Despite appearances, Erica is not a film – it’s actually a game for the Playstation 4, but not in the traditional sense. Instead of controlling computer-generated characters in virtual environments, players interface with live-action scenes and their decisions will influence the direction of the game.
This is nothing new, of course. Similar techniques were used back in the eighties in Dragon’s Lair and Astron Belt. Home consoles saw a flood of FMV (Full Motion Video) games in the nineties. (The X-Files game actually featured the original cast in specially-shot scenes) At the same time I’m Your Man tried to launch the concept of audience-influenced film in cinemas (With little success).
More recently there was Bandersnatch, the Netflix film that let viewers choose how the story develops. The level of interactivity is far greater in Erica, though.
Actions like turning on a lamp, looking through holes and turning pages in a book all have to be done by the player. More importantly, they have to make choices for how Erica should respond to the situations that present themselves.
Her replies can be combative, passive or proactive way, giving players greater influence over who she is as a character. The most common choice, though, is whether to accept the situation or resist, a recurring theme in the story.
The character, played by Holly Earl, still suffers from the trauma of finding her father’s murdered and mutilated body as a child. This comes to a head when an anonymous package arrives at her door – a bloody severed hand, holding a pendant with the symbol she had seen carved into her father’s torsos all those years ago.
She later sees the same symbol tattooed on the arm of the night manager of Delphi House, the psychiatric hospital where her parents used to work, and her temporary home as her flat is now seen as unsafe for her to live.
Returning to Delphi House brings back plenty of bad memories for Erica. Her sense of unease is made worse when patients claim weird goings-on and start showing similar, unusual symptoms. When she starts seeing things that may not be real, Erica has to fight to keep her sanity and discover the truth.
It has a lot of promise but the ultimate truth about what’s going on isn’t anything new, in whichever of the game’s multiple endings she finds out.
At times, Erica has the sensibility of a student film and has a lot of plot contrivances. Other than that it has an effective atmosphere, is compelling and at times beautiful. It’s deserving of multiple play-throughs and, most crucially, feels effectively player-defined.
It’s use of dramatic scenes highlights a rising trend in the video game medium: the use of length cut scenes. They were once they were short, simple introductions to levels. Now, with storytelling now becoming more games are becoming more and more reliable on them. The Last of Us, for example, was a game noted more for its writing than its gameplay.
With cut scenes becoming more elaborate and traditional film being made interactive, it seems that the lines between film and video game are becoming more increasingly blurred. Does the use of live action mean it’s not a game? Does the fact that much of the time is spent watching rather than playing make it a film?
This is a long-standing question with no definitive answer just yet. One of Erica‘s best qualities, though, may point to what makes the difference between these two changing mediums. That the viewer/player is the one guiding the story may be the distinction. Whether they are playing a passive or assertive part may be what separates them.
Which ever way you think or feel, Erica is still a well-made, thought-provoking blend of film and game that is worth seeking out.