May 22, 2022

First Impressions: Erica Elegantly Rekindles a Forgotten Genre

This week sees the release of Erica on PC, a game that treads the delicate tightrope between film, and game, and does so with expert finesse

Erica

What is a video game? Hold your breath guys, we’re going deep on this one. Let’s keep things simple and start with the dictionary, which provides the following definition. “A video game is a game played by electronically manipulating images produced by a computer program on a monitor or other display”. Pretty vague, right? And yet if we were to take this at face value, Erica, and indeed for a lot of the full motion video genre, you could argue the toss either way.

Full Motion Video, A Brief History

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. To understand how much Erica has accomplished, you have to look at the hot mess that was full motion video. Popularised way back in the 80s, this technique relies on pre-recorded video rather than computer generated imagery. This is then used to depict the action within a game.  Almost exclusively an arcade affair back then, Sega saw some success with Astron Belt and later Dragon’s lair.

Whilst early full motion video games proved popular, the fab soon fizzled out

But success was short lived. FMV games required the use of incredibly expensive Laser Discs, which pushed arcade costs up and, ultimately prevented widespread adoption. The genre fizzled out as fast as it had arrived and had all but disappeared from arcades by 1987. The format did see a return in the 90’s with the emergence of the DVD. Sega in particular enjoyed some success with its home console, the Sega CD. But although games like Night Trap and Voyer enjoyed some success, production was often less than impressive and underwhelmed audiences, leading to a number of commercial flops.

By the end of the decade, FMV was all but relegated to the cut-scene. It remained dispersed between gameplay on some of the best loved games at the time; the Command and Conquer series immediately comes to mind. Westwood even managed to snag a couple of familiar faces for their now cult series. Tim Curry’s performance, alongside J K Simmons and George Takei was quite the coo at the time. But interactivity of these short skits was minimal. The gameplay resided singularly in the entirely computer generated top down RTS format. FMV as interactive media had had it’s time in the spotlight. For now.

Tim Curry’s appearance in Red Alert 2 was nothing short of genious

Times they are a changing

One aspect of the video game industry, specifically indie games is that they constantly challenge the definition of gaming. It’s is an industry in constant flux, of evolution and progression. Such is also true for fixed motion video. And in recent years we have seen a resurgence in, if not the real action footage then many of the other genre tropes.

Quantic Dream’s 2010’s exceptional Heavy Rain leant heavily on the genre’s reliance on choice to shape the gaming narrative. It focused on cinematics, characterisation and storytelling to reimagine what a gaming experience could be. In many instances gameplay itself took a back seat. It was critically acclaimed, and paved the way for other games to pick-up the mantle.

Since then, choice has been an emergent theme in video games. Some, like Bioshock, and Deus Ex featuring this as a relatively minor mechanic delivering a comparatively constrained set of endings. Others, like Detroit Become Human, or Until Dawn feature choice as their central tenet. These games feature literally hundreds of possible branches and outcomes all dependant on split second reactions or, better, considered deliberate election.

Erica; Reimagining a Genre

This brings us neatly to Erica. Developed by London Studio Flavourworks, who describe themselves as wanting to “create a studio worthy of existence in the current industry landscape”. That’s a high bar indeed. But Sony Interactive seemed to agree, themselves publishing Erica, originally released for the PS4 exclusively back in August 2019. It has since been made available on iOS and this week debuts on PC.

The story focuses on the titular heroine Erica, portrayed exceptionally by actor Holly Earl who has featured in UK TV extensively from Skins to Casualty, and even voices Lillia in League of Legends. But in Erica she is our easel, a blank canvas on which the played paints their own tale, but we’ll get to that. The story finds Erica alone following the murder of her father, and quickly thrust into the care of the local police force and housed in an all-girl asylum. 

Holly Earl’s spectacular performance as Erica is the magic glue that binds this exceptional narative

Things are of course not entirely as they seem, and it’s up to the player to uncover the surrounding mystery of her late father and the broad and divergent tapestry of the surrounding facility and it’s all too dubious benefactors. There’s cultists and cover-ups and, well a lot of mystery that we will leave spoiler free here. Suffice to say, it’s not exactly a ground-breaking, 4th wall shattering plot, but that is not where Erica’s strength lies.

Storytelling and Gameplay

The majesty of Erica is less in the story, and much, much more in the story-telling itself. The first and lasting impression you will have of Erica is just have god damn beautiful it is. This is a far cry from the FMV games of the 90s, you won’t find any b-list acting here. The direction is sublime, the cinematography exceptional. The game, if we can call it that for now, glistens with delicate production detail and drips with finesse.

From the lighting that ubiquitously mirrors the emotional aesthetic throughout the play through, to the score, which was unsurprisingly nominated for a number of awards, this is a game that has been lavished with due care, and the result is breath-taking. There is a subtlety too, in the care that Flavourworks have taken to ensure immersion is central to the experience.

Scene after scene in Erica demonstrats the unrivaled artistic vision brought to life in spectacular cinematography

The player is drawn into a world, rather than simply given a 2D environment in which to point and click. Focus shifts as your cursor hovers over objects near, and far. Object interaction is frequent and time-critical decisions invite the player’s full attention from start to end. Pacing is fast and tension builds quickly, urging the player to uncover just one more mystery. A note too, here on the length of the game. It took my just under two hours to complete one full play through, which is almost certainly a deliberate decision on the part of the developers choosing to align itself closer to the attention spans of a more discerning theatrical audience than, let’s say your typical hard core gamer.

But don’t be misled. That play length is almost certainly not demonstrable of the full Erica experience. Choice, as we have mentioned, is the core gameplay mechanic at work here. Every action that Erica takes, every conversational direction, every confrontational response or diminutive slur is entirely in the player’s hands. The performance of Erica in Holly Earl is notable for exactly this reason. As a character, she is entirely unwritten. It is up to the player to determine her place in the world, and that whichever direction you go in is believable is an accolade to this young actor’s prowess.

The player is constantly asked to trust the authorities, but whether you do is your choice alone

Whilst I chose to play Erica as a “dumb kid” in the face of authority, delivering no compliance as lack of understanding or emotional fragility. But beyond their reach she was anything but. She diligently guarded her secrets and uncovering the mystery of the asylum uninhibited, in private. But that I was able to create a persona for Erica, and play in a style that compelled me this time around, it’s clear that there are an unfathomable number of ways in which you could approach a play through.

Maybe next time I’ll trust in the authorities a little more, maybe I’ll be a little less acquiescing in the company of my female companions of the asylum. Here is where Erica rides the delicate line between game, and film, and in executes the manoeuvre with deft precision, appealing to both audiences with expert finesse.

A Minor Criticism

If I had to level one criticism at the gameplay itself, there is quite a lot of random object interaction. From opening a lighter, to placing a needle on a record, opening a bureau, turning a key…the list goes on and the frequency maintains a steady pace throughout the game. Honestly, I’m not sure what this brings exactly, save breaking the otherwise perfectly measured pacing. I understand that this is to enhance the players feeling of involvement in the story, to heighten immersion.

Whilst we all know how to opperate a ligher, the controls proved a little harder to master

But when you’ve failed to open a lighter on the 7th attempt due to somewhat janky controls (full disclosure, I played with a mouse – those who attempted this on the PS4’s touch controller had a much tougher time of it) the spell is broken somewhat. As a relatively experienced gamer this is something I can live with. But for the other half of the audience less accustomed to this level of interaction, it could turn people off of the experience.

Overall – If Black Mirror Asked the Question, Erica Provides the Answer

But to be clear, this is a very, very small thing in an otherwise incredible experience. Between the storytelling, the characterisation left for the most part to the player, the general aesthetic and overall quality of the production, Flavourworks have done something quite magical. But it’s not just because Erica is a fantastic game. It’s because Erica is not just a game. It’s something more.

The question of what it is that makes up a game were arguably brought to task in Charlie Brookers’ Black Mirror series, with the unique and poignant episode Bandersnatch in 2016. There is notable similarity between Bandersnatch and Erica, both are FMV experiences and both feature choice and player interaction as their central tenet. One key difference; Bandersnatch aired on Netflix, Erica on more traditional platforms. But which is the game, and which is the feature? The lines are decidedly blurred.

Suffice to say, the breadth and depth of questions presented in Erica makes Bandersnatch look amateurish

There is one other big difference between the two. Simply, Erica is better. I know this because in reviewing the game, I brought with me my secret weapon; my wife. My wife who has not played a single video game on her own in her life, who bemoans the medium fairly regularly and is decidedly not a gamer. She didn’t get on with Bandersnatch, but with Erica, she was enraptured. If Bandersnatch asked the question, can a game be a feature length film, can a game appeal to non-traditional audiences, Erica provided the answer. And it is decidedly yes. Erica deserves praise for being not just an excellent game, but for taking a big step forward in the evolution for entertainment media. For blurring the lines and traversing that delicate balance between film and game with expert dexterity.

It’s true that the relationship between film and game has taken big strides of its own in recent years. Henry Cavil’s Geralt in Netflix’s Witcher Series turned heads, and we wait with baited breath for Pedro Pascal’s Joel from the Last of Us, and slightly less baited breath for Tom Hollands Nathan Drake in the upcoming Uncharted film. As the Mario players of the 80s contemplate their 5th decade on this planet, the appetite for mature game portrayal in film is undoubtedly aroused, leaving Van Damn’s Street Fighter as all but a distant memory.

Erica enters this zeitgeist at the perfect time, and executes its ambition admirably. And with Flavourworks having recently raised another $4m in funding, this is just the beginning of the journey for this brave new alliance.

Erica is already available on PlayStation 4, and iOS, and releases on the 25th of May 2021 on PC, price TBC.


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