Erica begins with a younger version of our titular protagonist going through an occult ritual with her father.
He instructs her to gaze into the fire, and imagine the future. She sees a dreamlike, hazy vision: her father, dead in a room she doesn’t recognize, with some kind of symbol carved into his chest. The door opens, and suddenly his killer is there, with a gun in one hand and a knife in the other. Erica wakes up, screaming, in the present day. The mystery of his past murder is about to become a large part of her life, and she’s haunted by the conspiracies around her upbringing and his death.
Erica is a Choose Your Own Adventure-style, full-motion video game, somewhere between Her Story and Netflix’s Bandersnatch. I can choose between text options that appear on the screen, with choices like “cooperate” or “question” popping up during conversations. I can also use my DualShock 4’s touchpad to select glowing areas of the map, which represent paths to explore or clues to investigate.
While Erica is a single-player game, there can be a social element to it if you choose. The entire game is only the length of a movie, about two hours. My friends watched me play and shouted advice, and we threw out judgments about characters as they were introduced. The detective taking Erica to a safehouse? Seems like a safe person, let’s trust him. The chief of police? Nope, something shady about that guy. Everyone had an opinion about everyone, and our conversation was an only slightly logical mess as we tried to convince each other we were right.
Erica unfolds with a dreamy, abstract tone, even as it’s presenting horrors. Someone delivers a pair of hands to Erica’s door, and she’s taken into protective custody. There might be a grand conspiracy against her.
Erica is caught among a cast of characters, all of whom are telling her different stories about occult powers, her parents, and her childhood. No one can be trusted, not completely, until it’s all sorted out, but that’s going to take some doing. But I do have some choices about who I should listen to, and which paths of the story I should follow.
The entire game has a gauzy, hazy feel to it; the environments are always slightly out of focus, and much of the game is spent on shots of characters’ faces or close-ups of clues that I need to examine. Everything is presented with a sort of eerie beauty and grace, as if Wes Anderson decided to direct a Silent Hill film.
The game doesn’t flash to a black screen or show any signs of strain or pausing when I make my choices during the story. The camera simply carries on, as if I’m offering gentle guidance to the hero instead of controlling her like a puppet. It’s yet another detail that builds up the surreal nature of this world. It’s mostly seamless, and often calming, at least between the scenes of violence. Sometimes the story becomes so abstract and odd that I find it difficult to parse, which at times feels like a strength, but other times detracts from enjoying what’s going on.
The dreamlike way Erica flows from scene to scene is also both a strength and a weakness. There are no hiccups or stutters in the narrative, but it also hides the major turning points of the story, or at least the moments when my decisions really make a difference. It’s going to be interesting to go back and try again, making different choices. The relatively short running time gives that option extra appeal, especially if you’re surrounding yourself with new people who don’t know what’s going to happen.
We’re in the middle of a strange run of interesting full-motion video game releases, but it’s hard to be upset about the genre coming back, even in a limited way, when they’re as good as Erica.
Erica is out now on PlayStation 4. The game was reviewed using a final “retail” download code provided by Flavourworks. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.