Full motion video adventures are a guilty pleasure of mine. Despite riding the cutting edge of game design technology in the ’90s, the medium never fully embraced it, and trends quickly shifted toward other things like 3D rendering. Still, there is the occasional FMV adventure released even today, and they even seem to be making something of a minor comeback. Erica on PlayStation 4 is one such title, a psychological thriller with occult undertones about tracking down a serial killer. While the description sounds tempting, I found the full game – if one dares call it that – to be a troubled experience, suffering from odd plot choices, a lack of thrills, and a poorly paced tonal shift for its final act.
Erica Mason is our protagonist. Having already lost her mother early in life, Erica suffered tragedy again as a young girl when her father was murdered with a mysterious symbol carved into his chest. Erica herself was spared, but condemned to a lifetime of trauma and nightmares. Now a young twenty-something woman, the horror starts all over again when she receives a package at her home containing a severed hand clutching a medallion bearing the same symbol. The hand turns out to be that of an employee of the psychiatric clinic her father founded years ago, Delphi House. The police – or at least the detective assigned to the case – believe Erica herself may be in danger, and they take her to Delphi House as that’s where she’ll be “safe.”
With no tangible reason ever presented as to the rationale behind this downright odd decision (which happens within the first few minutes), immersion was broken for me almost immediately. I tried really hard to soak up the atmosphere the game was trying to establish, but I couldn’t for the life of me reconcile why the police would put the next potential target of what could be a resurfaced serial killer in the very same mental hospital where the latest victim worked, and then leave her there while they go elsewhere to investigate.
During the day, Erica freely walks the institution’s grounds and interacts with its staff and patients – a package is even sent there for her, with nobody being the least bit suspicious of it – so it doesn’t seem that she’s under an extremely watchful eye at all. The detective only resurfaces occasionally when the plot requires his presence, but otherwise he’s off working the case, which had the potential to be a more exciting and interesting story than the one we get to see.
This is the first of two major points that made me scratch my head in confusion. The second was a scene later on where Erica is brought to the chief inspector’s stately manor in the dead of night by the detective and administrator of Delphi House to go over some evidence (weakly justified with the explanation that the police station would have made Erica uncomfortable), and then promptly left there with him while the others rush back to Delphi House to check on a suspicious report. It’s nothing but a thinly veiled excuse to get Erica into a new setting of supposed peril to push the narrative along. Worse, it doesn’t add development to any character involved, but rather chips away at the player’s tolerance for this type of clumsy reasoning.
In between Erica being bafflingly served to the killer on a silver platter in this manner, we follow her own personal experiences. While confined at Delphi House, Erica is eventually put onto the path toward uncovering a mystery surrounding the institution and her father’s involvement with it. We keep being reminded, though, that there is a murderer running about freely who also has some interest in her. That is, until the murderer tips his hand and reveals his identity of his own free will. This happens far too early, prior to the story’s final act rather than being the climax, leaving the remainder of the game to revolve solely around the B-plot of the secret of Delphi House.
To be fair, there are certainly aspects that mitigate these vexing narrative decisions. Erica has been designed with replayability in mind, with subsequent runs offering an impressive number of alternate paths that affect the multiple endings. Even the runtime (90 minutes to 2 hours) is conducive to a repeat playthrough or two (though the story isn’t really interesting enough to warrant them), and I was surprised at how many motifs and other bits of world consistency I was able to catch my second time through.
What makes the game so replayable is that it is absolutely stuffed with choices. It seems like there is a decision to make at least every thirty seconds: Go down the dark hallway or answer the telephone? Lock the front door or help the neighbor fumbling with her keys? Cooperate with the detective or clam up and refuse to help? Dialog choices, too, offer some flexibility, or you can spend an entire playthrough stonewalling every character with icy silence (which can lead to some hilarious expressions of puzzlement or annoyance). The experience doesn’t quite get to the level of role-playing the character a certain way, however – you don’t completely control Erica’s personality by making good/evil decisions on her behalf, just slightly nudge her next response in a way that’s still consistent with her character.
It’s worth stressing that, while the narrative has both pros and cons, the experience of actually playing the game is exceedingly shallow. This is not the same digitized-point-and-click-actor-in-front-of-a-green-screen FMV you may remember. This is a full-on interactive movie, with your role reduced to choosing which option you’d like to see play out next. The game is part of the PlayStation Link line-up, which consists of games typically meant for groups of friends to play together, but Erica is purely a single-player experience, which seems odd as experiencing this in a group might have added an element of welcome campiness.
Selecting choices and dialog options via the on-screen cursor is done by swiping across either the DualShock 4 controller’s trackpad or your smart phone while running the game’s companion app. Certain actions at least attempt to feel more natural by matching the direction you need to swipe to the related action, but that’s as deep as the gameplay gets. There are no puzzles, and dexterity is never required, although most dialog options are on a generous response timer. After a full playthrough with each of the control methods, I can say that they both feel equally awkward whenever finer motor skills are required (i.e. pinpointing one of several dialog options) but are otherwise identical.
For all its limitations, this is a quite technically accomplished interactive movie. The cinematography is good, with several (mostly indoor) locations throughout the story, and there are a number of scenes that fade between past and present in a neat way. The line between recorded video footage and things you yourself control – for example swiping down in an arc to flick on a cigarette lighter – is almost unnoticeable. The instrumental score from renowned games composer Austin Wintory is a treat to listen to – easily feature film quality, and it’s woven into the choice-driven narrative in a way that feels extremely organic in building up important atmosphere. The acting is also fine across the board, though after two full playthroughs it does strike me that the script never really gives us the chance to see our lead emote in any way other than shy, frightened, and unsure.
While Erica can be summed up in an intriguing way, I’ve come out the other end of the experience feeling not nearly so complimentary. I’ll give it credit for delivering in terms of filmmaking craft and replayability, but when it comes to storytelling, particularly in an interactive medium, it doesn’t hold up nearly as well. Plot contrivances routinely yanked me out of the narrative, the focus of which was already struggling to be as engrossing as the one we didn’t get to see. It doesn’t help that there’s simply no gameplay beyond a few physical gestures and choosing which scene plays next, often just with a binary choice between two continuing paths. Much can be forgiven by virtue of being an FMV thriller, but Erica struggles to deliver in the all-important areas of pacing and plot, which ultimately calls for a harsh final verdict: Guilty on all counts. Case closed.
The production values place Erica in good company as an FMV psychological thriller, but with a near total absence of gameplay and a plot that struggles to consistently thrill, what’s left is an underwhelming choose-your-own-adventure tale that leaves a poor lingering impression.