Growing up on Fighting Fantasy gamebooks and other choose-your-own adventures, interactive narratives have always been my favorite thing about video games. Player agency and choices having an actual impact on the world of the game. So when I saw Erica on the Playstation store, it was an instant purchase for me; I'll take as many of these games as I can get. Even in a post-Telltale world where it seems like every game touts the fact that Choices Matter, it still feels like there aren't enough of them.
I tend to play this type of game just once, carving out my own story and accepting it as the canon series of events. Unlike how a lot of people play visual novels, I don't try to see every ending the game has to offer, I just take what I'm given as the only way things could have possibly gone. It's why I never liked Telltale's signature "X will remember that." It was always my thought that attention shouldn't be drawn to the choices that actually are making a difference, because to feel truly immersive, the story should flow naturally enough and react well enough to the player's choices that it feels like every single action is an important one. Even while showing alternate paths that could have been taken, Until Dawn is an example of a game that does this well. Simple dialogue options invisibly adjust that path the story will take. Erica, however, feels like a game built for multiple playthroughs in order to feel like anything but the largest, most obvious actions are having any impact at all.
I only played through Erica once, maybe to my detriment, but that's how I play these games. The game does warn against it from the outset, but this is my experience and I'm choosing to hate the game rather than the player. Throughout my single playthrough, the story was a confusing one, with core concepts never explained, or not well enough. Most of the game is set in a place called Delphi House, which at first mention I assumed was some kind of university fraternity/sorority, but upon arrival seems like a hotel. Eventually I came to realise it's some sort of care home or hospital for girls, although there only seem to be three patients and it's never clear exactly why they're there. There are some patient files to be found, although I didn't get enough time to look at them properly for fear of being caught snooping. And so the story goes, whisking the player along its merry way with familiarity presumably to be found through subsequent playthroughs. Very little I was doing felt like it had any great impact until the end, where I was presented with a series of stark choices in quick succession, the first of which mostly informed all the others, until the chosen ending arrived. Judging by the number of trophies (which only ever unlock upon finishing a playthrough; a nice way to avoid mid-game distractions), there is a lot of discovery to be found through playing the game again, but my first time around didn't do a great job of enticing me into another. I even deleted the app.
Being a PlayLink game, Erica is playable using a smart device through a downloadable app specific to this game. It's also possible to play using the touchpad on a normal controller, but the game suggests the app as the best experience. I'm not sure why, as all it involves is dragging your finger(s) around the screen to swipe and point at things. The PS4 controller's touchpad isn't great, but I think it's good enough for that. I used my phone, as I expected there to be some extra utility implemented, like dialogue choices being listed on my phone screen for me to just tap, but the controls were the same as picking anything else: dragging and holding. Even the options menu was still displayed on the TV screen and not the phone. There are some movements approximating the actions you're telling the character to take, a la Quantic Dream's recent games, as well as rubbing to wipe things like dust away, which was satisfying. Nothing that I could see was improved by using the phone instead of the touchpad, but at least the phone didn't get too hot from being open for the whole playthrough, as I feared it might.
Erica was a disappointment to me for its lackluster story and meager interactivity, but the dedicated might be able to squeeze something worthwhile out of it.