Erica is an interactive film for the PS4, controlled by a companion app for your smartphone. It bills itself as a thriller: Erica’s father is murdered in a ritualistic way almost at the beginning of the game, and then we pick her story up again when additional murders begin to occur.
The smartphone app lets you control Erica with gestures. Indeed, the first thing you do in the experience is flick a lighter open and start the flame, using swipes of your phone screen. At other moments you might turn a faucet, wipe steam from a mirror, hover over items in a room that you want to interact with, or lead you to shift your focus.
These interactions reminded me of the touch-screen gestures used in Pry, or in The Secret Language of Desire. But I generally found Pry‘s gestural interactivity extremely evocative and focused on communicating a particular feeling or relationship to the events of the story. Erica‘s are a bit more “we’ll have you manipulate this briefcase latch because there just happens to be a briefcase in the story right now.”
At their best, those affective actions are tied into activities where the protagonist might take some time over the activity — opening a box that probably has something awful in it, say — and so, despite the linearity of the structure, the interaction at these moments is contributing something to the viewer’s sense of pace and complicity, in the same way that the forward links in My Father’s Long Long Legs tend to build up apprehension.
At other times, it feels like these moments are just there for the sake of it, to make sure the viewer is still doing some work to push the story along.
There are some other interaction types as well. Sometimes hovering over a part of the screen will actually make the camera sharpen on that part of the screen, which is a neat way to recreate the experience of noticing something for the first time. At still other times — and this was one of my favorite effects — a swipe of the finger will wipe away the present, juxtaposing the protagonist’s memories of the same location at a past time.
Only some of the actions are so focused on embodiment, though; in other cases, you’re selecting one of several options from words floating on the screen. Most of the conversation sequences work this way, with the player choosing a general topic but not knowing exactly what the protagonist will say.
Over the course of the first few scenes, Erica teaches an interaction vocabulary that distinguishes between exploratory actions (looking at things, remembering the past), physical affective actions (opening boxes, unlatching doors), and narrative choices (selecting an object to use, committing to a dialogue topic).
There’s often a timer on dialogue topics as well — a pressure technique — and Erica is simply silent if you don’t choose in time. I took that route a few times when I just didn’t agree with any of the options I was being given. I think I probably missed seeing various content thereby, but there didn’t seem to be a significant penalty, any of the times I did this, for having stayed silent.
The bulk of the story takes place at Delphi House, a sort of hospital or sanitarium where Erica’s father and mother both used to work. As Erica explores, background vignettes suggest things that are not quite right with the other patients — I found myself at times thinking of A Cure for Wellness, though Erica‘s imagery is less powerful and its plot less ridiculous.
But the story is not in particular haste to unpack this. Calling the story a thriller might suggest that you’re supposed to be on the edge of your seat, playing with a sense of heightened intensity; on the contrary, I found the experience calm, drugged, distant from even the goriest events. Many interactive passages are languorous and contemplative, sequences in which we play a few keys of the piano or page through a book of drawings: part of the implicit threat of this story is the threat of altered mind states. Towards the end I steered my protagonist into violence without any great sense of fear or compunction.
Overall, this is a technically smooth piece of work, but one that in various subtle and unsubtle ways shows a heritage in games rather than film or television. The interactive controls are more varied and ambitious than in Bandersnatch; the interactive structure and the writing, less so.
The characterization is, to my mind, its biggest weakness; with the partial exception of the fellow patient Tobi, most of the characters including Erica occupy a pretty narrow range of emotions and apparent motivations. The plot offers loads of opportunities for emotional conflict for Erica, but almost none is actually shown.
The direction gives a fair amount of attention to her eyes, and the writing gives her little to say — even in dialogue scenes, she’s often confined to just a few words at a time, and stuck with questions much more than comments — and so she emerges at a character who mostly stares at things, an observer whose strongest reaction is watchful apprehension.
She’s old enough to be living alone when the main story begins, but there’s no sign how she makes a living or what she does when she’s not having nightmares and drawing sketches of her traumatic past. We are shown none of that: no job, no schooling, no friends, no pets, no hobbies or occupations.
In her interactions with other characters, she comes off as very young and immature, entirely led by those around her, and this is the opposite of what I would expect from someone who has raised herself after being orphaned at a young age. At the same time, despite her constant nightmares and unresolved trauma, she’s willing to poke around violent crime scenes, disturbing the evidence and getting hands-on with the gore. This read to me not as courage, but as something between stupidity and a total emotional vacuum.
Erica’s passivity and emotional vacuity undermines the interactive design as well. We’re given choices that by rights ought to be very difficult ones, about whom to trust and whom to attack, in contexts where Erica could plausibly have very strong feelings about these individuals. Yet I found myself feeling that it didn’t really matter if I got the choice right.
Thematically, it also rather under-explores its material. This is a story about an institution of (mostly) men controlling and manipulating the bodies and minds of young women; of Erica herself discovering how much she has been manipulated, and eventually having the opportunity to become a more active agent in her own story. And it interrogates effectively none of that.
Erica is at least not as exploitative as that subject matter could have been. There aren’t any Heavy Rain-style moments of supposedly titillating sexual danger for our protagonist, at least not on the paths I saw. The portrayal of (perhaps) mentally ill characters is… well, I’m not sure it’s a great portrayal, but in the run-through I saw, it didn’t treat them as exotic or monstrous in the way so many stories do. The premise would also have allowed for some gross incestuous or semi-incestuous content, and this opportunity is also mercifully passed up. (Thank you, writer.)
But if Erica avoids these pitfalls, at least in the paths I saw, it also doesn’t really think to ask how actual humans might react to the circumstances depicted here; about the implications of such systems existing; or about the philosophies that would justify them.
If you try this yourself: Before you start, you may also want to make sure that your system’s power savings mode is set to give you a couple of hours before it automatically shuts down for lack of input: interacting with Erica via my smartphone didn’t send the signal to the PS4 that I was actively playing the game, so after about 20 minutes it started wanting to power down and I had to leave the experience to change the settings.
Tip if this story leaves you curious about the Delphic oracle: this portrayal is pretty far from anything historically supportable. If you’d would like to know more about the historical evidence, Joseph Fontenrose is a classic source about what the oracle actually said, while Sarah Iles Johnston’s Ancient Greek Divination is a helpful and fairly accessible resource on divinatory practices and beliefs in general.
[Disclosure: I played a copy of Erica that I bought with my own money.]