(Warning: some spoilers follow)
Exploitative violence. Vicarious sadism. Sensationalism at its finest.
These were all the first thoughts I had when, during a story mission, my character Trevor in Grand Theft Auto 5 was given a variety of different tools and techniques to torture someone.
Worse still, it wasn’t even a “bad guy”; the victim seemed totally innocent.
Worst of all, he was trying to be compliant from the beginning – I was asked to torture the victim before the man pulling the strings was even asking the question. How could he have known if the victim would help or not if I was “loosening the victim” up before he was even inquired upon?
Typically, I’m not even sensitive to this sort of stuff, honestly. The “Airport” mission in Modern Warfare 2, while definitely feeling wrong, was at least justified in some ways by the narrative (sort of), so I opt for creative freedom. Here…essentially, Rockstar was forcing me to commit horrible acts, and relish in the moment. It was violence for violence’s sake, from a studio that was no stranger to controversy.
Then, all of a sudden, the mission ends, and the sequence takes on another meaning entirely.
Trevor goes from relishing every moment, gleefully complicit in the act of torturing, to helping this man escape, and waxing philosophically about how torture as a means of gathering information is just wrong; not only is it not an effective means of extracting intel, but it’s an act that’s more about the torturer’s own sadistic nature than anything else.
When listening to Trevor—my psychopathic, surprisingly intelligent protagonist—talk about the true nature of torturing, the entire message sort of hit me. This mission, rather than trying to hit on sensationalism, was making a statement, from the first moment to the last, in a more effective manner than anything on the news or 24 or any other sort of medium has ever done for me.
I literally cringed during every moment I had to torture my poor victim, which included electric shock (if you can believe it, one of the more humane options I had available to me), pulling out the man’s tooth (which was the worst of all, and an option I accidentally picked and wasn’t allowed to rescind), and water boarding (Trevor kept saying it was legal, but I’m not entirely sure that’s true anymore…).
Of course, it’s just a videogame and not reality, but even seeing these acts performed digitally hit me pretty hard. I realized then how important it was—even in a videogame—to be in the shoes of the torturer, and the one committing the act.
As I’m listening to Trevor advocating for the pointlessness of torture, I really began considering my own stance, which used to be pretty split. If anything, I justified its use against “bad people,” because we had to protect our people and the greater good at any cost; then I realized how funny it was how people draw that line on judging what’s completely barbaric and inhumane, and what’s acceptable for the right reasons.
For years, I rooted on Jack Bauer from 24 as he (frequently) tortured and interrogated the villains to save America—now, I’m not so sure. Looking back at both of these instances of torture in the media—GTA V vs. 24—I ‘m surprised at which one I’m finding as the real exploiter of torture for entertainment.
But torture’s not okay, and you don’t get to pick and choose when to employ it or not, or when it’s “right, under certain circumstances.” It’s ineffective, inhumane, and damaging to the one inflicting the pain, whether they realize it entirely or not.
After writing this, I realized I’m not the first person to touch on this topic—due to me being a little “late to the game,” I missed the controversy surrounding this topic. However, I was disappointed in a lot of the critics of the mission and their posts.
Many people lambasted Rockstar, saying the mission was gruesome, hard to watch, and unnecessary. Um, yes, it was all three of those. But that was the entire point.
Others talked about how devastating it would be for young people to play this sequence and start thinking torture is okay, and how it could warp their minds. First of all, if you play the entirety of the mission, it’s quite clear what the message is, and it’s certainly not “torture is dandy!”
Secondly, it’s the same song and dance as what we’ve been doing for years now, people. Kids should not be playing this game. Kids should not be watching rated R movies. Parents and retail stores need to do their jobs to make sure these titles are finding their way only into the hands of the intended audiences.
Now, unfortunately, Rockstar’s message might get lost because of the sheer mainstream popularity of GTA 5, their history with controversy, and the idea that you’re encouraged to use each torture device to earn a gold medal in the mission, but the fact remains that Rockstar, even amid the satire and topics they handled wrong in the game (like sexism), delivered one of the most poignant statements I’ve ever seen in a game before. I’m appalled by some of the decisions, but I also applaud their bravery to tackle the issue, and I wish that more videogames—whether right or wrong, whether you agree or not—would at least attempt to do the same.