Top of the Docs #26 – San Andreas Deer Cam

Welcome to Top of the Docs, Flip Screen’s hub for all things documentary. This weekly column takes a look at the crème de la crème of non-fiction media, with each month tending to focus on a particular theme. The theme for this month is video games!

This week are covering a documentary that pushes the very boundary of the term. San Andreas Deer Cam is a project set up by Brent Watanabe and is a fairly simple concept. Watanabe has modded (changing aspects of the game’s code) Grand Theft Auto V so that rather than being focused on a human, the game is instead focused on a deer. The deer is programmed to be autonomous; its movements are random, and its interactions are complete chance. What this makes for is a fascinating exploration into virtual landscapes, why we play games in the way that we play them, and just how colossal video game world building can be.

The project was started in 2015 and ran for around a year, streaming on Twitch periodically. This meant that the deer lived through countless interactions over a number of days, and if we take into account the game’s day and night cycle, it is very possible this deer lived (in-game) for a number of years. What is so uniquely interesting about this film – or project – is its addictive nature. Watching the deer explore the gorgeously generated landscape of the game is mesmerising. Something we have discussed before on Top of the Docs, in our piece on Goshogaoka, is the idea of the ambient documentary. Deer Cam almost definitely falls into this category. It may not be ritualistic, or have a defined flow, but the ambient nature of this film lies in its randomness. We never know what the deer is going to do next, and we are constantly waiting for that next encounter. What happens if it gets hit by a car? How will the game’s CPUs react if they happen to encounter it? The only way to find out is to watch on.

Deer Cam also gives us a brilliant example of a project that questions agency in games. This is a highly fruitful field of research in the game studies field, and there is a fascinating essay by C Thi Nguyen on “The right way to play a game”. Deer Cam asks that question head on. Grand Theft Auto is a game series renowned for its explicit nature, they are violent games that reward you for acts of wrongdoing. Watanabe explores through Deer Cam how that world reacts to something as peaceful as a deer, acting pretty much as you would imagine it to. Is this playing the game wrong? Or is it pushing the boundaries of a sandbox game?

What is certain is that Deer Cam is one of the most fascinating and enjoyable to watch documentaries about gaming out there. Watanabe excels in documenting this experiment, and there is over an hour’s worth of Deer Cam footage available on his Vimeo. Deer Cam is such an impressive project, and one that shows that even the simplest of ideas can open up such a wide range of discussion and interest. Deer Cam is exactly what you want it to be, be that an academic exploration into agency in gaming, or a cool livestream of a deer in GTA. Regardless, it is a must see.

Featured image courtesy of Brent Wanabe