I love interactive movies, I really do. I play most around, whether it is an interactive movie or merely suggested to be so by its developer. I have even come at it from a different angle, watching and ‘playing’ the first interactive movie on Blu-ray despite it being a bit rubbish. So, when Erica was announced and released at Gamescom onto the PS4, I was eager to play. Unfortunately, that was the height of my excitement for what followed was never a match for the hyped expectation.
Erica is a young woman whose mother died when she was very young and later whose father she found dying on the living room floor. Erica herself was nearly terminated by his unidentifiable killer, who was still in the room at that time. Living her own life she is brought back into the centre of her traumatic childhood when more information is uncovered which could finally help solve her father’s murder. From then on the game plays out mainly at a gigantic mansion which is some kind of hospital for the mentally ill, which we learn was founded by Erica’s dad. As Erica, and you, spend time exploring you learn more about what really is happening, and what occurred all those years ago. You also get to make some choices around what’s true or otherwise as you make your way ever onwards towards the denouement.
The story itself is the first problem. It’s pretty tedious, especially the way in which you get to experience it — more on that in a short while as that’s due to the gameplay — and frankly dumb and obvious. The twists and turns are nearly always predictable, often rehashed from countless other media and typically silly. One particular standout moment for me was when towards the very end of the game Erica realises the perfume she’s found is drugged. Fine you might say, but about halfway through the game — a lot earlier — Erica went to sleep after very pointedly being shown to have some perfume in her room…and she had some crazy vision or dream-like thing directly thereafter. So what we take from this is that Erica, our protagonist, is not very clever and the developer doesn’t think the players are, either. Or maybe they just don’t have great skills when it comes to drama.
The narrative is very much a choose-your-own-adventure, where you are asked to make choices, pick dialogue and more with consistent regularity. That is great, and suggests there is so much content hidden behind just one playthrough that replayability should be high, but that would require you to have a desire to replay in order to see more of the tepid content, when you already know the overall story arc after completing it the first time through. It’s not something I was compelled to do even a little bit.
Part of the reason the narrative is so flat is because the gameplay gets in the way of it. One playthrough took about two hours in total, of which at least half is actual gaming rather than watching. The gaming is frustratingly boring, though. Which means you have an hour of stuttering gameplay alongside an hour of flat storytelling, that together means you have two hours of ponderous plodding.
The gameplay, then. Firstly, it’s great to see something different tried. Here the developer asks you to download the Erica app to your phone — or you can use the Dualshock controller’s touchpad but we found this less than ideal — to manage all inputs which are one hundred percent touch. I suspect the intent here was to allow the player to stay engaged in the story and not have to worry about different types of control when all they needed to do was slide their fingers around which almost completely, people will be used to. So a novel input method to minimise distractions from what’s happening on screen: that’s excellent. But, and here’s the crux of the game’s problem, what you’re being asked to do is agonisingly dull and increasingly unsatisfying. For instance you’d flip open a lighter and then light it, mimicking the motions on your phone. You might then find a roller desk, open it up, check one drawer — by opening it, looking into it and then closing it — before doing the same in the next drawer. Pretty much all the tasks you’re asked to do are because there had to be something for you to do outside of picking dialogue and making a narrative choice. It’s a game after all, not a movie with interactivity. But to put multiple moments of tedium into a story which itself struggles to elevate the heartbeat just compounds the lack of flair and fun throughout the runtime.
The production values are high and the cast is a mix of the known and unknown, with Holly Earl playing Erica (after recasting somewhere down the line) who played Agnes in Channel 4’s Humans. She does well given the director had her do a ‘rabbit in the headlights’ expression for ninety percent of the game, but some of the other cast have a wooden feel to much of their acting, unfortunately. We also found the app to be technologically broken as it only filled half of the mobile phone. Maybe that was a specific issue to the mobile we were using (Samsung Galaxy S10+ — Android) as if it was by design, why? Reducing half the space to effect the various motions mirrored on screen was limiting and problematic. The pause button was routinely unreliable, too.
Erica doesn’t work as an interactive movie and it doesn’t work as a game. Flavourworks must be commended for trying something that isn’t usually done otherwise, both in terms of the type of game and the way it is played, but in doing so the execution demonstrates it just doesn’t work; there’s nothing strong enough to fixate on and leverage enjoyment from the experience. Almost as the game had begun I was willing it to end and once it had I wanted to forget I’d played it. It’s not broken and it’s a fine idea, but it’s not something I can see anyone appreciating beyond that.
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