In “Teaching Spirits,” Joseph Epes Brown speaks of Native American tribes who thought it disrespectful to kill animals with weapons. He remarks, “Certain animals such as the deer or antelope were slain by being run down on foot and ritually suffocated. In this way, the sacred life breath of the animal would be contained within its being.” The art of killing was made through ritual; the deer would be seen as a sacred offering for food, warmth, or ceremony.
Today, killing for sport, trophy, and profit have replaced this unique reverence. But Josh Presseisen’s latest game, The Deer God, seeks to restore it. The game explores the mystical narrative of a hunter transformed into the titular animal to learn the way of the forest and pay for his sins, in a manner of speaking. Beginning as a faun, your deer matures as he runs, interacting with animals, guides, and ancient artifacts, gaining powers and completing quests along the way.
My early impressions with The Deer God transported me to perpetual magical landscapes of forest, desert, and cave, each area randomly generated as you run forward. Different stages seamlessly blend into each other upon progression. Puzzles are set to repeat themselves if you choose to skip any are and simply continue your endless run through the world. You are given a choice: the game can be played either as strict survival, with no further imposition on the player than eating, prancing, and making babies, or complete a larger quest to atone for the sins of the hunter.
The cycles of night and day are prominently shown in the background, strongly enforcing the themes of renewal, and life and death, layers of pixelated landscape create a beautiful almost-3D effect. Death is treated as a finality, and you may only continue if you’ve run into a female deer to create offspring. Your offspring, then, becomes a checkpoint, and the player begins again as a faun upon the parent’s death, to grow into an adult and repeat the cycle. Your own familial progression thus becomes an integral part of the game’s narrative experience, accruing positive or negative “karma” to gain access to different powers and areas of the game.
Presseisen was inspired by the styles of Sword and Sworcery, Zelda, and Metroid when creating both the visual and gameplay elements of the game. After nailing the visual style he wanted, and landing on a story, the underlying philosophy of karmic retribution rose to the surface of development.
“How do you judge accidents when it comes to karma?” Presseisen asked me, speaking to his integration of dark and light choices in his game. Apparently, go berserk enough, killing animals that aren’t an immediate threat, and you might see yourself reincarnated as the prey itself, then tasked with somehow earning back your deer form.
His question was directed toward balancing gameplay, but it brought to light how open-ended the answer might be in our non-deer lives; depending on what one believes regarding fate, karma or some sort of divine hand, what level of responsibility do you give yourself in your approach to the world? If a child accidentally drowns a baby duck while trying to teach it to swim, does she lose karmic points?
My family name, Hershey, is from the Swiss German hirsche, meaning, ironically, deer or stag. I was raised amongst hunters and never saw an interest in the sport. As I grew up, and away, I’ve occasionally found myself relating more with the creatures of the forest than my own species. The curse of The Deer God’s hunter protagonist is eventually absolved by the wonders of the environment itself–myself, the player, had awoken in a new body to begin not only one journey, but an entirely new genealogy spawned by new choices.
In The Deer God, Presseisen appears to have revealed the myriad paths we might take in life: base survival, running forward, creating offspring, eating, killing when necessary, endlessly; accept the quests and challenges presented and upholding your path to a realized endgame; fuck around and reincarnate as a porcupine.
Fortunately, each direction offers a degree of fun, and no choice is wrong. A good game might be a mix of all paths. Sometimes, while playing, my goal is simply to frolic and prance and watch the sunset. Other times, I’m healing this deeply rooted karma by completing puzzles and attaining new powers. Judging from the beta, The Deer God promises to be one of the most eerily interesting games of 2015.
For myself, I’ll be making different choices than the blind hunters that preceded me. Whether or not it is on my shoulders to reverse generations of accidents is another story.