Choose Your Own YouTube Adventure

If you’re an avid YouTube viewer, you’ve probably noticed the growing number of videos on the site that contain clickable links within the display screen. That’s the result of Video Annotations, a feature introduced last June that allows other clips to be embedded into videos. Lately it’s been increasingly used to string together several (or even several dozen) individual videos to create interactive video series. Many resemble a 21st-century version of those old “choose your own adventure” kids books or the original, laser disc-driven Dragon’s Lair, and suggest new ways to package future video content. Here’s a sampling to give you a sense of what’s possible in this evolving sub-genre — or at the very least, something to watch during your next lunch break.

Bboy Joker: Created by Canadian animator Patrick Boivin, who also made the YouTube Street Fighter videos we covered last month (which remains my favorite interactive series.) His latest is a stop-motion animated breakdance competition between The Joker and Batman, using highly articulated action figures based on The Dark Knight. You choose one of the characters, then try to mirror your competitors’ moves by memorizing their sequence and choosing the correct one from a quickly-flashing multiple choice menu at the top of the video. Watching Boivin’s impressive and complex animation sequences are just as entertaining as the interactive feature, if not more so.

The Time Machine: Created by the LA comedy team Chad, Matt & Rob as a self-promotional stunt, you must safely guide several hapless corporate dudes past medieval dragons and futuristic zombies (or rather, extremely low-budget versions of same) and back to the Noon office meeting. The high-energy weirdness almost makes up for the total lack of frills, but the interactivity is often more irksome than entertaining. At one point, for example (spoiler warning), you’re punished for making the morally right choice (helping an endangered buddy), so the decision-making process comes off as arbitrary.

M.I.V.E Halo and M.I.V.E. Killzone: Billed as a “Machinima Interactive Video Experience,” this is more of a marketing platform for, incorporating machinima video footage from hit games Killzone and Halo. Choose the right weapons and courses of action to complete a challenge, and if you succeed, get a chance to win a prize.

Fans of the original games, which reward quick thinking and observation, are likely to become frustrated. In the M.I.V.E versions, user actions are limited to extremely simple choices (i.e., guard your flag/get your opponents’ flag), and there’s no evident onscreen clues for choosing wisely. Consequently, it’s not a very successful marriage of content and interactivity. Since they’re derived from first-person shooters, maybe a better way to make these videos meaningfully interactive would have been multiple, clickable targets embedded in each scene. Or at the very least, something more like Fast Draw Showdown.

2009 Oscars Interactive Picture Photo Hunt! An increasingly challenging game of “guess which thing doesn’t belong,” you’re shown side-by-side copies of the same movie still, and before the time runs out on each video, you have to find and click on the discordant element within an overlaid grid. (Heath Ledger with an extra arm, Kate Winslet missing a clothing item, and so on.) This is actually a more satisfying game experience than the M.I.V.E. videos mentioned above, because here you’re rewarded for keen observation and fast response time. As with the Batman/Joke faceoff, it’s a great use of the interactive feature; I’d love to see more game videos created along these lines.

It still remains to be seen if Annotations become more than an occasional novelty that eventually wears out its welcome. Some viewers have clamored to get them disabled, or even suggest they signal the coming end of YouTube’s dominance. From my perspective, the feature just awaits a true breakout success. Once someone comes up with a Where the Hell is Matt? of interactive videos, many more are sure to follow.