Interactive TV that works is finally here
If you’re like me, when you think of the term “choose-your-own-adventure,” the first image that pops into your mind is of a spinoff of R. L. Stine’s traditional Goosebumps series called Give Yourself Goosebumps.
The books were published between 1995 and 2000, with 42 standard titles released and eight additional “special edition” stories. The concept was simple: players would read a section of a chapter and then make a decision when prompted with a fork in the road scenario. Give Yourself Goosebumps wasn’t the first example of choose-your-own-storytelling available to readers. The offbeat format, which diverged just so from traditional linear writing, was first printed in 1976. The term “choose your own adventure” entered mainstream conversation a few years later, when Bantam Books started selling gamebooks under the official banner of Choose Your Own Adventure.
The concept, although novel at the time, became less interesting to people as video games and other forms of interactive entertainment entered households. While the television and film industry tried to latch onto the concept, the technology was never quite ready to support it. In an era of iPads and smartphones, mobile, LTE-connected, wireless technology that we can pair with standard television sets or computers has changed how we imagine what television can do. What was once impossible was now not only probable, but very doable.
It was that intersection of a TV format no one was exploring and the emergence of handy technology that Yoni Bloch, an Israeli singer and CEO of Eko, a streaming technology company, saw the potential do create a choose-your-own-adventure style TV series. That Moment When is a webseries being produced by Bloch and Sony Entertainment, told with short five-minute episodes, that aims to make interactive storytelling feel like standard, linear programming. Bloch told Polygon the transition from passive to active enjoyment of watching TV needs to be done in spurts. He just asks that you don’t call what they’re trying to do “choose-your-own-adventure.”
“Choose-your-own-adventure makes you the hero,” Bloch told Polygon. “I think it’s fun and funny, but it’s not the vision of interactive storytelling that we think about. What we’re looking at is to take advantage of the fact that the medium is interactive. A storyteller can still tell a story, but make it more immersive and fun, so it’s not just you choosing the ending.”
Bloch describes himself as a “Commodore 64” kid, who was always obsessed with technology and video games. In the ‘80s, when games like Sim City and Alter Ego started to be released, Bloch said he fell in love with the way interactive fiction was beginning to emerge. As games progressed, Bloch felt like that style of gaming became more niche, with the industry spending more money on marketing big budget action or franchise sports games. Bloch said he waited for well-known and funded studios within the live-action entertainment sphere to try and figure out how to bring interactive fiction to audiences, but that day never came.
“Hollywood has constantly failed at it,” Bloch said,
Bloch said the more he studied the format, the easier his understanding of what people wanted became. For Bloch, a long-time admirer of games, he decided to build a platform that allowed for game-like mechanics, but didn’t take away from the overall enjoyment of a TV show. Viewers could interact with the screen, prompted with mini-games built around rapid clicking or lining up a timed shot, but still sit back and enjoy the story being told.
That’s not the only aspect from games that Bloch saw as a positive integration for TV series. Checkpoints, Bloch said, was something that technology could allow for. Instead of relying on a viewer to finish the episode instead of opening a new browser or needing to check an email without pausing, Bloch developed a tool that operates under a fundamental understanding of how people watch TV shows today. Shorter attention spans, Bloch said, require planning.
“When you leave the page, and you come back to it, it will start right from that point without any input needed,” Bloch said. “Part of that is because we know people want to watch TV in different ways. If you want to watch it in five minute segments, great, if you want to watch it in an hour-and-a-half, great. You are the one deciding how long you want to watch it. Studios are clinging to the past, but that doesn’t make sense to me. It’s changing!
“Even Netflix is on the internet, and is more interactive than traditional television, but people don’t realize that.”
The interactive storytelling that Bloch wants creators to work toward can be read as gimmicky; dependant upon one novel concept that will tire itself out, and the CEO is aware of that. Bloch said the intention is to keep the story first and make the interactivity second. The ability to play along with the show is an added benefit that appears from time-to-time, but shouldn’t distract from the tale the creator is trying to weave, Bloch said.
“We’re not trying to take the power away from the storyteller, we’re trying to allow him to build a larger world,” Bloch said.
Bloch’s philosophies are similar to Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh, who launched Mosaic, his own interactive television project last week with HBO. In development for years, Mosaic is an ambitious project, but one that operates along similar lines as That Moment When. Although players will get a chance to make a few choices, the story is already developed, the ending already decided.
Soderbergh told The Verge the technology that powers the interactivity shouldn’t be a distraction from the most important part of the series: the story.
“The first thing we said is, let’s not sacrifice character or story,” Soderbergh said. “Let’s not get enamored with the tech. Let’s try to tell a story about characters we really care about, with scenes that work no matter how they’re being viewed.”
HBO, Sony Entertainment and more companies, including Twitch, whose chief operating officer announced earlier this year they were looking into developing a choose-your-own-adventure series with live actors that Twitch users would command, are all trying to figure out if interactive TV is the future. Is this what people really want when they get home from a long day of school or work?
The answer is unknown, but Bloch points to matinee movie screenings at his local theater for proof that interactivity has always been a preferred route of enjoying entertainment.
Interactive TV that works is finally here