PS4 thriller Erica brings back the 1990s live-action video game craze
There was a point in the 1990s when it looked like the future of video games was all about Full Motion Video
CD ROM technology allowed for games to include real filmed video footage, of real actors, and have players interact with it. Instead of blocky pixel art characters, you now had 'superstars' like Mark Hamill and Wayne's World's Tia Carrere starring in games. We got classics like the notorious Night Trap. It was a revelation.
Of course, though, despite a rash of titles on the PC and the ill-fated Sega CD, the trend didn't last long. It quickly became obvious that there were two main things that meant they weren't really the future. The first was that it severely hampered the gameplay. Impressive as it was, video footage is far less malleable than sprites or polygons. Trying to do any action resulted in a split-second pause while the next action video was loaded, destroying any sense of fluidity, and now where near as fun to play as Super Mario World or Street Fighter II.
Then there were the production values, which tended to be atrocious. Hilariously low budget sets, hammy acting, and past-it stars making a cheap buck. They might have been called 'interactive movies', but these were straight-to-video level at best.
Which brings us to 2019, and Erica, which has just been released on the PlayStation 4. There have been occasional stabs at FMV games since the 1990s - 2015 indie hit Her Story had you flipping through old police interview tapes in order to solve a murder, for instance. But Erica is the first big notable attempt at a proper big budget FMV at one on the current generation of consoles.
Erica focuses on a young woman, orphaned at a young age when her parents died in mysterious circumstances, who is dragged into a mysterious cult-like conspiracy when a severed hand is delivered to her flat, and she is placed in protective custody. Far from the shonky B-movie aesthetic of those old Sega CD games, it looks beautiful, feeling like a modern indie horror in the vein of Midsommar or The Babadook.
And this is the first point to make: you shouldn't really consider Erica a 'video game' in the traditional sense - if you are hoping for something to fill in the gap between, say, Wolfenstein: Youngblood and Borderlands 3, you'll be rather disappointed. But that's not a bad thing. The closest comparison is not another game, but Netflix's interactive Black Mirror special Bandersnatch.
The 'gameplay' of Erica, if you can call it that, involves watching it as you would a traditional movie, and interacting with the various choices and actions that appear onscreen every so often. The games' producers actually suggest you control the game with a special separate smartphone app, but I had no trouble just using the touchpad regular PS4 controller. Some the actions are totally just filler (flick the touchpad to turn on the light!) but mostly you are picking responses to questions directed to Erica, or picking what action she could take.
What makes it such an enjoyable experience is that you've just never really seen this sort of thing done with this level of production values. It looks like, if not quite a Hollywood movie, at least a very good BBC drama. The acting is some of the best I've ever seen in a video game (admittedly, that's faint praise, but it is very good), with several semi-recognisable faces turning up. Lead actress Holly Earl might be recognisable to viewers of Channel 4's Humans, and Dream Team fans will notice former Hardchester United manager Stuart Naysmith as the creepy head of the residential facility.
It takes about two hours or so to play through Erica's story and it is a very entertaining experience, though I'm unsure how much I'd replay it. There were definitely scenes I missed, and multiple endings to be discovered, but seeing them would involve re-doing the whole thing. In Bandersnatch, every time you got to an ending, it gave you an option to skip back to a previous point, eager to show you what other gonzo weirdness it had instore. Erica is notably more interested in telling a good story than playing with the medium like Bandersnatch was, but a similar feature would not have gone a miss.
Still, that's a minor complaint. Erica is definitely worth spending an evening, especially costing less than a tenner on the PlayStation Store.
Erica is out now on PlayStation 4.