I’ve never played Grand Theft Auto (GTA), but I have spent a decent amount of time watching a hacked — or, rather, “modded” — deer running through the GTA V live game, and I think this deer has something to tell us. It is a creation of Brent Watanabe, a Seattle-based artist who makes computer-controlled gallery installations featuring animals in human environments. What makes “San Andreas Streaming Deer Cam” (2015–16) so different from his other work is that Watanabe usually controls everything, but in this case, he programmed his deer to act autonomously within the unpredictable and interactive world of GTA V.
Most of the time the deer, a muscular buck with impressive antlers, runs through the desolate streets or outskirts of San Andreas (the game’s setting) without encountering anyone. But if you watch long enough you’ll see the deer get struck by a car, plummet down a cliff side, walk among people (common GTA bystander reaction: “What the fuck?!”), or get shot up in gang territory. The deer cannot die, and when ripped by bullets it jets blood then heals like Wolverine of the X-Men. After getting hit by an airplane it will lay stunned for a moment, then get back on its feet and continue its odyssey, which has also included being strafed by helicopters and hit with grenades. Sometimes the deer knocks people down (especially when they try to kick it) or gores them. The animal has gone viral, with over 450,000 views in its first nine days online. There are generally 200 to 2000 people watching at any given moment, and the deer has spawned fan Facebook fan accounts and other social media fan accounts.
Watanabe tells me he discovered GTA V through his nephew, Max. “I was really taken by the sheer scale of the world (100 square miles) and the incredible attention to detail. [Max] told me about a hidden feature in the game that allowed your character to become an animal for a short amount of time if you find and ingest peyote,” Watanabe explains. “That’s when I realized that the functionality to become an animal was already in the game and began to teach myself to mod. Having access to that world is like having the keys to a $265 million studio.”
Watanabe’s beast is impassive, treating all things equally, and this feature combines with its immortality to lend it a god-like aspect. I saw the buck enter a restricted zone in an airport, triggering pandemonium as police unloaded their weapons and shouted in angry panic. The deer remained unruffled, eventually finding an open gate and running away as bullets tore into its hindquarters. It’s like watching Nature incarnate sweep aside civilization’s efforts to suppress and dominate the planet, and it’s also like seeing the police finally unable to kill with impunity.
For all the action that occasionally transpires, I am most moved by the long silent periods when the deer simply trots or runs through the empty city or landscape. There is something eternal about it, something that reminds me of how artworks never lose their mystery. The deer, like art, is a mute thing in the world, charged with power. It doesn’t follow the rules the rest of us obey. Though its presence doesn’t actually change anything, we react to it with hostility or enthusiasm (and sometimes indifference), trying to make sense of it in terms we understand. But it remains foreign and magnetic, reframing everything around it, able to delight or hurt us without particularly intending to do either.