Indie Wonderland: The Deer God

A few hours in

Nope.

This deer is not just taking a nap.

My second deer went the way of Bambi’s mom, tangling with armed human hunters when it shouldn’t have. Yeah, there’s armed human hunters out there! They’re, er, they’re more dangerous than I gave them credit for. And in my defense, my little fawn-y behind took out one of them. It’s just that there’s never just one human killer. And hey, look! Back at the beginning.

It was my third deer that actually proved to be successful, surviving the early days of predators and hunters and insta-kill spike pits to proceed into… well, more predators and hunters and insta-kill spike pits, to be honest. But also shenanigans. I won’t spoil the plot too much, but let’s just say that it involved collecting magical artifacts to fulfill an ancient prophecy. Yes, as a deer. No, it doesn’t really ever make sense. I fought a ghost at one point, to give you a frame of reference.

Not for any particular reason. It was just *there*.

I beat it, though! I finished all of The Deer God on my third hardcore playthrough. I made it to the end, and the God Of All Deer offered me a choice: remain an awesome magical super deer forever and lead my cervidean brothers to greatness, or become human again and face the terrible consequences of my earlier actions.

Don’t judge me. I like pants, okay.

The Deer God might be one of the most confused games I’ve played in a long while. I don’t think I have any clear idea of what kind of game The Deer God wants to be, and I think that that’s because The Deer God itself doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be. Its mechanics and design choices are internally inconsistent, sometimes wildly so, and the game lacks a strong overall tone and theme as a result. Hell, I wouldn’t even know what genre to put it in. Antler Simulator?

Actually, let’s use that question as a framing device, shall we? What Genre Is The Deer God: an essay by Jarenth, age 28.

At first glance, you might reasonably assume that The Deer God is mostly a platforming game. Most or all of what I described on the previous page involved running, jumping, and avoiding world hazards, after all. Mountains to climb, waters to cross, caves to explore, enemies to headbutt… just you and your magical deer double-jumping abilities versus an ever-more-difficult world. Sounds legit, right? This The Deer God sounds like it would be a rules-light, relatively simple game about traversing a strange world in a strange body.

Except that’s not actually what The Deer God is. There is much more to this game, mechanically, than initially meets the eye. We’ve already seen that it has a hunger-based survival mechanic to complement the combat, and that there is some progression system — time-based, I think? — that grows you into a larger deer. As well as, if you’ve been paying close attention, something that looks like a morality system of sorts. But if — like me — you figured that that was probably most or all of what this game had to offer, boy, are you in for a surprise.

On my third game, after some running around, I managed to make it to that weird old man’s house. Inside, he told me to go outside and headbutt some nearby bushes to find his monocle. And then he told me (paraphrasing) that I could ‘keep any other items I found out there for myself’.

Yeah, it turns out The Deer God has items.

Pictured: an *inventory*.

The Deer God actually has a comprehensive system of consumable items, which you gather from environmental objects like bushes and barrels, which assign to a six-slot hotbar, and which you use with the Shift key. Examples include: feathers, which slow your fall. Honeycombs, which quickly heal health. Mushrooms, which create a bouncing mushroom you can jump on. Four-leaf clovers, which increase item drop rates. And bee hives, which spawn a horde of angry bees to kill your enemies for you.

But as I didn’t grab a screenshot of this, you get the mushroom instead.

But wait, there’s more! Not only does The Deer God feature consumable items, it actually has a ten-slot system of magical skills. This, it turns out, is related to the deer statues the first Deer Elder referenced: during your travels, you can come across a statue of a sitting deer, surrounded by purple light beams and some sort of puzzle. Solve the puzzle, and you’re awarded the skill: put it on your hotbar and activate it with Shift, draining your blue stamina bar as you go.

The first skill I found was the Light skill, which allowed my deer to shine a magical light between his antlers, drawing puzzle blocks towards me and ‘scaring off enemies’. And then the second skill I found was the Fireball skill, which turned my deer into a fire-throwing beast of nightmare.

How are deer a *prey* species, again?

Both items and skills are either exploration- or combat-oriented, helping traverse the world and fight difficult enemies. Like this giant snake boss monster.

You know, like… like you see in forests.

Okay, I hear you say. Skills, items, slow increase in power, gradual expansion of movement abilities, bosses. The Deer God is sounding more and more like a Metroidvania now, right? Is that what it is?

Well…no, not really. The Deer God has some Metroidvania trappings, in the skills and items and progression. But it lacks that one crucial Metroidvania characteristic, which is that the skills and items aren’t actually meaningful for exploring the world.

It’s like…

Have you ever seen one of those cartoons where, a character is running, and the scenery behind them changes wildly? A forest, then a desert, then the arctic, then a city, then a forest again… and then the camera zooms out a little, and it turns out the character was running on a conveyor belt, and the changing backgrounds were just a looping reel?

That’s basically what playing The Deer God is like.

Pictured: the ice level.

What I personally consider to be The Deer God’s strangest design decision is that there is no consistent world for you to explore. You’d figure there would be, but nope! Rather, the game procedurally generates new parts of the world for you as you keep moving to the right. And you will always be moving to the right, because there is nothing anything interesting to the left. You were just there, after all. Immer geradeaus, as my eastern neighbours would say.

Show of hands: who here has played Dragon Age II? Do you remember the first time you entered a ‘new’ cave or house or forest, only to realize that ‘wait a minute, this is just the same place as before‘? You’ll have that realization in The Deer God, a lot and often. Within each biome, levels are made up of only a dozen-or-so different set pieces. And so, by necessity, each set piece is re-used over and over. And over. Oftentimes, you’ll find a certain platforming setpiece within sight range of its identical twin.

I had to make this jump three times in a row.

I don’t think I have to spell out for you how a slot-machine approach to world exploration is to a sense of place realism and presence what a throw brick is to a fine china shop. There is no sense of consistency in The Deer God’s world. You’re not wandering through a living, breathing, internally consistent world, you’re running on a treadmill. You’re not ‘exploring’ and finding secrets, because you can’t: deer statues and cool locations and bosses and secrets will only ever be there if the game deigns to make them show up for you. And particularly when quest locations and NPCs get involved, immersion gets shattered into a million tiny pieces. Because…

Well, read this quest description for a moment.

‘Go there, and then, go back again.’

Straightforward enough, right? Clear the jump, find some way to get back, get rewarded. Except a) you can’t get back, and b) you’re not supposed to. Rather, after clearing the jump, you just keep going. And hey, presto! There’s the Elder again. It turns out he wasn’t waiting for you where he said he’d be waiting for you: he was in your heart the whole time.

You meet a mother of two children. She asks you to find some rare herb for her. You go out into the world and collect the herb, and then you just… keep running. In a sensical world, this means you’d never see her again. In The Deer God, it means you absolutely will see her again… just as soon as the random terrain dice come up ‘desert’ again, and the game decides you get to turn your quest in now.

It’s… seriously so strange to me. I can’t fathom it. Who thought this was a good idea? ‘Let’s replace meaningful player exploration and world building with boring repetition and random chance!’

But the worst consequence of this design is this, and now we’re getting back to the Metroidvania jab: by designing levels this way, The Deer God all but assures that items and skills can never be necessary for or meaningful to exploration. They can’t be! If players can run into any obstacle at any time, presenting them with the puzzle before they hit on the solution means they’d be stuck. Stuck, entirely not of their own accord, and possibly without even knowing what’s getting them stuck in the first place. And if that’s not a first class ticket to rage-quit-and-uninstall city, I don’t know what is. Hence, by necessity, all possible challenging obstacles need to be defanged or made optional.

And, hey, guess how general progression and exploration in The Deer God feels!

It has about as much *fang* as this little guy.

The Deer God averts some of this problem by constricting certain biomes, like the snow world, until you’ve completed certain quests. But even then, most of the world feels shallow and unchallenging. Again, it has to be. The appearance of the skill shrines is as random as everything else, and no single puzzle that I’ve found seems to be conditional on you having access to any power. Which makes sense, given that I’m pretty sure most of the powers are bound to the age of your deer as well? I didn’t really get to play around with this mechanic much, but I think your growing antlers represent your power level. It may also be tied to that strange morality system I mentioned earlier? I played through the whole game, start to finish, and I only ever managed to get three powers, so I couldn’t really tell you. And none of those powers were necessary or useful for the final challenge.

So, in essay conclusion: the Deer God wants to be a platforming game, but then it shoves in handfuls of unnecessary and mismatched systems. It wants to be a Metroidvania game, but then it fails to make powers and items meaningful in any way. It wants to be a game about exploring a cool world, but then it doesn’t actually let you explore the world on your own volition. It wants to tell a story about an ancient deer prophecy and man’s inhumanity to man, but then it puts the actual story in the easy-to-miss journal, in the easy-to-miss inventory. Do you understand now why I call this game ‘confused’?

And that’s not even mentioning all the systems I didn’t directly get to. After you grow up, you can sire fawns of your own with other special deer you run across. The idea is that you ‘reincarnate’ into these fawns if you die… except that there’s also a straight lives system, and I found enough of these lives through random exploration to never have to worry about death again. Which was probably for the better: in the one game I half-played after winning, I discovered that if you die later on in the game, respawning as a fawn — re-fawning, if you will — can make it nigh-impossible to progress through the slightly-more-difficult level-building elements the game has included in the mixer at that point.

It’s pretty, though. Real pretty. I’m willing to give it marks for that. In fact, my favourite memory of The Deer God is the time I got reincarnated as a desert mouse — another system that’s weirdly implemented at best — and I spent the better part of half an hour running around a gorgeous landscape, trying to see how far my single-jumping tiny mouse would take me.

‘And they shall call me… Muad’dib.’

I’d play more of The Desert Mouse God. But more The Deer God? Nah, I think I’ve had enough.

Final thoughts

I briefly went back to The Deer God to play a game on Normal Mode, see what that changes. It turns out that all Normal Mode seems to change is that after you die, reincarnate into a random animal, and die again, it just starts you fresh as a new fawn. So no perma-death, but now there’s no real use to the whole fawn-spawning system either. Not that there ever seemed to be, but still. One more ill-timed stroke in the messy soup of The Deer God’s conflicting mechanics, elements, and design visions.

I’m willing to give The Deer God that it was an interesting experience, for a while. And have I mentioned it’s pretty? But for fifteen Steam dollars, I can’t really recommend a game that is so lacking in vision and direction. I mean, I guess if you’re really into the idea of being a magical deer, there’s always Steam sales to consider. But to anyone else… it breaks my heart to say, but there’s nothing you can get from The Deer God that you couldn’t find in a more coherent, directed, and entertaining form somewhere else.

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Jarenth is honestly more of a cat person, though he does have fond memories of feeding petting zoo deer with his grandmother. Swap deer stories on Twitter, if you have any, I guess, or hang out with him on Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?

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