A satisfactory conclusion is not entirely dependent on exposition. Limbo, Braid, and Journey, for example, were arguably better for not clarifying every lingering detail. It’s a fine balance, trying to provide the just the right amount of clues in the given context, but unraveling that thread is intended to part of the experience. In these cases a game isn’t meant to slam the door closed when the credits role, but rather to leave it slightly ajar only to be pushed shut through speculative forums threads or spirited conversations among like-minded friends. It’s a path that has worked for literature and film, and it’s been a joy to see games slowly occupying a similar space.
Datura certainly wants to be a part of that obscure club. It begins with the player character on an ambulance gurney, and, after ripping off a couple life support systems, soon transitions to a very autumn forest. The forest is scattered with solemn set pieces like an old carnival booth, a fountain, and a door to nowhere. There’s even a wandering pig and, yes, you can throw potatoes at it. Interacting with most of these objects transports the character’s consciousness to a flashback of sorts, at which point there is usually some sort of obscure moral choice that’s vaguely connected to seemingly unrelated events.
Datura’s calling card, or at least what sets it apart from other adventure games, is its ominous floating hand. Either with a Move controller or a DualShock 3, interaction in Datura is left to the player’s severed right hand. Its primary use is to touch and feel white trees, which allows the player to sketch bit of a map, but also comes into play in a few light puzzles here and there. Motion controls are used to steer cars, fire off guns, block projectiles, and a few other weird surprises. Of particular interest is the occasional glimpse of your left hand, which is attached to an arm. Why’s your right hand severed? It’s a gray area where I’m not sure if it was part of the Datura’s mystery or an technical limitation with rotating a hand in 3D space, but I guess the folks at Plastic considered it all part of Datura’s vague fiction.
So, how tragic that is it that grasping at Datura’s elusive narrative is wrecked by dreadful controls? One can forgive the plodding and awkward movement, your walk through the forest is intended to be slow and deliberate, but there’s no accounting for Datura’s motion controlled quirks. Motion control is always on the menu, and, at least with a DualShock 3, functionally broken in a number of areas. Navigating a car down a dark highway wasn’t an intense plunge into ambiguity but rather three minutes of facing the guard rail while my car carried on (completely horizontal) along the road. Breaking through a boarded door with a crowbar wasn’t ripe with anticipation of what was on the other side because figuring out how to properly position the controller literally took me a half hour. Perhaps Datura would have been better served with a Move controller (Waggle3D’s video analysis looks like a better experience), and I get what the folks at Plastic were going for, but as it stands parts of the game are not fit to be controlled with a DualShock 3.
The overwhelming collapse of Datura’s control is frustrating because it sucks the life out of the experience. Datura’s narrative threads, no matter how purposely vague or involuntarily unrefined, are a passionate force of intrigue. It’s a considerably short game, once you know what you’re doing you can check in and out in less than an hour, but playing with all of the tranquil puzzles and watching how your actions affect the final five minutes is a hook that totally works. If only it were complimented by proper tactile feedback, if the whole detached hand thing managed a legitimate grasp of Datura’s nebulous constructs, we’d be talking more about Datura as a great game and less as an atrophied experience.
At least the presentation holds up its end of the bargain. Datura is priced at a reasonable $10, but its visuals and music both hit above their pay grade. Wrapped in yellow and orange leaves with shots of odd flowers, tiny insects, and neglected artifacts, Datura calls to mind a fondness for autumn, and its wooded confines cater particularly well to the runaway imagination of exploring the woods as a youth. Datura’s external segments are also quite detailed, beautiful, and occasionally hallucinogenic, and those parlor tricks work well alongside the more organic bits and pieces. Only the animation given to the rare glimpses of humans comes off awkward and low budget.