Let me tell you about a dream I had.
I was walking through a forest filled with butterflies and horseflies. Before me was a tree with the face of a man. I tore away at the bark, to find a pick-axe. Suddenly I was on a frozen lake. I looked down, wiped away an inch of snow and saw a girl dying under the ice. Desperately, I hacked away at the frozen surface with the pickaxe as fast as I could to save her, but the ice cracked underneath me and suddenly I was drowning, sinking, dying.
I'm sorry, did I say dream? I meant game.
Datura is the latest game for the Playstation Move to come out of Sony Santa Monica, and was developed by Plastic Studios, creators of the weird, demoscene project Linger in Shadows. Summing up the plot of Datura is complicated. As far as I can tell the game is the surrealist fever dream of a dying man in the back of an ambulance. An EMT accidentally plunges an adrenaline needle in your chest and you black out. When you wake up, you're in a forest, which acts as a hub-world for a series of seemingly unconnected flashbacks about death or dying.
The whole game is controlled with the Playstation Move controller (the Dualshock 3 can be used, but I wouldn't recommend it), which proves to be both interesting and frustrating at the same time. The wand controls not just movement but also a disembodied hand that is used to interact with objects and simple yet cryptic puzzles. You throw potatoes at pigs, put your hand under a fountain of green slime and touch birch trees to gain their "spiritual knowledge" and update your map.
The problem with this setup is that it sometimes breaks down in both execution and premise. Datura feels rooted in that Myst-era of surrealist, minimalist adventure games, and the puzzles follow a strange kind of arbitrary dream-logic. Half of the challenge is just figuring out what the game expects you to do, and the other half is fighting with the controls to make that happen. In one situation, I found myself standing in front of a statue of a woman hoping the puzzle didn't involve groping its breasts, because honestly that was as plausible a solution as any that had happened so far. Another time, I was stuck wearing out my arm trying to knock over some cans with a softball for about 4 minutes. At times, tasks as simple as playing a glockenspiel or using a pickaxe become far more arduous than they have any right to be.
One of the saving graces of the game is the surreal environment of the forest that acts as a hub world. The woods have the brooding feel of a forest in early winter, and are apparently meant as an allusion to the woods from the beginning of Dante's Inferno. The air is thick with dead leaves and butterflies, giving it just the right emotional tone. I found myself flashing back to being 10 and playing Myst, over and over again.
Datura gets its name from an poisonous, psychedelic flowering plant that causes hallucinations and heart attacks. While that's somewhat appropriate for the subject matter at hand, the game just uses it as a flowery and somewhat simple metaphor for the duality of your actions. You are presented with a series of binary moral choices related to death which alter the world depending on what you do. And while there is some surprising ambiguity to some of those actions, there is nothing tethering any of them together chronologically.
Unfortunately, like a dream, Datura ends just as it's getting interesting. There's a fascinating Silent-Hill-meets-Heavy-Rain style buildup near the end, but suddenly the credits roll and the game is over. In fact, it ends so suddenly and cryptically that I thought I had screwed up a puzzle and gotten a "game over." I had to email the PR team just to make sure there wasn't some insane ending I was missing.
Datura should be applauded for what it's trying to accomplish. It's experimenting with both the medium and the interface, and when it works, it's something truly unique and special. But upon completion, the experience felt as cohesive as a dream upon awakening. Confusing, unsatisfying, and ultimately fleeting.