the deer that walked the city, when it was a city

The San Andreas Deer
The deer that walked the city, when it was a city

If you’re into digital art, you’ve probably heard about the San Andreas Deer. Digital artist, Brian Watanabe, built a mod for GTA San Andreas in which it creates a deer and then follows it. Assumedly “creates a deer” means “put into action all of the in-game rules that constitute ‘deer’”. The game already has ‘deer’ as part of the digital wildlife, that act as you’d expect. There are two rules for the San Andreas Deer that don’t follow our idea of real world deer.
1) It is seemingly indestructible
2) It has the power to teleport

On the level of programming the piece, you can see the need for these two ‘cheats’. It’s not hugely interesting viewing for an audience if the deer dies before it gets anywhere. The teleportation comes in handy for when the deer, like your avatar in any 3D game, accidentally gets stuck in a glitchy piece of landscape, plus it allows the deer to take full advantage of the intricately crafted map open to it.

As a viewer of the deer’s exploration, these rules take on a whole new significance. It’s various tics and nervy mannerisms come out and you gain a sense that the deer is ‘alive’ in this virtual world. You question both of its metanatural powers. It’s indestructible and can teleport, but you get the sense that it most likely isn’t in control or even aware of these gifts. It’s a deer after all. They become reflexive actions as it traverses the city.

These powers are as mundane to the deer as walking, and so they become mundane to the viewer too. The interesting moments become the simplest ones. Like when the animal pauses before taking an action. The deer, or the string of code that is ‘deer’, is thinking. Similarly, it has neurotic, frantic moments when it breaks into a dash for no reason and stops after a few seconds, settling back into a gentle trot. It gives no hint as to the meaning of these outbursts, but that mystery makes it seem even more alive.

Taking a step back, there’s an interesting device in place here. The deer, or mod that is deer, is actively exploring its landscape, but of course it doesn’t ‘see’ anything. We, the viewer (the deercam) see the world for it from just over its shoulder. Like GTA itself, in which you control your avatar from a third person perspective, you aren’t the deer itself. Though in the playable game, you have the control. You aren’t x or x or x, but their agency is yours. They don’t think, you do. So the deer becomes a ghost in the machine. It exists and acts on its own, but it is also our focal point and our vehicle for experiencing the world (as a deer does). You become the ghost within the ghost.

The real wilderness of the deer presents in the fact that, if you were playing the game, every other non-playable character is designed to interact with you when you come near. The city serves as a stage set, with a supporting cast of thousands. The deer appears as an alien to this standard. It moves, observes and decides completely without you (who are essentially (and only in essence) just along for the ride) or the other NPCs affecting its responses. It reacts only in the very direct circumstances, like getting hit by a bus, in which it falls over momentarily. NPCs however still, respond as they are programmed to. Pulling guns, throwing fists, and shouting. It’s not a pleasant city.

It is designed to have that tension, everyone may be out to get you, but with the emergence of this untouchable, and infallible, silent observer, you fall into the same mold. Your actions in playing the game are thrown into sharp focus, and suddenly you aren’t the protagonist any more. You’re one more set of digital feet in a world too busy to take you in.

The live feed of the San Andreas Deer Cam is currently offline, but recorded footage can still be watched here.

This piece was originally published on Nick Murray’s website



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