What is a game? If it's defined by its interactivity, then I suppose you could call Erica a game. But much like Netflix's Bandersnatch before it, it's tough to put Erica in a box. What Sony's new experience makes clear is that entertainment is changing, creating something brand new in the process.
To put it simply, Erica is an interactive live action game, interspersed with player-led actions. It follows titular character Erica as she begins to unravel the mystery behind her father's cruel and gruesome death, seemingly at the hands of a cult. It's not the most original premise, but it's executed well enough to hold my interest to the end. There's cults, sudden nosebleeds, strange doctors, mysterious keys and a girl's home that is definitely not what it seems.
Erica's story is nothing spectacular, but its execution and mechanics are fantastic, and show off what could very well be the future of storytelling.
As Erica journeys through the strange hallways of her father's institution, she discovers a variety of secrets, or rather, you do. Erica puts players directly in the driver's seat, letting them choose how Erica will behave, and even placing the literal keys to her release in their hands.
When Erica uses a lighter, players are tasked with flipping it open and starting a fire. When Erica finds a mysterious key, players swipe via their phone or the PS4 pad to unlock a door. If you're using the integrated Erica app, these actions have an even greater impact because they're more tactile and involving than simply using the gamepad.
These interactions are mostly small and a little bit silly, but they really involve players in the action and invest you in Erica's journey. After all, the decisions you make impact her directly, and every little bit helps to make you feel emotionally attached to Erica, and to her future.
When she sees a strange cultist fleeing down a hallway, will she follow after them? Or will she answer the fateful phone call from the office front desk? Each decision reveals more clues about the central mystery behind the game, illuminating Erica's familial relationships and offering multiple branching narratives throughout the course of the game.
Speaking of acting, the whole cast of Erica does a brilliant job here.
Erica is a character that's easy to care for because she's so reactive and emotive. Holly Early does a brilliant job at portraying Erica's wide-eyed innocence, but more than that, she's relatable as a protagonist because she's so empty. Erica is an empty character because she is all of us, everyone clicking and swiping behind the television screen. The future of entertainment is personable and relatable, and Erica does a fine job of involving players in its story and encouraging empathy with its unfortunate protagonist. It also helps the game to feel high-stakes. You want to save Erica because she is you.
When Bandersnatch was unleashed on the world in 2018, it felt like a true, innovative leap in entertainment. Choose Your Own Adventures and interactive FMVs were nothing new, but bringing the concept into the modern age, buoyed by modern technology, helps the idea feel exciting once more. Erica feels like a leap forward in the genre.
FMVs of the past were often poorly produced, directed, acted and written. The FMVs of today are the polar opposite, and Erica is as high budget and slickly produced as any Hollywood film or Netflix production. The interactivity is integrated almost seamlessly, and while it might be considered gimmicky and unnecessary to the core of the narrative, it's important because it's unique.
In an age where Netflix and its fellowing streaming services are all jostling for attention in the entertainment arena, uniqueness is one of the most important factors for new and enterprising properties. Uniqueness draws attention, and in an era where attention is waning, entertainment that grabs its audience immediately is needed.
No, Death Stranding isn't being turned into some kind of cloud exclusive. Relax. But in a new interview, the legendary designer-auteur Hideo Kojima has praised the possibilities of game streaming services like Apple Arcade and Google Stadia, and that he has a cloud gaming project he'd especially like to work on.
Erica is a logical and well-designed step in that direction. The technology it implements only scratches the surface of what interactivity could do for the future of entertainment, but the concepts that it employs are sure to have an impact on how we watch and engage with films and TV in the future.