Erica Is A Nintendo DS Launch Game From Another Dimension
Sony’s FMV revival would be a great fit for a console that doesn’t exist
Erica, a long-in-development PS4 FMV game that recently and unexpectedly dropped on the PlayStation store at a low price and with little fanfare, is a forward-looking throwback. It’s part of a quiet renaissance of new FMV games that has brought the genre back and explored new ways to use live action footage in games (see also: Her Story, Late Shift, Tesla Effect: A Tex Murphy Adventure). It’s a moody, slightly muddy thriller that lost me for stretches, but which ended up being moderately compelling and pleasingly twisty. It’s worth the low asking price, I think, even if it won’t blow anyone’s mind.
It’s also, I’m convinced, actually a Nintendo DS title for an alternate dimension where the DS launched for the first time in 2020 with all the power of a modern console. Erica, you see, is best played using your smartphone rather than a controller, and effectively works as a two-screen experience. You can download an app and then control the action through touch controls, selecting options on the screen by moving a pointer around with your finger and manipulating objects by swiping and rubbing the screen. You’ll have a close-up of a drawer, for instance, and you’ll need to swipe down to open it, or to turn a key in a lock you’ll have to draw a circle on the screen to imitate the turn. Nothing’s actually shown on your phone, so you can focus on the TV, but you can imagine how this would be different if the touch screen was, say, right below the main screen and in your hands.
Erica reminds me of what made the Nintendo DS such an exciting, interesting console, and why I’ve not only held onto my game collection but continue to peek in op shops and second half stores in the hope that I’ll discover a cheap DS gem that I missed the first time. More specifically, it reminded me of the early period of the system, when developers were figuring out how to best use two screens, what kind of cool things they could do with the touch screen, and when — let’s be honest — a lot of the games were exciting concepts that didn’t always feel good to play.
The slight jankiness of Erica, which has immaculate presentation but struggled to respond to some of my movements on the screen, is oddly endearing. It’s a reminder that trying to do something new with game controls is always a risk, and that there’s usually a period of trial and error before someone gets it right. Touch screen controls aren’t new at this point, of course, but splitting the action between two screens like this fondly reminded me of those first moments with my Nintendo DS. I got it the Christmas after it launched, and in the new year snapped up several of the launch titles that had dropped in price to see what, exactly, my system could do. I loved it then, and I still love it now.
There’s a lot to be said for the games that come out early on a console, the ones that are, in general, a bit more willing to test out the features that make the system’s controls unique. Remember the PS4 touchpad? Because a lot of developers sure don’t (although, funnily enough, you can play Erica with the touchpad if you don’t have a smartphone). Those rumble motors in the Xbox One shoulder buttons definitely felt a bit more special at launch when Forza 5 put them to good use (and let’s not even talk about the Kinect), while the Switch’s HD rumble — used to cool effect in 1–2-Switch — is definitely going to get less play now that the Switch Lite has ditched it.
The DS was home to some incredible games across its life, admittedly including some later games that would not have worked nearly as well on other systems. There’s never going to be another game quite like Hotel Dusk or its sequel Last Window, I suspect, which both relied so heavily on the two-screen system. The three-game Ouendan series, rhythm games that made perfect use of both the screen divide and the stylus, is similarly a relic now, an example of an experience that could have only existed with that set-up. These are games that Erica made me look back on fondly, but they’re also games that came later, when developers were really starting to get to grips with what they could do and how to provide deep, engaging experiences on the system.
Erica feels like a launch title for a theoretical Nintendo DS, one powerful enough to run a game like this, new enough that developers are still wrapping their heads around what they can do with it right up until launch, but exciting because it’s something properly new, even if it’s feeding on older tropes and genres. Of course, there’s nothing truly new about Erica, except that the descriptors you could attach to it (an FMV game that lets you manipulate objects via touch controls on a second screen) are much rarer now. It’s an odd game to release at what’s starting to look like the end of the PS4’s life cycle, because Erica, for all its retro charm, feels like the start of something new.