Discussion Review: Datura

Review written by Matt Litten & Tim Mack.

Datura

Matt: Give it up to Thing from The Addams Family for finally getting a starring role in his own video game. Oh wait, that’s not Thing. That’s just Plastic’s trippy new PlayStation Move game Datura.

What is Datura? It’s hard to answer that question without giving too much away, but in simple terms it is a first-person adventure “game” that has you manipulating different objects using the hovering, disembodied hand of a nameless, faceless protagonist. Being more specific, playing Datura is sort of like the video game equivalent to answering one of those random “what would you do?” quizzes in a gossip or pop culture magazine.

Datura isn’t so much about puzzle solving as it is making choices in a sequence of random scenarios that each has two possible outcomes. Do you run over a pig standing in the road or swerve around it to avoid cooking up a slab of roadkill bacon? Do you save someone’s life or let greed distract you from doing the right thing?

You may contemplate the choices as they are presented and your immediate reaction to the dilemmas at hand may say something about which direction your moral compass points, but the final decisions have no lasting impact on how the game progresses or concludes. When I was done, I didn’t feel the emotional fulfillment that I was expecting, and that lack of finality was a let down.

The game can be played just fine with a DualShock/Sixaxis, but it’s clear the developers designed the gameplay in a Move-centric manner. By holding the Move, your hand becomes the virtual hand of the protagonist, and you use it to interact with the game world like you would a mouse cursor in a traditional point-and-click PC adventure. Turning doorknobs, spinning cranks, grabbing objects, throwing potatoes at pigs; these are but a few of the basic actions required in progressing through the game.

Controlling this disembodied hand can look and feel a bit awkward at times – there’s one “puzzle” that involves prying boards off of a door with a crowbar that’s particularly clumsy – but for the most part the Move imparts a natural sense of touch that’s never been captured quite like this in a game before. Your hand movement is tracked one-to-one on all axes, meaning you not only reach side to side and up and down, but also into the depth of the scenery. Every rotation and tilt of the wrist is also mirrored in the game.

Movement is fully 3D, not on-rails like motion control games too often are. I was concerned about this at first since the game does not make use of the Navigation controller and thus a trusty analog stick would not be available to me, but after testing both Move and DualShock control schemes I was taken aback by how much smoother navigation was one-handing a Move versus the analog sticks of a standard controller. All’s you do is hold down the Move button to walk forward and point the wand left or right to turn, with pumps of the trigger button allowing you to sprint for a brief time. Face buttons allow you to back up or to scan the environment from a fixed position.

While the game doesn’t have a hero or story to latch onto emotionally, the centerpiece and driving narrative force of Datura is the environment itself. The game takes place in a hallucinogenic forest where tennis ball machines become World War II chain gun turrets and carnival game stands become criminal transport vans. (Yes, this game is very odd, if you hadn’t guessed already.) Beautiful colors of autumn splash the screen at every turn, with leaves, feathers and butterflies floating down all around to enhance the surreal atmosphere of this mysterious world, the evocative soundtrack amplifying the immersion with feelings of tension, despair and wonder in perfect proportion.

What has your experience with Datura been like, Tim? How did you interpret the game’s surreal sequence of events?

Tim: As far as Move enabled games go, I always fear the implementation of moving about a game world and the need for me to have to stand up. Call me petty, but any game that requires me to stand for the entire duration of the experience just isn’t as fun for me. So I was very happy to find that during the opening moments of the game, the Move calibration screen clearly indicated that I was not expected to stand up and accounted for the fact that I’m a lazy person who prefers to game sitting on my couch.

Trying to grasp at the electrodes with a free-floating hand took a few seconds to orient just how much one-to-one movement I was going to need, but after that initial adjustment, I became enchanted by the atmosphere and cryptic journey I was embarking on. Moving through the world felt very natural. Holding down the Move button moves the camera forward at a pace that isn’t too fast and allows for left or right turning simply by moving the Move to the left or right. Letting go of the Move button, pressing the Cross button, and then moving the controller left or right moves the camera view at a much quicker pace (without inducing nausea or dizziness) and allows for quick wide viewing of the surrounding environment. Holding down the circle button moves the camera backward at a speed just a hair slower than moving forward and after just exploring the game space for a few moments, I was completely sold on one-handed movement without feeling like I needed to have a Nav controller or wanted to switch to the DualShock.

Moving throughout the world, on-screen prompts indicate that holding down the Triangle button focuses the camera on various points of interest. Moving the camera closer, the prompt glows to indicate that the point of interest can now be interacted with. As Matt mentioned above, grabbing items can be a bit of a chore at times because the Move is not only tracking where the floating hand is on the X/Y axis but also the Z axis. In other words, moving the Move closer or farther away from the screen moves the floating hand in or out of reach of whatever object needs to be grasped.

At times the object being touched doesn’t have much physical space to grab onto (i.e. a gate bar or thin wooden plank) and moving the floating hand around to locate the sweet spot felt more like a chore than a fluid game mechanic. Prompts constantly telling me to hold down a particular Move button typically indicated when I’d located the sweet spot, so at times I found myself being pulled out of the mysterious world and would instead almost thrash about the controller, twisting and tilting it simply waiting for the game to tell me I had the right angle and depth to continue with the puzzle.

There was only one puzzle during the game that felt completely broken. There is a xylophone that requires playing notes in a specific order. Each time I would line the mallet up to the correct note and swing the Move to strike the plate, the mallet would strike the note next to where I was attempting to strike. I can say that thankfully the Move has a strap to keep the controller from unintentionally flying out of my hand. I was ready to intentionally throw the damn thing several times during that puzzle but the strap would only let the controller fly from my hand and then swing back and dangle from my wrist.

Overall, I felt the final moments of the game were poignant if even a little forced. Each individual puzzle throughout the game (regardless of outcome) is brought together in a way that can only be described as David Lynch-ian. I think that Datura shouldn’t necessarily be thought of as a game in the same way that Plastic’s previous PS3 title Linger in Shadows isn’t a game. Rather, Plastic has taken a mature set of themes and sewn them together using the Move to great effect, showing an intentionally mysterious and slightly vague narrative to allow gamers to interpret the game experience with their own personal history. I’d argue that Datura is one of the better examples of what can be done with Move controller while simultaneously showing that “gaming” doesn’t have to be all about platforming, perfect timing or high scores.

While Datura isn’t perfect, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I was willing to overlook some of the more clunky moments and accept a floating hand as my means for advancing from one area to the next.

Matt: You had a problem with the xylophone scene? That one didn’t give me any trouble. I miss-hit a couple notes, but that was mostly due to me trying to play the song too fast. Again, the crowbar was the only object I had trouble getting to function properly.

I have to agree with you concerning the constant button prompts, though. I understand the developer’s need to explain the controls, especially for an audience that may not be well versed in Move motion gaming, but a lot of the actions are so self-explanatory that the steady stream of control guides becomes tiresome and somewhat distracting. I would have appreciated an option to shut off such hints, particularly on my second and third playthroughs when I REALLY didn’t need the game telling me how to play it any more.

As you say, Datura is as much a form of playable art as it is a game, in a similar fashion to Dear Esther on the PC. The only difference being that Datura does have way more interactive, game-like qualities, whereas Dear Esther simply had you walking forward while narration fed you a storyline like an audio book.

What I find so compelling yet equally unsatisfying about this title is how well it shows off the capabilities of the Move in an adventure game capacity but never quite delivers on that full experience. The mapping system, for example, is so elegantly implemented. White trees are scattered around the forest like mystical sign posts, and once you find and touch one of these trees, your character pulls out a notebook and hand draws a map of the surrounding area onto the page. At any time, you can pull this map into view and move and look at it as if it were physically in your possession. Once you complete a scenario, a white or black peg is placed on the map to indicate the outcome of your choice.

This element of charting out the area heightens the immersion and adds to the sense of exploring an otherworldly place, however since the game world is fairly small and the direction you’re supposed to go is always pretty obvious, there never seems to be an actual need to have such a map (other than to complete it for a trophy). I would love to see this type of mapping interface fully fleshed out in a larger game world. Actually, if memory serves, Far Cry 2 had something similar in appearance, but that game didn’t have Move support nor did you play a part in drawing the map.

Because of this and the overall lack of a memorable emotional payoff at the end, Datura comes across more like a playable prototype pitch for a motion control adventure game that does not exist but could potentially be PlayStation Move’s answer to Myst if further developed. I hope some day Plastic (or another developer) gets the opportunity to take this starting point the distance, because if nothing else Datura proves that adventure gaming and the Move go together just right. (Well, Heavy Rain sort of proved that already.)

This is one of those rare, strange instances of a game that disappointed me yet completely captivated my imagination. As a form of artistic expression and experimental game design concepts, Datura is a moody, albeit unfinished masterpiece well worth experiencing, just as long as you know that you’re basically spending $10 on a vague and openly interpretable piece of digital art rather than a full-blown video game. While short lived at roughly two hours, at least one additional rerun is an absolute must in order to see all possible outcomes. Then, like a favorite painting or art book, you’ll be glad knowing it’s available on your PS3 hard drive to be admired at any time.

Matt-BuyIt

Pros:
+ Innovative and well implemented PlayStation Move controls
+ Music establishes a mysterious atmosphere of tension and wonder
+ Surreal and incredibly immersive game world
+ Odd, completely unpredictable series of events keep you guessing at every turn

Cons:
- Choices don’t culminate in a memorable or emotionally impactful way
- Too many control prompts with no option to turn them off
- Teases the potential for a full PlayStation Move adventure game without completely following through
- Hand movements sometimes look a bit clunky

Tim: I found the map to be a really great idea, but it took me two or three attempts to realize how to use it. I would press square and not see anything. It was only after I was holding the Move up higher when I pressed square that the sheet of paper on screen was viewable. I prefer that style of exploration within the game systems (even if at first it seems like the game is broken) over the numerous button prompts. I wish the rest of the encounters within the game were more along those lines of pressing a few buttons or moving the controller around until the correct input is discovered or hit upon.

One feature that I wish more games would implement (and Datura doesn’t make it obvious until the very end of the game) is the ability to create a screenshot from within the game. Now granted the steps to make the screenshot aren’t as easy as doing so with a Vita, but the fact that games can take a screenshot through the XMB while the game is running is pretty neat. Datura has some dynamic environments that could potentially make for a nice wallpaper, and I’m glad that the option is available.

After my first playthrough I had set the game aside in order to get through several other games, but I have since returned to see how it looked in 3D. Honestly, I had missed the fact that the game even had a 3D option the first time around, otherwise I would’ve played it in 3D initially. But having roughly two weeks time away from the game before loading it up again, I was immediately struck by how fantastic the music is. There is something haunting and melodic and mysterious about the music that I think gives the experience just that extra touch (for me at least) to bring together some of the rougher not fully realized ideas that Matt describes.

Datura is a great digital art experience that has some less than perfect moments. Use of the Move is fantastic and I found that I preferred it over using the traditional DualShock 3. While the game can be played in 3D, it isn’t necessary, although Plastic does like to push the 3D boundaries during some of the more “demo scene” moments. $10 is worth the price but keep in mind that it is more demoscene than game.

Tim-BuyIt

Pros:
+ Move controls feel very natural
+ Perfectly moving yet moody music
+ Gorgeous, unique, and mysterious world
+ Interesting blend of game and demo scene

Cons:
- Can be completed in one sitting
- Move use is a bit finicky during certain puzzles
- Over use of button prompts

Game Info:
Platform: PS3 via PSN
Publisher: SCEA
Developer: Plastic
Release Date: 5/8/2012
Genre: Adventure
ESRB Rating: Teen
Players: 1
Source: Review code provided by publisher. Second copy purchased by reviewer.

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!