Datura Hands-on Preview -- Beautiful and Dangerous but Worth the RiskBy Dennis Scimeca - Posted Mar 21, 2012
Datura's lineage can be traced back to old school adventure games, a comparison that creator Michael Staniszewski, from Polish developer Plastic Studios, doesn't contest. He does repeatedly refer to Datura as an “experience” while describing the game to me, and called it his “manifesto for the industry.” Datura is built around the PlayStation Move, and a week before GDC 2012, Staniszewski and his team began experimenting with head tracking by utilizing the Sony MakeBelieve Personal 3D Viewer. Player immersion is Staniszewski's ultimate goal with Datura.
The demo begins with a first-person perspective of lying on a stretcher in the back of an ambulance. I can see two life sign monitors on my chest, the wires trailing off to the display on my left, right behind a nurse who's attending me. Reaching out with the Move controller makes a disembodied hand appear on the screen, think “Thing” from the Addams Family movies, which follows the position and orientation of the Move controller.
When I ask why the hand is cut off in that fashion, and whether it breaks immersion, Staniszewski tells me that in earlier playtests the arm was shown as well, but players were limiting their potential movements, perhaps subconsciously, as in order to get the hand into the proper position for some actions the arm had to bend at unnatural angles.
Pressing the Move trigger makes the hand grip objects. I grip and toss away the two sensors on my chest and the vital signs on the monitor flatline. The nurse applies defibrillator paddles to my chest to no affect, and as she slams an adrenaline needle into me the screen fades to black. When the first-person view fades back in, I am on the outskirts of a forest in what looks like the middle of autumn. Staniszewski declines to explain what any of this means, and guides me into the rest of the tutorial. Gesturing the Move controller to adjusts my view and steers when the forward or move backward buttons are pressed.
The triangle button centers the player's viewpoint on the closest object of interest, which may be nearby or out of sight. It's a mechanic that prevents players from getting aimlessly lost in the forest. Staniszewski and his team had originally experimented with using automated movement broken up by choices to move left or right, but it broke immersion and so the team went with free movement instead.
Once the player arrives at an object of interest, the triangle button moves them up close such that they can focus on gesture-based hand interactions. There's little rhyme or reason to these points of interest. A door sat in a frame in the middle of a path. I tried to open it by grabbing and yanking on the door handle, but it was locked and I had no key. A wooden trailer had metal cans stacked up and a ball I could grab and throw to knock them over, and a BB gun with a rusted miniature target range, either of which would feel right at home at a carnival.
Interacting with these points of interest transports the player into abstract spaces which Staniszewski simply calls “Rooms,” and it's in these spaces that players are given moral choices decided not by selecting dialogue options, but by taking palpable action.
One Room I saw in someone else's demo put the player behind the wheel of a car, driving down what could have been an old, country road at night. When an animal walks into the road, the player can either try to drive straight through the animal or veer off to the side. Either choice results in the player hitting the truck coming at them in the opposite lane, but if the player chooses to hit the animal when the Room scene fades out and the player is returned to the forest, a few black feathers momentarily fly through the air around them indicating the tenor of the choice the player just made.
The trailer with the BB gun became a portal to a Room in which I was a prisoner in the back of a police van, handcuffed to an officer. When the truck crashed, and I had to saw myself free from the dead or unconscious officer; I could choose to either saw through the handcuff chain, or through the officer's arm.
These decisions affect the ending of the game. While Staniszewski wouldn't elaborate on that point, he said that during tests of the game players would get together and discuss their thoughts about the choices they made and why they made them, which helps illustrate why Staniszewski is so concerned with immersion: Datura is, at heart, about creating rich player narrative. While Staniszewski has heard his game compared to Myst, a more appropriate comparison might be Dear Esther, only in Staniszewski's game the player is not bearing witness to the world but partaking of it directly.
Continuing on, I find a face carved into a tree in the forest. I reach up with the Move to put my disembodied hand along the side of the face, grab, and pull. The face rips out from the tree to reveal a pickaxe, and when I grab it am transported to another Room. This time I'm on my hands and knees staring down at the frozen surface of a lake covered in snow. I gently shake the Move to brush away some of the snow and see a golden chalice under the thick ice. I brush away another patch and a human hand flattens itself against the other side of the ice. I quickly choose to chip away and free the person. The ice breaks, I plunge into the water, fade to black and return to the forest. This time, I made the right choice.
“We definitely need some kind of new digital interaction. Something to target people who find it difficult to find time to sit down and play games,” Staniszewski tells me. Datura is designed to be played from a sitting position, not standing. The game encourages exploration at the player's own pace. He likens the work being done by himself and others in the video game space as similar to what happened in film in the 1920's and 1930's.
“I was studying movie history, and in the very beginning movies were just technical novelties,” Staniszewski said. “[Filmmakers] were only showing documentaries, like people returning home from factories or trains moving, which was great for people who had never seen moving pictures before. Then there was a crisis in the cinema, because [filmmakers] didn't know what to show next. Then a wave of artists from Germany and Russia discovered editing which completely changed everything, like [Sergei] Eisenstein, and that translated into what we see in cinema now, where we can say that cinema, films, are art.”
“I think the gaming industry is at the same point, where we have a crisis, where people are struggling to find something new, the new experiences, and there's a great moment to be discovered, and we can take advantage of that,” Staniszewski continued. “I think that some kinds of games that exist right now will always be there because they're fun, but people who are passing the age of 30, who may be looking for something more difficult, who are searching for something in their lives, we need to target them. We don't need to leave them only with their kid feelings of 'We're having fun.' What's next?”
I ask Staniszewski what “Datura” means. “Datura is a flower,” he tells me. “It is beautiful, but also poisonous.” The title is apt, because Staniszewski's game is beautiful, but he's also doing something dangerous. Datura is a very different, unique experience that I'm extremely glad is being presented on the PlayStation 3 console, as most of the experimental, ground-breaking video game experiences I can think of tend to appear on the PC.
Staniszewski lets me try the Sony MakeBelieve rig his team has cobbled together with the personal 3D viewer and a clip on the side to hold a second Move controller (the clip is not part of what comes with MakeBelieve right out of the box). It's a real virtual reality setup that's still a work in progress – movement and head orientation really need to be decoupled such that the player can walk forward uninterrupted while still looking around the environment – but it's a decided step in a new direction.
It's also a step that many may not be willing to take, potentially to their loss once we get a chance to see the final release of Datura, and if it holds up to the promise of the GDC demo. Of course, nothing new was ever created without the artist taking risks. Datura is yet another example of a video game whose creator is pushing the envelope and making the argument through their work that video games are as much a canvas upon which to create than anything else.
Dennis Scimeca is a freelance writer from Boston, MA. In addition to feature writing and event reporting for G4, his work has been published on Kotaku, Ars Technica and Gamasutra. His weekly column First Person runs on The Escapist, and you can follow him on Twitter: @DennisScimeca