Sewer Shark. You may not recognize that title. But it was one of the first games that came out for the early ’90s Sega CD units using full-motion video (FMV). Hey, back then gamemakers were pretty giddy about all the space they had on those “huge” CD-ROMs versus the old game cartridges. So they figured, why not try some live-action stuff with real actors? It was all awfully grainy and not just a little bit gimmicky, but still pretty fun.
Now, all these years later, new FMV games are popping up, once again. But what a difference a couple decades makes, don’t you know. The latest example is a crystal-clear, fully filmed thriller called Erica. It’s a game that you can play on your PS4 or download for your smartphone or tablet, and it’s an incredibly movielike creation.
In fact, this stick-it-in-your-back-pocket entertainment creation is closer to an interactive choose-your-own-adventure film than a simple game with cinematic inserts.
In this title you play as a young girl named Erica. Her father is the cofounder of what amounts to a mental asylum for girls called Delphi House. But there’s more to this odd institution and its founders than meets the eye. And we get a glimpse of that “more” in an early flashback scene between a 10-year-old Erica and her single dad, who tells her a story about a priestess with a butterfly birthmark who could predict the future. It’s a birthmark much like the one on Erica’s own little forearm.
Dad looks back with his daughter on memories of her now-deceased mom, and then he has her stare into the fire and imagine the future. There, Erica sees her father’s death, too. In that shimmering vision, she glimpses her father sprawled on the ground with a wicked-looking symbol carved gorily into his chest, and she sees a killer with dripping knife standing in a nearby doorway.
With that, Erica wakes up gasping. But now it’s quite a few years later, and she’s a twentysomething who’s plagued with any number of emotional problems caused by her father’s death—a demise that played out exactly as her youthful vision had long-ago predicted. Then the whole ugly situation with its terrible memories and unanswered mysteries gets ripped open once again when two bloody, lopped-off hands are left in a cardboard box outside Erica’s tiny apartment door.
Erica calls in the police, but the detective suggests that her safest choice is to go back and stay for a while at the fortress-like Delphi House Estate while the police do their work. No evil bloodletting baddie can reach her there, he suggests.
Obviously, the officer knows nothing about creepy mysteries. So the responsibility for deciphering this macabre murder mystery lies, of course, in Erica’s (and your) hands alone.
From a gameplay perspective, Erica is all about choices. You’re given hands-on investigatory duties to open this drawer, pick up that object or read the poorly spelled note in the typewriter, etc. And that’s all achieved by FMV-focused game mechanics involving swipes and pinches on your tablet’s screen or your game controller’s touchpad. (These include flicking the screen to turn the flint wheel on a lighter, for instance, or opening a package or article of clothing with a two finger swipe.)
But your true job is to make spur-of-the-moment decisions that will shape the story narrative and seamlessly slip the next strip of storyline celluloid into the game’s ever-unspooling film reel. There are multiple endings and outcomes to reach. And, along the way, you’ll notice little repeated references to choices you made in prior scenes.
As mentioned, it all plays out in a creatively seamless tale that’s well acted and well directed. And even though new characters you meet seem as if they might just have some nasty secret (or well-covered weapon of mass murder) hidden just outside your view, things still feel pretty enigmatic and compelling.
However, for all of its “you’re driving the action” charm, this game’s story is packed with far less charming M-rated, uh, chum. There are f-words and other crudities in the dialogue. Bloody, carved open chests, slashed throats, lopped off body parts, thrashing seizures and drug-injected deaths decorate the scenes. You’ll glimpse occult-focused rituals, dark hallucinogenic nightmares, uncomfortable emotional trauma and people getting blurry-eyed drunk. And it’s all made just a bit more real feeling because it’s being played out by living and breathing actors rather than CGI constructs.
Of course, that’ s the sort of stuff that can come with crystal-clear, fully filmed FMV updates. Which, I suppose, just might make you wish for those old grainy and gimmicky titles from back in the day.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.