Last weekend, I finally finished watching Haunting Melissa. I say “finally”, because I’d been watching it since last November. And it’s only 11 episodes long.
Haunting Melissa is an iOS app. It’s not exactly a TV show and not exactly a film, but something in between. It’s about a girl, Melissa, who is haunted by the death of her mother. The narrative is delivered to your device in bursts, you can’t download it all at once and you never know when the next episode is coming. This is one of its main points of difference. Neal Edelstein, the filmmaker, wanted to build a sense of nervous excitement and anticipation amongst viewers and that’s sort of what happens when at random times of the day (and sometimes night), your phone lets you know another episode is available by whispering “Me-li-ssssssa” at you.
It worked less and less well with me though. I used to be an iPhone user, but am no longer. Haunting Melissa is not available on my device so I managed to update my battered old iPhone so that I could download the app onto it. But because it’s my old phone, I don’t carry it around with me. Back in November, when I first started watching it, I was impatient for new episodes and I would check the phone often. I wanted to be able to download the whole series at once – that’s what I like to do, get a whole series and then watch it non-stop. But that goes against the central tenet of Haunting Melissa‘s delivery method. A few days were going by between episodes and I felt it was too long. Eventually, I forgot to keep checking the phone. Weeks went by between episodes for me.
I imagine the filmmakers have algorithms working on their server that look at how quickly users are consuming the episodes, once available. I think for users like me, who start to consume the content more slowly, they probably speed up the delivery. But it was too late. My initial enthusiasm had worn off. Haunting Melissa was something I watched when I got around to remembering to check the phone.
But the series is quite good. It builds tension very well and I think that’s what kept bringing me back to it, belated as my check ins were. The last episode seemed a bit of a cop-out but apparently there’s a sequel in progress, so perhaps they will develop Melissa’s story some more.
So, the story is quite good and the delivery method is a bit annoying, but neither of those things is what brought me to Haunting Melissa in the first place. My interest in it was piqued because I read an article that said that if you watched an episode twice, it might change, you might see different things. I was fascinated as to how this could be and how it might progress the concept of interactivity, which I define as a person interacting with a piece of media and changing the story as they go. Clearly, a piece of media changing by itself is the opposite of that, but I’m interested in anything that anyone is doing where the story changes on the fly and so I wanted to experience what Haunting Melissa had to offer.
I’ve since read Edelstein say that they’ve patented this technology and called it Dynamic Story Elements, which sounds quite bland and makes me think of blocks of story being pre-mixed and matched, rather than something quite radical happening as you experience it. And, just to end this on an anti-climactic note, though it’s what drew me to the app in the first place, I haven’t watched any of the episodes a second time. It’s taken me four months to watch the entire series, I wouldn’t remember now if an element in a scene back in episode one or two had changed. And that’s the thing, it turns out that it is only elements in the background of scenes that change. All of the major parts of the storyline stay the same.
I’m still interested in what Edelstein will do with his dynamic story elements, but so far I think my excited anticipation of them suggested more than what they could actually deliver.