day was to create so much more than the usual behind the scenes video. To do that we had access to the screenwriters, the actors, production crew, and of course the set, to make something truly original and authentic.
Critically, the BBC’s Casualty team got the importance of this experiment and were all behind its ambition. We were all immediately put on a level playing field – there was no creative hierarchy between us and the BBC. We even worked alongside the director, production crew and actors during filming to ensure what was being filmed would work on an interactive platform.
Design to the Limits of the Technology
To build the interactive experience we used Interlude, a new piece of video technology which had been adopted by the BBC. Interlude facilitates the creation of branching videos that seamlessly cut from one to the next.
Interlude is very new technology and of all the BBC projects using Interlude, we were the first to use the HTML5 version.
Our experience features several playable sections, what we call ‘moments of heightened interaction’, that are designed to pull viewers in and generate emotion. We planned these around tight technical constraints, such as navigating through lots of very short branching sequences that allowed many outcomes based on the viewer’s interactions. We were among first to try that technique using Interlude. It proved more complicated than it should have been – we hit the technical limitations of the platform.
While prototyping the interface for Casualty: First Day, we realised that our ambitions for its interface would be far from straight forward to implement. Rather than reduce our expectations, or under-deliver, we developed a clever mix of invisible buttons in Interlude and visual elements within the video itself.
Casualty: First Day runs through a complex branching sequence of video clips
These challenges aside, what Interlude did offer us was great cross browser support and the ability to plan and manage an incredibly complicated branching story in a way that would otherwise have been frustrating and difficult.
With Casualty: First Day we have pushed the technology beyond its comfort zones. We make no apologies for that – it’s what we needed to do in order to deliver the vision.
HTML5 video is still in relative infancy and Interlude has technical challenges, especially on mobile. We plan to work further with both the BBC and Interlude to improve that. However, BBC Taster is a platform for experiments – so at the time of writing, Casualty: First Day is limited to desktop and tablet devices.
Digital Interactive Pacing is Different to Linear TV Pacing
Something we have learned over many projects is the importance of engineering the good stuff early on in the experience. Digital audiences are fickle and, like a moth to flame, will quickly divert their attention to something else if your proverbial flame goes out. With this in mind, we worked hard to ensure that the viewer is thrown into the action fast, performing CPR on a patient so that the viewer can quickly see that there is real consequence to their actions – either the patient lives or they die.
Pacing throughout the story was at the front of everyone’s minds; we needed to get the balance right. On one hand we didn’t want long video clips with no interactivity, while at the same time we didn’t want the user to be called upon to click at every moment. The whole structure was planned with this in mind. The timing of each scene was constantly monitored throughout planning, scripting, filming, post production and the interactive build itself.
To show just how Casualty: First Day could make viewers sit up and interact, we used game mechanics to create heightened moments of interactivity. We included typical Emergency Department situations which were designed to focus the viewer and mimic the drama of the moment. We wanted the viewer to really sit up at this point as they feel the weight of responsibility. Again, we gave viewers the power to either directly, or indirectly, save their patient, or kill them.
At all times we have tried to find ways of making the experience sharable. To do that we had to engineer compelling reasons for viewers to spread the word. With a medical drama that deals with life and death, it’s not too difficult to find those moments. People will share if they have something to talk about. ‘Did you kill the patient, or did he survive?’ ‘What happened at the end?’ ‘What did Connie say to you?’
Whilst writing this post, I have seen the share figures for Casualty: First Day increase tenfold. It’s already the most shared BBC Taster experience and we are very excited to see what will come from this experience over the coming weeks.
So to sum up, is this the future of television content? If so, how long will it be before this kind of experience is common place among families on a Saturday night? Will audiences play alongside one another, creating their own dramas?
Clearly we are not there yet, but the key thing is that we are starting to understand the possibilities as well as the constraints. We now know so much more about the terms under which viewers will engage interactively with TV content.
Like our Junior Doctors, we need to keep on evolving, keep on learning from our mistakes and focus on making more of the right decisions.
About Rob Sloan
Rob is Executive Producer at fish in a bottle. He works collaboratively with broadcasters, brands and media owners to create interactive apps that tell stories and build audiences through playful experiences.