“The only way I’ll start playing games again is if they get to the point where you don’t need a controller anymore—where you yourself are the controller.”
That’s what my friend, who gave up games to make films, keeps telling me. I’m less patient—the fantasy was all I could think about when I began Datura, the first-person trip through dreams, memories, and hallucinations that tries to make you forget you’re holding a controller that looks like an ice cream cone—the PlayStation Move. Your suspension of disbelief—that this isn’t just a game—hinges on Move’s power to make you think you’re using nothing but your own hand.
That motion-control games were at least being developed to tell a story rather than simulate sports, my friend probably wouldn’t know. But he’s still right to hesitate: Datura lives and dies by its controller. Built by the idealistic Poles of Plastic Studios (Linger in Shadows), Datura was intended not just to feature, but to ultimately transcend Sony’s back-shelf, reality-bent controller. Total immersion is indeed an impossible task for cameras and handheld accelerometers. But with that in mind, Plastic ended up finding a way to subvert the Move’s buggy simulacrum. While the Move technology promises to liberate you from the controller and grant you a wider range of motion, Datura is a game that just leads you in circles.
You wake up in the bed of an ambulance, navel-gazing over your electrodes as music plays in the same key and tempo as Angelo Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks theme. To start, your first cue is to disconnect yourself, to rip off your wires, from life support—the first dreamy wireless metaphor. But before you’re even up, the nurse notices your flat line, and in a fit of fear she stabs you in the heart with a syringe. Fade to black.
Then you wake up stranded in a forest, your disembodied hand floating before you. The only move, then, is to grope around a befogged forest as expertly rendered explosions of leaves and bristling flies, beetles, and butterflies cling to your hand. As you approach your first gate to nowhere, a bit of text spells out the game’s only written instruction: “Touch the white tree to gain knowledge of your surroundings.” The only road signs are the unmarked spots on the map.
Fundamentally, Datura is a walk-through eye-spy. The only real competition in this game is with yourself and your willingness to navigate the disorienting environment. This is both payoff and tax: gazing into confusion at the ethereal world until a button icon appears on your HUD, telling you look closer at something and either pull, push, or turn. But as you lumber and solve for no reward besides another puzzle, the hand you think is yours starts to feel like someone else’s—Sony’s Move or Plastic’s invisible direction.
It becomes clear that the mission in Datura is to discover from a blank slate who someone else was, and forget who you want to be. Plastic wanted to immerse you in someone so deep down his own rabbit hole that you become alienated from the character you’re supposedly controlling. Every decision feels wrong, and the game forces you into becoming a critical audience member. As you travel deeper in Datura, you’re only reminded how far you are from being part of it.
And so the narrative flings you off into abstract hallucinations that dictate this character. Do you swing a pickax at a frozen lake to save the hypothermic victim underneath, or do you turn to the left and dig up an ice-encased trophy just waiting to be won? If a bit binary, the choice jabs at Sony’s trophy system of rewards. Choose the in-game trophy, and you get Datura’s greed trophy.
A catch-all metaphor for most great pleasures, the actual datura flower is both beautiful and toxic. Cured and offered by shamans: life’s reset button. Ingested by a thrill-seeking kid: death. Likewise, the game teases you with the temptation to know more. Swinging around at the obstinate interface, you submit to the allure of the quixotic trip—only to be reminded of its own irresolution.
Datura’s real beauty lies beyond you and your controller. Its map of trapdoors, tunneling trips, and labyrinths reflects, if clumsily, its own fractured narrative. The pieces to put together: hallucinations of chasing a kid around a pool, blocking flying tennis balls with a trashcan lid, and trench warfare against cardboard cutouts, among others.
Try to climb out of the spiraling storyline and you’re launched into sequences that only end back at the bottom of the spiral. In one scene you break the rope of a bell in a tower, and the bell crashes down before you. Landing upside down, the bell lures you into looking down. But of course, you fall into another dream sequence that ends up spitting you back out in another part of the map, and you’ve gone nowhere. You’re perpetually in the woods.
As to its cinematic pedigree, the game draws form David Lynch’s narrative puzzles and violently surreal apparitions—the totally banal and surreal violence in a side-by-side slow dance. There’s one particular hallucination where you find your character speeding down the cover of Lost Highway as a pig walks onto the road. Your only real choice is whether or not to save the pig. It doesn’t matter. You still wake up an alien getting shot at in someone else’s woods.
Even still, don’t assume familiarity with the Datura experience. The game’s publication and lukewarm reception happened so fast, the game is at risk of slipping away like a bad dream. It’s a bad dream, and technically, bad game—but it’s a game worth remembering for its attempt to shoehorn into the mainstream a style of narrative play in which words like authority and interactivity no longer represent polar values.