Grand Theft Auto has always been a polarizing series. While it is extremely popular among people who actually play video games, it is the political pundits and parents that speak out about such violent video games and say things like a, “national violent video game ownership registry should be created.” While time and time again I like to remind readers that there is no causal link between violence in video games and violence in real life, there is a more valid criticism to be made about GTA V.
Warning: There are story-light spoilers ahead about a mission within Grand Theft Auto V. Viewer discretion is advised.
Seriously, last chance to turn back.
The scene in question:
For posterity, the mission involves one of the main characters Trevor Phillips torturing “FIB” prisoner Mr. K in order to gain valuable details and information pertinent to a time-sensitive assassination plot in part pulled off by other main character Michael De Santa. There are four methods of torturing this unfortunate soul, each one increasingly cringe-worthy. You can bash the prisoner with a heavy wrench, waterboard him, give him an electric shock and/or pull out teeth with pliers. If you go overboard in your attempts at getting Mr. K to talk he may flat-line, requiring you to give him an adrenaline shot. It is your choice in which methods are used, but you must use at least one of them.
Excluding the completely emotionally-detached, it is near impossible for one to play through the scene without feeling despair in taking part of destroying a man’s soul. It is because the player is forced to be in charge of the deed that has people up in arms, with human rights activists proclaiming that the game glorifies torture and sends an incorrect message about torture being the correct means to get the job done.
Here’s the thing: I’ve played through the scene myself. It is brutal. It is heart-wrenching. It is also completely justified, especially within the context of the situation presented to the main characters of GTA V.
Since adapting to 3D, Grand Theft Auto games have spoken to some sort of political commentary in a grand scale. The person doing the torturing, Trevor, is doing so under the orders of federal agents so that Michael won’t be handed over to the authorities for his crimes. It is also established that he is a deranged psychopath who does whatever he wants, whenever he wants. The game tells you that this monster is the kind of person who would enjoy or engage in such dreadful acts. Trevor himself even says as the mission comes to a close, “You torture for the good times – we should all admit that. It’s useless as a means of getting information!” Grand Theft Auto explicitly tells it audience that it is a shortsighted tool used by the US government, which contradicts the points made by said human rights activists.
By forcing you to play out the scene for our character, Rockstar is also forcing you to empathize with just how wrong torture is. Without making the player commit the act themselves they don’t get to truly understand as easily as they would have otherwise, especially within the scope of Grand Theft Auto V’s over-the-top violence. It just wouldn’t work if the scene were made to be subtle, or outside of the controls of the character, as it would conflict with the series’ style. The scene shows that these are bad people doing bad things for even more evil people to save their own skin, even if they are considered the game’s protagonists.
I’m not saying that all torture scenes in all of gaming must be playable. In fact, I applaud the fact that Hideo Kojima decided to make the torture scene unplayable in his upcoming game, “Metal Gear Solid V.” That game series not only has proven over the decades to handle such controversial topics with tact, but are created with a heavy focus on well-written dialogue. It is moral ambiguity that is key to the Metal Gear Solid games, and it is expected that the torture scene will create some of the same conversations created over GTA V about the use of torture outside of the gaming world.
Bringing it back to Rockstar’s $1-billion-and-climbing game, what I do seem to have a minor issue with is the requirements needed to get a gold medal on the mission. While playing “By the Book” is mandatory to get through the scene and progress the main story, the method in which you take care of Mr. K is up to the player. You can continually bash the victim with a wrench over and over to get what you need out of him, a very understandable cop out. Grand Theft Auto V is a lightning rod of violence and death, and using blunt or sharp melee weapons to hurt people is par for the course.
However, in order to get gold in “By the Book” you MUST perform each individual act of torture. It really makes you feel uneasy to rip someone’s tooth out, rotating the right analog stick while the controller vibrates as you hear the screams of agony. It is an annoyance for some completionists who seek to obtain a 100% that they must stomach all outcomes of torture, not just the one each individual person considers to be the least offensive.
In the grand scheme of things, thought, this is Grand Theft Auto. We are talking about a gaming series in which you kill policemen and civilians, run major drug operations, pull off bank heists at gunpoint, destroy buildings with explosives, have sex with prostitutes and kill them in order to get your money back. Rockstar Games did not set out to create the bastion of morality, nor are they apologetic in their approach to violence in their video games. It says a lot when you kill innocent people in a game without batting an eye but feel shame when you torture them and let them survive.