Pocket City, urban deers and the rewilding of video games

March 31, 2019
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There’s a moment in an oldish film – I think it’s Mad Dog and Glory but I wouldn’t bet on it – where a guy is taking a photo of a New York street in the dead of night and a deer turns up. I can’t remember the guy’s reaction – I think it’s De Niro but I wouldn’t bet on it – and I can’t remember how it fits into the plot. Yet I remember, even as it happened, realising that it was too much, too good, too brilliant and clear and luxurious a moment for the rest of the film to ever recover from. It was a birthday cake dropped in the footwell of a car. A city street at night and here’s this deer, this ghost of the wild. There’s an unforced surrealism to it, the same surrealism I felt a few years back bussing through Hove at midday on a Sunday – it is always Sunday in Hove – when I spotted a fox standing insouciantly outside a mobile phone shop as if pondering a trip to Nero’s.

Urban deers must be deployed carefully, I think. They carry such a weight of obvious meaning and emotion that they can become trite. And yet even at their tritest they have such a wonderful effect, such an ability to lift the mood and break the narrative and distract. I’ve been playing The Division 2 off and on, mainly off, over the last few weeks. The Division 2 is set in a ruined Washington DC where mankind’s grip has weakened and nature is making a tentative comeback. Fireweed and saplings sprouting through the sidewalk, moss growing on the bleached faces of the great and good and forgotten. Often at the beginning of a mission you’ll be crouched low and racing towards an enemy camp and there it will be, the urban deer, rising to its tottering legs and bouncing off. Headed to the next mission, presumably, where it will do the same thing again and I will stop, again, the magic weaving its spell for the nth time and against all odds.

I have seen this deer in a number of games over the last few years. Anywhere that cities have fallen and norms have crumbled. In Crysis 3, walking through a flooded valley, beautiful water glittering in Manhattan canyons, I looked up from my bow and there was the deer, startled, moving away. I wonder if I saw it in Enslaved, darting around a tree that had grown up through the middle of a skyscraper. Maybe not. Maybe I just imagined it. Maybe De Niro just imagined it.

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