Digital Déjà vu


I don't need Steam to tell me how many hours I've spent playing Grand Theft Auto V to realize that I have an... uncomfortable level of familiarity with the fictional city of Los Santos. Known for being amazingly detailed and largely based on real-world locations, GTAV stands as a shining example of how we excel at replicating realities with ease. Another example of art simulating life is from Life is Strange, a choose-your-own-adventure-style game set in the fictitious Arcadia Bay, Oregon. During my first playthrough I knew right away that I had "been there before".

Most people know or have heard of the phenomenon of déjà vu. It’s that feeling you get when your brain thinks you’re repeating something you’ve already experienced. It’s inexplicable and fascinating, and it's becoming weirder than ever thanks to photo-realistic digital renderings and easily accessible virtual reality. It got me thinking about the implications of immersive digital environments, and what happens when we haven't been somewhere yet know it intimately.

A while back we worked on a shooting case in NE Portland. (You might have seen the case study in our portfolio.) It was a complex story about trajectories and probabilities; we were tasked with recreating the scene so that we could test out some theories as to who fired the fatal shot. We were fortunate enough to have a point cloud scan of the scene so I was able to make the model quite precise.

Several months had passed when one fine day, in a friend's driveway with beer in hand, I had...a moment. I stopped in the middle of a sentence and began looking around for confirmation of my location, only mildly alarming the friends I was with. It hit me all at once: the yard, the apartment building parking lot, the landscaping and lighting.

I found myself looking around with new eyes, visualizing evidence markers where they were in the street that night from bullet casings left behind. I took a better look at the ground details around the parking spot where the victim was found. I noted how different the trees looked, as it was a different season then. I remembered having trouble modeling the curb cut at the parking lot so I walked over and studied it, determined to do it better in the next model (I totally did).

One of my favorite things about working at Fat Pencil Studio is the personal connections I've made with various places, spaces, and structures around town. I love going by a building, intersection, or bridge that I've modeled. It's sobering to encounter a street corner where I know something awful has happened, be it shooting, collision, or other traumatic event. We've worked a lot of projects in Portland, so this happens with some frequency. Fortunately my friends now know not to worry about my sanity if I suddenly start looking around my surroundings, inspecting them suspiciously.

Jannine Hanczarek was a Designer at Fat Pencil Studio from 2017-2020.