Whether referred to as “full motion video” (FMV) games or “interactive movies,” the use of pre-recorded live action footage combined with some sort of player agency controlling the narrative has waxed and waned in popularity for decades. Sometimes viewed with a condescending eye roll, sometimes with respect, the technique has certainly been used effectively at least on occasion. We’ll definitely add Erica to the win column. Jack Attridge’s direction, along with Austin Wintory’s score and a cast of accomplished actors have made a surprising and thoroughly convincing case for the legitimacy of the medium’s ability to tell an engrossing story.
Erica is an at times deeply disturbing and unsettling murder-mystery about a young woman who has been traumatized by the loss of her mother and most recently, the brutal murder of her father. Sent by the police for safety to the institution that her father co-founded, Erica (the character) and Erica (the film) play cat and mouse with a large number of secrets, unspeakable acts, psychological traumas and madness. To be more explicit about the story would be to spoil the sometimes terrifying surprises and choices.
While some player input — using either a smartphone or touchpad on the PS4 controller — can feel like busywork for the sake of “interaction,” the vast majority of choices, decisions and actions are seamlessly integrated into the film and never disrupt the flow and momentum of the building tension. Many of the game’s main story beats are no doubt hardwired into the flow, while others at least seem like momentous decisions and worthy of a second play through to experience the alternatives. Compared to the early days of VFM games, Erica is a modern masterpiece of seamless editing and player input.
Visceral, sometimes explicitly violent and imbued with dread and tension for its entire run time, Erica is written and acted with skill, marred only by some questionable narrative logic and minor inconsistencies between a player choice and a later, contradictory action or scene that was obviously needed to move the plot forward. This is a story and film with very few moments of lightness and some might find the tone oppressively bleak.
Composer Austin Wintory has contributed a nearly wall-to-wall score and soundscape that effectively partners with the visuals to ratchet up the tension and horror. What is most moving about Wintory’s score is the use of Erica’s main theme (played by cellist Tina Guo) and those more melodic, reflective moments where the music is on the cusp of breaking through into a more uplifting, hopeful lyricism. That subtle, musical implication of Erica’s redemption — or at least survival — does a lot to make the story bearable.
Whether Erica is a successful fluke or the start of a FMV renaissance is impossible to predict, but the game is a solid and beautifully crafted example of how the technique has evolved and just how effective great interactive storytelling can be.