In what is surely the best possible use of their time, hundreds of people have spent the week watching a virtual deer run around a virtual city, occasionally getting into trouble but mostly doing nothing.
The San Andreas deer cam, which operates inside a modded version of Grand Theft Auto V, is oddly compelling. Often the deer does nothing other than dart back and forth, but on an interval, the program warps it to different locations. This occasionally causes trouble, like when the deer catches the attention of gang members or the police (on Sunday, the deer successfully evaded a police manhunt).
In short, it’s interesting to see what happens to complex systems like GTA’s when you insert an invincible deer into any part of the environment. It’s fun to watch computers sabotage themselves.
The deer cam’s creator, artist Brent Watanabe, filled us in on how the project came about, and why it’s so compelling.
How did you come up with the idea for the deer cam?
I actually did this as an art project … I’ve been working on computer-controlled installations for over 10 years, and they all incorporate animals and man-made environments. Up until now, I’ve created all of the characters and code that drives the installations, but I got fixated on working in GTA V simply because it’s such a beautiful, vast environment. It’s like having access to a $65 million playground! The deer cam is not that different from another project I did years ago, where I built a video-game engine and set a duck loose in a computer-generated city.
I had never really seen much in GTA V until I watched my nephew Max playing. He showed me that you could find peyote and become an animal for a short amount of time (which is really hilarious to watch), and that’s when I decided to look into modding GTA V.
How does it operate? What sort of technical setup are you working with?
I developed the mod using the Script Hook V library, which allows modders to get at functionality under the hood in Grand Theft Auto V. The computer streaming the live feed is really low-tech … it’s a 5-year-old gaming machine I picked up for $300 on Craigslist for another art project. Hence the sub-optimal graphics.
What’s the AI like for both the deer and others?
The deer activity is primarily based on what I believe is standard pedestrian AI in GTA V. I’m calling general functions that are available to a pedestrian, but then attempting to override occasionally so they don’t always follow what seems to be predetermined NPC [non-playable character] paths. Since I’m working through the Script Hook V library, I’m not sure what’s happening deeper in the code, but that’s my guess.
What grabbed my attention early in the development of the project was how the GTA V in-game world reacted to the deer and its random actions. The AI in the game is just so dense and nuanced. One of the early clips I recorded while testing exemplifies this, where the deer runs by a man on the street and he says, “What in the fucking world is that?”
Have there been any specific highlights you can recall? Anything funny?
One big highlight for me has been that I’ve been getting great feedback and responses from both the gaming community and the arts and new-media community. I’ve been really happy that the project has resonated with both, or at least given them a few minutes of amusement.
Watching the chat in Twitch has been really funny and bizarre. Twitch viewers have created a whole backstory/mythology: The deer is named Edgar. He’s looking for his wife, Virginia. He is battling a sea witch. I haven’t been able to keep up with how the story has progressed, but it’s been fascinating to watch.
Are you working on other animal cameras? What else would you like to see?
I’m working on several projects right now, some internet-based and some physical pieces. I’m working on a large-scale installation for the Bumbershoot Arts Festival in Seattle, which will happen on Labor Day weekend this year. That piece will incorporate robotic animals, projected birds, and holographic dogs trapped in an abandoned amusement park.
And regarding other animal cameras, I’m definitely working with some ideas regarding where this particular stream may go after 4/20/16.
Have you thought about letting the chat control the game, Twitch Plays X–style?
My dream would be for Rockstar to allow me to use this mod in GTA Online. I would love to see what happened to the deer with actual players. However, Rockstar (understandably) does not allow mods online, so I don’t imagine this happening.
Have you thought about giving the deer a gun?
I worked on a version where the deer caused explosions anytime something threatening approached [seen in the video above at the 1:24 mark], but I think it’s much more affecting and troubling and relatable to have the deer wander aimlessly and endlessly, with no ability to fight back, but also no ability to be harmed. There’s a Charlie Chaplin aspect to it, slapstick but tragic, with this innocent creature wandering and surviving in a hostile world.