Very quietly, FMV games (video games that use full motion video instead of real-time graphics) have been making something of a comeback in recent years. With notable modern entries like Her Story, The Infectious Madness of Doctor Dekker and Late Shift, the genre hasn’t seen such good days since the likes of Wing Commander (God, I love that series). If there’s one thing that these games universally do well – it’s using the added range and empathetic power of actual actors to tell stories that are more personal, more human and more powerful. Enter Erica; a game that began life as part of PlayStation’s fun-but-failed PlayLink initiative, but now stands on its own and takes the best of FMV games and adds its own unique twists.
Erica’s psychological noir thriller tale isn’t hugely original, nor is its overall narrative particularly tight, but it’s just the right blend of disjointed and obfuscated to suit both its themes and the medium. Having witnessed the murder of her father at a young age, the titular Erica’s uneventful adult life is interrupted by a mysterious package at her door containing a severed hand clutching an amulet adorned with a particular symbol. The Delphic Epsilon, which was carved into Erica’s father’s body in the murder, also happens to be the insignia of the women’s psychiatric hospital in which he worked. Erica is taken to Delphi House by a Sergeant Blake, where it is believed she’ll be safest while detectives look there for clues. Needless to say, this isn’t the case, and over the course of the feature film-length story, Erica uncovers conspiracies, deceits and horrific crimes. By the time the credits roll on the trippy, intentionally vague and heavily symbolic narrative you’ll definitely feel some type of way. Where the story takes you though, depends on where you take the story.
Being a video game, it’d be remiss of Erica to not include some form of interactivity. Luckily, it does this and then some. Like similar games – though the action is scripted, acted and shot – it’s also influenced by player choice. Players are often presented with choices that lead the dialogue, and Erica, down certain paths, resulting in different outcomes in scenes and even the story as a whole. On top of that, the game regularly asks players to perform minor actions like inspecting objects, opening doors, wiping down surfaces or even drawing. This is all done through Erica’s unique gimmick – a proprietary mobile app used to control everything in the game. Though the DualShock controller can be used to play Erica, it’s designed to be played with the touch screen of a mobile phone. Completing actions by swiping, tapping and scrolling is intuitive and often goes a long way to connecting players to what’s happening on screen, which is a huge plus in a game that is otherwise less interactive than most. All of these moments are surprisingly well-integrated into the real-life action as well, often cutting to a more static shot but still looking convincingly like a part of the scene. This ‘gimmick’ alone puts Erica in the upper echelons of FMV gaming and makes a great case for genre fans to give it a go.
On top of a cool central mechanic, Erica also boasts some pretty impressive production values. Scenes are well-directed and shot and often look gorgeous, on par with some of the best modern television. Aside from maybe one or two characters, the acting is also pleasantly strong throughout, especially from the more ‘lead’ characters. Given the meagre asking price of $13.95 AUD, and the multiple story routes and versions of each scene, it’s very good to see. Some of the interactive parts especially, without spoiling anything cool, are appropriately powerful. The only real let-down in Erica’s overall package is the complete lack of any post-game options like a chapter select or some kind of map of the choices made along the way and their consequences. It’s great to think that my version of this essentially filmic experience is my own, and that I could play through it again to an entirely different outcome, but the motivation to do so is lessened when I have to go through absolutely all of it again and with no knowledge of which actions really mattered. It’s a short enough experience that I’m sure people will be compelled to jump back in for an easy afternoon playthrough every once in a while, but some more robust options would’ve been appreciated. It’s also worth noting that while playing, any time I got a notification on my Google Pixel 3 the game would disconnect from my phone and kick me to the settings menu. That might not happen to everyone, but having to mess around with my notification settings to play without interruption was a tad annoying.
It’s a little bit cheesy, and not without its issues, but Erica makes great use of modern technologies to bring something new to the FMV genre. It also represents some of the best production in its field, showcasing some serious talent from its cast, crew and designers. For roughly the price of a boxed meal at your local Dirty Bird, fans of narrative games, film, and emerging media techniques should really check this one out.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro // Review code supplied by publisher