“In the middle of our life’s walk I found myself in a dark wood, for the straight road was lost.” – Dante Alighieri.
The above quote from “The Divine Comedy” is probably the most apt opening for a title as abstract as Datura. This is, without doubt, the strangest game I have ever encountered. As with titles such as Dear Esther or Journey, Datura can only loosely be described as a ‘game’. There are certainly puzzles to be solved and choices to be made, but Datura’s focus is on driving an interactive, if very disjointed, narrative.
The game’s title references a genus of wildflower which causes severe psychotropic reactions when ingested. It has been used for centuries as both a poison and a recreational hallucinogenic and playing Datura gives some insight into its level of toxicity. If it emerged that the developers were on ‘Moonflower’ at the time of the game’s inception, it would certainly explain a lot.
You spend the majority of your time in Datura wandering around an eerily dreamlike autumnal forest, beautifully rendered at 60fps and backed by a haunting score. As you explore, you will happen upon random objects that trigger surreal sequences ranging from the mundane to the downright disturbing. The decisions you make in these sequences also have an effect on the overall mood of the forest, which in itself can become quite unnerving. Whilst the choices available are not always presented clearly, the ambience of your surroundings will certainly let you know how you’re doing. The ambiguity of the scenarios can also mean that you are just as likely to have a bad trip as a good one.
Playing through these surreal encounters reminded me of the afterlife sequences in the 1990 film “Flatliners”; the ephemeral visions are also reminiscent of the Ambrose Bierce classic, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”, or the more recent “1408” by Stephen King. Time is subjective and the ability of the human mind to distend it means that you’re never really sure whether you’re alive, dead, or somewhere in between.
I started Datura with the dualshock, but quickly dusted off the Move controller when I realised how integral it is to the experience. Datura was built from the ground up to showcase the motion controller’s responsiveness and the majority of your time will be spent interacting with the game world via the dismembered hand that hovers in front of your face (you stroke the birch trees to update the ingame map). Whilst the functionality of the controller can be quite frustrating at first, you can quickly adapt to the minimalist approach required. I did find I had to recalibrate a few times, however the range of expression available in the controller is quite impressive.
The most intriguing part of this game, however, is a feature that has not been widely publicised. In a recent interview, Plastic’s Michel Staniszewski discussed an experimental head tracking mechanic which was baked into Datura at development. Using a second Move controller tethered to a Sony HMZ-T1 headset, gamers can experience full-on 3D immersion. They can effectively look around the game world as they would in real life; a sort of next-gen 3D virtual reality. Sadly, few gamers will be able to experience such a unique level of absorption due to the prohibitive costs of the hardware required, but hopefully Plastic’s innovation and proof of concept will prompt Sony to integrate this tech into its next generation of consoles.
Datura is certainly an enigma; as beautiful as its namesake and engaging enough to warrant a couple of playthroughs. Had it been released as an original launch title for Move, it may have garnered far wider exposure and perhaps some well-deserved critical acclaim. As it stands, Datura is still a solid purchase and represents good value for money, but only if you are able to play it as originally intended. And sober.