| The Forbidden Fruit

DIOGENEAN CYNICISM IN AN AGE OF VIDEOLUDIC INNOCENCE

The Forbidden Fruit

a brief interpretative study of Plastic’s DATURA


Evading the severe commercial determinism that has shaped the games industry for the better part its existence, the demoscene collective, another offspring of the digital age, has thrived during the last three decades despite being firmly rooted on purely non-commercial principles. Assuming the unorthodox identity of a technologic subculture with patent artistic concerns, its singular real-time audiovisual abstractions have supplied the leitmotif for numerous video game productions - some of which highly reputed on account of their purported originality and aesthetic grandeur. In recent years, an ever-expanding group of reformists has sought to reconcile the foundations of game design with the creative liberty that is unique to the computer arts milieu. One notable example of this struggle can be found in the seminal Real-time Art Manifesto, penned by Harvey & Samyn in 2006: two outsiders whose original works and theory advocate the liberation of interactivity from the confines of the game establishment.

Founded and based in Poland, Plastic stands out as one among an elite of demogroups whose scrupulous contributions to the advancement of computer graphic technologies still beg for greater recognition. Their first PlayStation 3 project Linger in Shadows, released shortly before Farbrausch’s .detuned, was received with scant enthusiasm within a game community whose luminaries did little more than to praise its visual splendor. To those working in the same field, however, it was deemed a triumph not only on account of its elegant interactive attributes, yet also for the overall brilliance which merited the sponsorship from a major international enterprise. This liaison between the team led by Michal Staniszewski, as was revealed of late, included another venture under the suggestive title Datura: comparatively more audacious an undertaking, part of its technological challenges were outsourced to able hands. Because the demoscene’s widely adopted method is customarily based on passive technologic sophistication, the understanding of this meaningful departure and its repercussions - in the quality of a fully interactive hybrid - entails a more tactful approach.


— PARAPHRASE —

In more ways than one, Datura summons a similar aesthetic to that of Plastic’s previous demos, recovering a sequence of appealing components that render their work immediately recognizable before the discerning eye. In this virtual sphere, industrial and classical architecture clash against one another within the subjective mesh of spatial memories; the inert garden statuary weighs against the verve of insect swarms (Into the Pink) and gleeful animals (Linger in Shadows); liquid materials are manifestly indivisible from thick globules (Final Audition); distant objects, processed with the studio’s signature median filter, continue to assume an impressionist, almost pointillist aspect.

Contrariwise, the breadth of this their latest creation far exceeds any of the studio’s previous enterprises as the organic forest and its many outlandish exits are built to withstand the closest scrutiny. The floating hand routine, bound to raise awareness within a consumer population misguided by the illusion of motion control accoutrements, soon reveals itself as a merely suggestive function with which to increase the immersiveness factor - the noble aspiration for some extent of technological achievement notwithstanding. Fundamentally, and as much as it allows itself to be mistaken for a video game proper, Datura pursues no conscious effort to honor the medium and its widespread formalities, and is therefore best interpreted as a broader statement: one only partially concerned with the fidelity of the technology it employs, as per the demoscene’s golden rule. Additionally, it stands as a proclamation of alternative concerns from the designer’s viewpoint: inclusive enough to be perverted, yet also to content those factions pleading for a more judicious of game content in interactive pieces.

Oddly enough, and albeit the propitious literary and cultural references that sustain it, Datura evokes various examples from within the field of video games: some are meant to be celebrated where others are clearly vilified, not unlike citations in an analytical or comparative essay. Following moments of a darker humorous tone, the sporadic usage of firearms is easily identified as a witty satirization of the ubiquitous video game gunplay. On the other hand, when the screen locks on the sight of a red crowbar from a first person perspective it is possible to conclude, by no particular stretch of the imagination, that some degree of approbation of Valve’s Half-Life series is being insinuated. Other elements, vague and less explicit, appear to summon the memory of the Miller brother’s pièce de resistance, Tale of Tale’s Fatale as well as Yamaoka’s The Room. At the height of its hypnagogic dementia, and as the assortment of unforeseeable and seemingly unrelated spaces is exposed, Datura goas as far as to inadvertently evoke the hazy remembrance of Sato’s LSD Dream Emulator.


— SELVA OSCURA —

Bountiful and inscrutable, the forest is a fundamental source of myth in most cultures throughout history. Commonly regarded as an autonomous organism, it not only exceeds Man’s grasp as it overrules his will and beliefs: the wilderness, in its sunless obscurity and unpredictable perils, is regulated by its independent deities. This pervasive image of the pathless woods is consonant with that of the modern psychological assessment of a primeval space, whose intricate connotation is still deeply engraved in contemporary thought, frequently referred to as a metaphor for the secluded domains of the psyche.

Combining the arcane forms of Medieval Christendom with the precepts of classic art and philosophy, Dante introduced the nine circles of Hell by alluding to woodland imagery as a symbol of the interruption of life and its normality, portraying it as a place where all entrants feel at once estranged and in harmonious contact with their truest selves. Although the structural replication of Alighieri’s Comedia is a recurrent pattern in the domains of art, principally in Literature, it continues to be a virtually unexplored – though not unharmed - reference in the field of digital creations. Dauntlessly, Staniszewski establishes a subtle yet absorbing parallel between the Italian epic and the facets of the dichotomous moral system embedded in his latest creation. If on the one hand the basis of morality and the stringency of decisions and their long-term results have been exerted in games of similar experimentalism - Suda’s Michigan, for instance - Datura adds magnitude to this ordinary, dualist principle of Manichaeism; what roads in a Robert Frost poem, each leading to a discrete outcome.

As the subject migrates from a disturbed waking state and into the realms of the subconscious, so does the scenery assume different contours, the soft sylvan grounds covered with amber-hued leaves, the lifeless remnants of naked deciduous trees. This emotional regression is further adorned with the inclusion of elusive personifications, all of which seem to revel in this strictly non-verbal setting: the hunter figure, later embodying the gatekeeper persona; the child, representing both innocence and insubordination; and the many wild creatures and volatile loci that bestow invigorating surrealist essence to this soul-searching passage.

At the heart of this tale of two choices, however, lie the very fundaments of Christianity’s oldest moral dilemma, as emblematized by the apple in the myth of Eden. Whereas the icon itself is present in one of the most significant chapters of this open-ended digital narrative, the essence from which the entire mirage derives from the presumed consumption of another forbidden fruit: that of the datura. Known to have been used in ancient rites of passage in primitive societies, today’s science indentifies this plant as a potently venomous natural substance whose psychoactive effects inevitably translate into a vivid state of delirious indifference between the real and the illusive. The resulting hallucination induces a violent delirium in which reality is barely distinguishable from fantasy, as the toxicity of the fruit is known to excite that mental mechanism capable of conceiving intense and almost palpable visions. The presence of the rite or, conversely, the moral challenge which is also attributed to the crossing of the forest in the eyes of olden wisdom, blends in rare perfection with the ultimate ambition of this deceptively chaotic journey - a maddening yet methodical transmigration.


— GNOTHI SEAUTON —

The decisive objective of this reverie, towards which all acts and choices appear to course, is to embrace the subject by exceeding its own virtual sphere, eventually razing the proverbial fourth wall. Features such as puzzles and mechanics are but minimalist constructions made to captivate a video game playing audience and offer purposeful interactions whose greater meaning derives from their allegorical value, each intriguing element a valuable contribution to a potential realization of an ultimate rationale. Concurrently, Datura does not necessarily seek the identical rewards as those accumulated within common games: even the ones it sporadically alludes to. Perhaps such is the reason why it has been paired with Dear Esther; a title with whom it shares more dissimilarities than resemblances. Firstly, Staniszewski does not acknowledge the auspicious outcomes that may stem from tortuous soliloquy; nor does it consciously limit the interactive substance to its barest form for the sake of contradicting the grand industrial scheme. Moreover, his creation is equally capable of establishing a critical evaluation without the need for such drastic resolutions, therefore distancing itself from that taut and conceitedly dissenting model of Pinchbeck’s indie sensation.

Datura’s ambivalent ending procures a higher form of revelation, well beyond the high-tech hubris or the glad-handed yielding of the very same saccharine rewards otherwise coveted by game playing masses. Rather, its ambiguity and humility are bound to be misconstrued by a perplexed and dissatisfied audience whose formatted ability to reason and learn from the very games they choose to play is woefully deficient. Regardless, it stands as a late paradigm whose inspiring experimentalism was rarely witnessed during the so-called current generation of hardware; the undeniable confirmation that technology and production values are largely immaterial when stacked up against the authority of form and thematic content.


APPENDIX I | 18/05 
— CROSSROAD —

New meanings and interpretations have emerged shortly after the completion of this article, further developing the notion already expounded in previous paragraphs that any extensive understanding of Datura and its core symbolism relies solely on interpretative abilities, not the application of the logic commonly required to complete ordinary video games. While the implications of this theory are likely to be frowned upon at first, it is imperative to consider how such a parallel could only exist in these vague and uncertain terms for, predictably, a less equivocal citation of the themes at hand would have endangered the integrity of project or even hindered its publication altogether.

Entirely religious in its denotation, though numerological in architecture, this construal is based upon a series of outwardly irrelevant roman numerals whose value is exposed after the completion of an episode or dilemma. Crucial to this broader realization is the initial figure appearing below the pediment of the middle gate whose doors lead to the concentric hedge maze: the numeral XII, linked to the ambulance preamble, conjures the dramatic climax of the Passion of Christ and the Sacred Way. A recurring motive in sacred art, the Stations of the Cross consist of a serialized account of Christ’s last moments on earth, divided and arranged after the interpretations of the Gospel according to (Roman) Catholic theology. Taking these numbered panels into account, be they descriptive or pictorial, this analogy becomes quintessential in the apprehension of a stimulating and unifying sense found at the very crux of Datura; carefully concealed beneath many a shroud of deception.

Finding the underlying gist beneath each transcendence – well below the many visual and aural cloaks that dress them - is the single key to understand how the structure of this uncanny experience is by no means fortuitous, as has been hinted repeatedly. The following is a list detailing the congruence between Datura’s nine visions and the corresponding stop from the fourteen segments that compose the Via Dolorosa. Bear in mind that for reasons concerning production details and schedules, Plastic’s title does not reflect the entirety of their initial plan, which does account for a small portion of omitted chapters.

I. Jesus is condemned to death. The decision of whether or not to run over the pig crossing the road relates humorously to Pilates’ reluctance of whether or not to sentence the self-proclaimed Son of God. The act of washing of the hands, meaning the Roman prefect’s desire to free himself of any blame for this conviction, is brought up elsewhere in the form of a prize.

II. Jesus carries the cross. After climbing the backyard tree - conceivably the antithesis of the Tree of Life - the choice is offered to carry the wounded infant. This represents the sufferance of pulling a weight, akin to that of carrying the cross.

V. Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus to carry the cross. Emerging from behind a closed door, a dog, if spared from harm, helps the protagonist fight off the hunter whose red-hued attire and fire-spitting weapon could be interpreted as an iconic transposition from the mythical dragon in the Book of Revelations.

VI. Veronica wipes the face of Jesus. This instance represents both the public mockery witnessed throughout the Via Crucis and the importance of the element of water in the Christian Rite. In a regression to infancy, a child takes away a piece of clothing from the protagonist, running away from him while taunting him with scornful gestures. These may represent the cloth and water with which Veronica cleaned Jesus and offered him a fleeting moment of comfort.

VIII. Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem. From all the conventional fourteen stops, the eighth is that which best embodies the concept of martyrdom. Halfway, Christ stops to comfort the women along the road, despite his own grievance. This unselfish act is inverted in Datura with the appearance of the first and only female figure, whose face is seen briefly from underneath the ice. The choice to shatter the ice and save the unknown woman comes invariably at the cost of self-sacrifice.

X. Jesus is stripped of his garments. After being shot down, a choice is offered to relieve the soldier by inspecting the wound on his body and removing his clothes.

XI. The Crucification. The binding handcuffs are equivalent to the nails holding the arms against the wooden cross and the resulting grief.

XII. Jesus dies on the cross. The subject dies whilst lying in an ambulance stretcher.

XIV. The Deposition. The tomb in which Christ is laid is represented by the endless fall into the well. The light at the end of a tunnel signals the passage to afterlife.

This thesis is also supported by the fact that the majority of these episodes, accessed through forest exits, relate to the basic premise of saving those in need of aid – or the acts of Salvation. Furthermore, the image of Christ on the cross may also be irreverently evoked by the prize doll figure whose arms are hanging by threads, to name a few examples. Perhaps more important than the symbols concealed within Datura, it is necessary to ponder the reasons why Staniszewski and his ensemble went to such lengths to make them nearly impossible to detect; and that which becomes particularly evident once this laborious process of secretion is laid bare.

As startling as it may sound, the study of Faith and Religion remains a taboo which still affects the medium of games in a fiercely restrictive manner. A brief glance at precedents shows how most every assumed adaptation of Biblical narratives or themes comes in the naive form of educational software, conveying basic teachings mostly directed towards infantile audiences. Nevertheless, the exploration of Christian themes has always been marginal compared to the overabundance of games based on mythology and rites pertaining nearly all known civilizations from bygone eras. The reason behind this discrepancy is never debated, let alone admitted by those very entities whose attentive and often despotic control over contents has certainly blue-penciled a plethora of ideas; either prevented to be released to the public, or dispossessed of their initial import.

It would seem as if the definitive motive behind this intricate veiling of an acutely ecclesiastical subtext intends to defy this established order of thoughts and strike back at what could be considered a veneered form of censorship. In the end, and in accordance with the world of the arts, all forms of restriction imposed by hierarchies have long empowered and galvanized artists into becoming wiser in their search for cunning ways with which to disguise forbidden substances; making them conspicuous only to those like-minded observers whose keenness and passion enables them to apprehend what most others are condemned to overlook.


Illustration: John B. Smith, Economic Entomology (Philadelphia and London: J.B. Lippincott Co,1896)

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