Everyone from HBO and Netflix to Twitch is trying to find ways to make television more interactive, slowly introducing the concept of “choose-your-own-adventure” series to viewers.
The mechanic implemented in these series is based on choose-your-own-adventure books that debuted in the late 1970s and became popular in the 1980s and 1990s. Readers were given a chunk of text, sometimes an entire chapter, before they had to make a decision. The choice they made changed the direction of the story and the characters within. Readers were instructed to flip to a specific page after making their decision continue reading. A choose-your-own-adventure book would have three or four different stories, giving readers the chance to explore a number of outcomes.
Studios and networks have adapted this format for DVD releases of different titles, like Final Destination 3, but the technology has been clunky, resulting in a process whose tedious nature took away from enjoying the interactive option. A new series from Eko, a live-action interactive content and technology company, and Sony Pictures, fixes that.
That Moment When stars Milana Vayntrub (Squirrel Girl, This is Us) in five-minute vignettes exploring situational comedy. The first episode stars Vayntrub’s character trying to recall the name of an acquaintance while at a party. The second follows Vayntrub as she tries to deal with her boyfriend breaking up with her at a restaurant. In each episode, viewers are given specific objectives that must be met to make it to the end of the episode. In the second episode, for example, viewers have to choose the correct answers to prevent Vayntrub’s character from exploding in anger. If she has three outbursts, the game is over.
What That Moment When does well, more so than any other attempt at creating choose-your-own-adventure series to date, is understanding just how much interactivity viewers want and how long they’ll prepare to watch novelty programming. That Moment When isn’t Breaking Bad or The Good Place, but it isn’t trying to be, either. For five minutes, That Moment When gives an internet-age audience some easy-to-consume entertainment akin to a quiz on Buzzfeed. It doesn’t require much thinking beyond “how would I act in this scenario?” and the end result is a pretty fun web series that I found myself wanting to return to.
That Moment When doesn’t rely on its gimmick to sell the story it’s trying to get across, which is why the novelty of interactivity supplements the overarching goal of the series instead of distracting from it. There’s a coherent plot that is easy to get invested in for five minutes, but it’s the anticipation over the next fork in the road I can take that kept me on my toes. In not allowing the novelty aspect to be the main event and concentrating on producing shorts with talented actors, That Moment When becomes the first successful choose-your-own-adventure story.
When I was a kid, I read choose-your-own-adventure Goosebumps books all the time. What I adored about those novels I found programmed into the DNA of That Moment When. No matter what route I decided to take, the story wasn’t sacrificed. There was an equal level of enthusiasm and horror, twists and turns, that I did want to go back and explore different options. Like the eight-year-old version of myself who would read the same Goosebumps book four times over, but never the same story, I found myself watching five different iterations of the same episode.
That Moment When isn’t going to be considered groundbreaking television, and it’s not going to be the most talked about choose-your-own-adventure series. That will probably be Steven Soderbergh’s HBO project (if it comes to fruition). But That Moment When acts as a reminder that linear television is changing, and that doesn’t have to be viewed as scary or bad. The technology, acting and storytelling capabilities are there, it’s just a matter of what stories we want to tell.