My wife and I rarely game together. When I find an experience I think we can enjoy together I’ll pick it up as soon as and book in an evening on the sofa with her. She’s never really gamed. My wife usually prefers a passive experience and consumes police dramas and thrillers more than anyone I know. Beyond her button-bashing love for Street Fighter, and the simplicity of Mario Kart, she doesn’t usually game much although we have recently enjoyed some of the PlayLink games Sony have produced. When I saw that Erica fit all of those criteria and it had a sneak release the opening night of Gamescom I was quick to pick it up.
Erica is an interesting experiment that lays somewhere in between Netflix’s Bandersnatch and the older PS4 PlayLink title Hidden Agenda. It’s an interactive FMV (full motion video) thriller from developer Flavourworks where, as Erica, you experience a chaotic journey as events from your past are brought to the present.
Foremost this is a game telling a story, which it does well. It’s intriguing and keeps you invested throughout. Erica is played really well by Holly Earl. She has a shocked innocence about her, where everything is unexpected. It’s hard to tell if she’s losing her mind as the story goes on or if the events she experiences are real. It’s a testament to Holly’s good acting. The supporting cast are all interesting characters too. My favourite character was Lucian Flowers (Terrace Maynard) who gives off this faux fatherly figure persona. He can appear quite genuine in one moment then twist it to come across a little creepy and disingenuous the next; my wife was quick to point him out as someone clearly keeping secrets. Acting out multiple scenes based on the player’s decisions must be tough yet the interactions between characters never felt awkward, unless it was meant to.
The interactive elements don’t work quite as well as the story. These are carried out on one phone; anyone else playing can only shout their choices at the person holding that phone. Even though it’s limited to one phone swiper there are three different kinds of interaction. Dialogue choices work the best. Will you tell the truth or lie, comfort someone, or berate them? These push the story along and give you the best sense of how you want to determine the characters relationships. They aren’t always binary choices often giving three to five options and unlike Telltale’s The Walking Dead games you get one choice and cannot explore all the options presented. That choice makes sense in this instance as conversations move quickly and naturally. Occasionally my wife would stumble and not choose a response in time. In these moments Erica stayed silent with the other characters reading her silence as her response, my wife’s indecision showing in the conversation. The second interactions are investigative. You can make Erica choose different rooms to explore or search for different objects. These have repercussions. In one case you might avoid being caught somewhere you’re not meant to be or find an item needed to unlock a path later. They make sense but it’s hard to tell if they’re time-sensitive. Like the dialogue, we chose snap decisions based on the urgency of our task. We didn’t get to return to missed rooms, the story marched on. The third interactions and the most annoying were actions. Turning a key or opening a box may seem like simple things to have to do but they broke up the scenes. A little too much, too often. When several were needed in a row it got slightly frustrating. There’s no doubt they’re responsive. Playing on my phone screen everything was quick and smooth. I question the need for these though and don’t feel they added to the experience. I can understand wanting the player to do something between the breaks in dialogue and choice, I don’t think it worked well though.
With all of the choices we made the consequences weren’t always instantly identifiable. This was great. It kept us guessing and we conversed whilst playing, occasionally pausing the game, to theorise what would happen next from our choices. This is something my wife loves doing when watching these type of shows and it was noted by us both that the game elicited that from us. The FMV aspect and short scenes helped it feel like a TV show, this helped it connect a little better with my wife. The game ran for a little over 2 hours. Slightly longer than a TV episode but in this age of binge-watching it didn’t feel like it dragged, slowed down or lost our attention.
It’s an experience I hope we’ll find again. For my wife, the FMV aspect definitely drew her in. We’ve played the PlayLink Hidden Agenda and Planet of the Apes titles but she wasn’t as invested in those as with Erica. For me, it’s a well-acted short experience I can share with her and that is something I’ll always want.