Redeem yourself for past transgressions by living life as a deer.
PC Release: February 27, 2015
By Ian Coppock
It’s been too long since I played a video game that brought about deep emotions. I was scrolling through platformers about a year ago and found a game that promised to “challenge your religion and your platforming skills”. I have no religion, but my platforming skills can always use work, so I decided to see if The Deer God is the philosophically vibrant game it claims to be. After all, marketing materials NEVER exaggerate things!
The Deer God begins with a hunter getting mauled to death by wolves. Right as the rabid beasts attack, he accidentally shoots a fawn that strays between his bullet and the adult deer he was aiming for. He then succumbs to his wounds.
Our hero wakes up in an ethereal sky-court presided over by a sentient deer, who tells the hunter that because he’s slain a baby deer, he must become one himself. This court order is backed up by the hitherto unknown fact that deer are “pure” animals, and the most beautiful creatures on earth. Becoming the very thing he killed is the only way this hunter can redeem himself.
First of all, deer are not “pure”. They have ticks and lime disease. When I was a kid, they’d wander into my yard, eat all my mom’s flowers, and take a group shit on the driveway. You could trick the idiot kid from up the street into thinking that deer poop was just a pile of re-fried beans.Right now I don’t have a whole lot of empathy for this stern deer deity.
Anyway, the hunter is reborn as a fawn in a heavily pixelated forest. From there, The Deer God throws away its redemption story in favor of meeting the “elder” deer, who can give you superpowers. Because we all know deer can jump thirty feet in the air, and shoot fire from their antlers.
The Deer God‘s platforming contains almost as many misfires as its narrative. Right off the bat, the game has no tutorial, which is a lazy and irritating design flaw. You’re given no clue which button does what until you’ve tested them all. I can guess that the arrow keys are for movement and jumping, but I have no clue how to use my powers or even what powers I have available. You attack things by charging at them (like that one time a deer blew out the windows in my mom’s car).
You also have an inventory for carrying items, but you’re given no indication of what the items do, much less how to use them. It took the better part of 10 minutes to find the mushroom I’d picked up, deploy it, and figure out it was used for bouncing. All of that could’ve been avoided with an on-screen bullet point.
The Deer God is not divided into clearly defined levels. You just keep running to the right, and if you’re not picking up on how to progress, you’ll just keep looping through the same area until you figure it out. Most of the time these puzzles are pretty straightforward, like pushing a block onto a switch. Sometimes you also need to find items or, you guessed it, trespass onto people’s yards to eat all their flowers,.
Just like a real deer, you get bigger the more food you eat. Stopping to eat fruit on trees will cause you to grow from a tiny fawn into a huge… stallion? Colt? Whatever you call a male deer. Your health and attack grow accordingly, which is handy when every goddamn animal in the forest is attacking you. Yep. Not just the foxes or mountain lions; the eagles and badgers are out for your blood too.
Now, I’m no zoologist, but it’s said that animals can sense malicious intent. If everything in the forest is attacking me, it’s yet another indicator that deer are indeed Satan-spawn. I’m just saying.
Now, I will give The Deer God credit where credit is due; its environments are gorgeous. Everything is made of huge, crunchy pixels, and done out in a riot of dazzling colors. The Deer God amplifies its beautiful worlds with an ambient soundtrack. These tracks of light synth add a delicate flavor to the worlds you travel through. It’s all very pretty to look at and listen to.
As for sound design, well, it’s hit-or-miss. Generally speaking, the sound effects having to do with spoken words and weather effects are great, but the animal noises come through distorted. The music takes most of the focus away from these problems and gives The Deer God some much-needed atmosphere.
I suppose the game designers also wanted atmosphere to stem from the game’s narrative and spoken word, but The Deer God contradicts itself on several counts. The game casts itself as a hardcore platformer; you have a limited number of lives with which to get through the whole game.
I played this game, and I died a lot. The deer god who turned me into a deer even said “one life left…” and just kept saying it even when I died like five more times. I can only speculate, but my guess is that the developers saw that the game’s high difficulty was not taking well, and changed its format without changing the dialogue. Even if the deer-goddess-thing says “one life left”, don’t worry. You have unlimited numbers of them. It seems like a lazy fix to just remove the game over screen and not change anything else.
It’s rare when I write about a video game whose content and premise are completely different, because even some of the shittiest games I’ve ever played had the good grace to be synonymous in that regard. I’m not talking about when a marketing person says that a terrible game is great; I’m talking about when the game tells you one thing but executes it in a completely different way.
I have one life left, but you give me infinity of them? Seeing something like that is just such a…. novelty. I’ve overextended my commentary on it just because I’m so vexed by it. The omnipotent threat of the “game over” screen just never comes, despite its heralding.
Again, to be fair, it was good of the developers to put unlimited lives into The Deer God, because the game is hard. There are lots of obvious dangers from animals, but you also need to watch out for spike traps, which are everywhere. The game will also pit you against huge bosses whose defeat will hinge on your patience and your willingness to endure grinding battles. If you’re a millisecond too late on jumping out of the way, you’re dead.
All in all, I’m just not really sure what I’m looking at here. The Deer God is a game that casts itself as the deeply emotional narrative that transforms how mankind looks at nature, only to throw that premise away five seconds into the game. Instead of discussing transcendent themes or how all life is connected, we’re just running through the forest attacking badgers and impaling ourselves on spike traps. This isn’t a game that tests religion… only patience.
The Deer God is just a weird little game. I don’t think I’ve ever characterized a game as such, but I don’t know how else to put it.
It’s like the cheerleader you take out for dinner in high school; she looks and smells amazing, but dig even an inch beneath the surface and there’s just… nothing. An empty void disguised by a sugary glaze. Certainly not the spiritual or emotional experience I was hoping for. As such, I would give The Deer God a miss. Its story is nonsensical and what few platforming mechanics it does well can be found a dozen times better in a dozen other games.
You can buy The Deer God here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.