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Datura Preview + Interview [GDC 2012]

Seeing the way video games evolve always interests me as there are at least half a dozen factors developers can approach when devising a game.  Should the emotional route be taken or should a different gameplay formula be implemented that however unorthodox it may be is ultimately something that will not only service the premise of the game but provide a fresh experience to gamers?  Video games are kind of in this weird spot in which we get a little bit of originality here and there but I think those who want a unique original experience may receive that with Datura, the new PSN exclusive from the developers who brought us the trippy experiment that was Linger in Shadows.

There’s an almost constant debate of what sort of direction video games should go in and just how artsy they should be.  While it may have been a relatively small game that didn’t go on to receive worldwide acclaim, Linger in Shadows was a game that was a hot topic amongst gamers since on one hand it was unique but at the same time it was perhaps a bit too weird for some gamers in such a way that they stopped playing it after a few minutes.

Having seen Datura I think there’s bound to be the same 50/50 split amongst the video game community but developer Plastic has come a long way since Linger in Shadows and based on what I saw the dev team has together a more cohesive experience.  Trying to explain the premise of Datura is slightly hard since it would be like trying to answer the question to a long standing mystery – sure there may be an explanation but it’s not one that can be summed up easily and put in a nice gift wrapped box with a bow on top.  With that said, what Datura does provide is a unique experience that really doesn’t follow the typical confines of a game and in turn will actually make people think while they play the game – not only when it comes to solving puzzles but to figure out what’s going on.

The basic premise of Datura, if there is such a thing, is that it’s a game of mystery and exploration.  It could’ve been easy for Plastic to perhaps over do the mysterious elements of Datura and provide a gaming experience akin to Lost (you dedicate lots of time and energy for only a minimal payoff), but the game ultimately combines a bit of old-school gaming with modern tech that I found to set it apart.  Basically, Datura finds players, as represented by a realistic floating hand, exploring a mysterious forest. No, there aren’t any mutants in the forest as it’s not on an island so there’s none of that non-sense. What Datura does is that it encourages gamers to explore this world at their leisure, explore different paths that lead to different missions, and maybe in the end figure out what’s going on.  

Essentially Datura is an old-school adventure game that just has a more adventurous tone as one minute in the demo the player was chasing a pig only to climb into a small hutch and then suddenly jump to a first-person vehicle segment. Now such a scenario may sound incredibly dumb, but the pig encounter is essentially a mission as the pig had to be woken up, followed, and then the big twist in that in the vehicle segment the pig suddenly appears on the road and you have the option of either hitting it or swerving out the way – which as expected has an impact on how the game proceeds.  

I didn’t get to see much of Datura, but the general concept of the game, which basically revolves around exploration, light puzzle solving, and a little bit of self-reflecting here and there had me really intrigued.  The setting of a mysterious forest filled with odd items like a pig, statues or small hutches really does lend an air of mystery to the game and in general has a vibe that’s more cohesive then what Linger in Shadows offered as there aren’t any floating dogs, or at least there weren’t in the demo.

Tonally the forest is a character unto itself as leaves would blow in the wind and a few even “hit” the screen to make it feel all that more alive.  Even more, the forest does change over time depending on what choices are made during certain scenarios as not running the pig over in the vehicle segment resulted in the forest getting an extra dose of color complete with butterflies flying around.  Visually the forest, and the game in general, has a nice look to it that’s entirely realistic and isn’t stylized at all but at the same time doesn’t feel too out of place when looking at what sort of scenarios are being played out.

Personally I haven’t been too thrilled with how the PlayStation Move has been used, both by Sony’s 1st party teams and those in the 3rd party camp, but Datura shows a tremendous amount of potential. Not only does the whole aspect of having the Move controller navigate a realistic hand work perfectly, but the scenarios that the game featured, at least in the demo, showed some nice use of the Move, not only for things such as viewing the map of the mysterious forest but for doing things like unlocking gates. Some of the Move controls did seem a bit touchy like when an object had to be thrown at a pig, but the game seems to be tailored for the Move in such a way that it’ll be quiet easy to enjoy thanks to its inherit lack of gimmicky moments.

Just like Linger in Shadows Datura is a game that is a bit weird and is far from being conventional, but that’s part of the charm the game provides.  With a focus that’s more centered on providing scenarios that will make gamers reflect about themselves, Datura is a game that I think is the perfect example of how video games are beginning to close the gap in respect to people viewing the medium as a true art form in addition to merely advancing the evolution of the themes and tones a video game can feature.

In addition to my preview of Datura I was able to chat with Matt Morton, the Sony Santa Monica Producer on the project who was able to share some insight and answer a few questions I had on the project.




Ian Fisher: So what are the basics of Datura?

Matt Morton: We’re really excited to show you Datura. This is being developed by Plastic, the development team that did Linger in Shadows, a really cool interactive tech demo.  So again, they’re kind of showing off their genius and their skillset and the title does support 3D and Dolby Stereo but this forest rendered in 3D is quite awesome.  With the Move you have pure 1:1 with your hand but it is not a Move required but it is a Move recommended title. So if you don’t have a Move but you do have a DualShock you can still play Datura and it won’t be clunky or strange.  It plays well either way but it definitely is Move recommended.

So this is the forest that is kind of like the essential hub of where we find ourselves more often than not.  Where we are isn’t very clear, what we’re doing here isn’t very clear but you will find scenarios where you’re presented choices and you need to make different choices. We don’t judge you if a choice is the right choice or the wrong choice there are just choices.  Throughout the game you will see based on your choices you’ll see changes in the environment of the forest.  There are interesting things like a fountain back off there, a statue and I don’t want to give away everything but it is very Myst like in presentation in some aspects so while we don’t beat you over the head and say “you must do this”, when we do have scenarios where you can interact with an object we’re very clear with the actions in the lower right corner such as what you need to do with the Move controller.


Ian: I really enjoyed Linger in Shadows for what it was since it didn’t have a full-on narrative but the gamer could take away from the experience whatever they felt at the time. In general I’m really interested in seeing games push different elements and add more emotion in the experience since that’s really captivating. Obviously Datura will be pushed and it has elements that people will find interesting like the Move and 3D integration but where do you think a game like this will fall within the marketplace in respect to people being perceptive to a game that isn’t exactly traditional? It’s not exactly a standard blockbuster game but that’s why I love games that are so unique like this.

Matt: Being a Producer at Santa Monica studios we kind of revel in that and we love the games that don’t easily fit into a specific genre where it’s a shooter or a RPG. I’ve been working on the PixelJunk series since day one and we got titles like this and all of thatgamecompany’s titles like flow, flower, and Journey and how do you explain what those are? That’s one of the things I absolutely love about working at Santa Monica Studios, we have the freedom to pursue the odd, or the different, or the unusual which obviously we’ve been doing it for five years now. So there’s enough of a market out there and we have the fan support so I’m not worried about it. Things that are different or odd are not bad and people are really kind of waking up to that.


Ian: Is there one specific ending based on the choices you make, perhaps adding a level of replayability or will things be mostly locked to an extent?

Matt:  Actually towards the end you’ll representations of all the choices you made throughout the game. So every scenario will have a different effect on the forest.  So you’ll see butterflies fly out of the hutch after the decision we made. So we don’t necessarily say right or wrong but the choices that you do make do definitely affect the environment and even the music dynamically changes as well.  At the end you’ll also see a very solid representation of the choices that you made through your journey.


Ian: Linger in Shadows was a very short experience in which someone could play the game and see everything it had to offer in less than an hour.  So is a similar route being taken with Datura or is the game a bit longer compared to Linger?

Matt: I don’t know exactly what the actual play through time is.  I know what I’m doing when I’m doing a play through and I can get through it pretty quickly in around 90 minutes.  We would have playtests where people would come in and we would have testers for three and a half hour playtest sessions and maybe 3 out of 5 of them would be done by then because they were busy walking around. But what was neat about the playtests was that afterwards in the Q&A they were finding out “Oh I didn’t know I could go there or make that choice” so there’s a lot of nice replayability in what you see and what will happen when you make choices. It isn’t Skyrim but it’s significantly longer than Linger and there’s a lot more to it.