WARNING: The following article contains links with possibly disturbing content. It also contains SPOILERS for the movie Martyrs.
The secret to obtaining success is something you never know until you get it right, but the secret to keeping success throughout the years is to find that balance between staying true to your original self and changing enough to be exciting with every album, novel, or game that you release. Well, it that’s the case, then Rockstar has certainly understood the latter secret, because Grand Theft Auto V, a game so succesful that it caused a stampede in The Netherlands on the first day of its release, managed to stir up a controversy. Not bad for the fifteenth installment in a series of games where running people down with either cars or chainsaws, or chainsaws attached to cars, is commonplace. That’s right, the long awaited GTA V, part of one of the most gleefully violent game series in the history of video games ever, managed to surprise both friend and foe by going that extra mile and outdoing itself.
I used the word ‘gleefully’ because overall, the tone and appearance of the GTA games have always been over the top, tongue in cheek, and even cartoony. Despite the fact that a random killing spree was never more than a few seconds away if you wanted it to be, there was something disarming about the self-conscious humor, the overtly colorful graphics, and the over the top action sequences.
At first glance, GTA V brought exactly what we expected all along: the celebrated GTA game mechanism in a new and shinier coat. Every GTA game has been like a crime coming of age story where you start as a delivery boy for the local gang-leader and slowly but steadily work your way to the top of the delinquent food chain, from pauper to kingpin. GTA V followed suit, but then somewhere along the way, this happens:
During a mission called By the Book, the main character is tasked with extracting information from a caught rival by the name of ‘Mister K’. The player is then giving control of Trevor and is able use a wrench, pliers, waterboarding and electric shocks to make the man talk. Needless to say, this particular mission was met with resistance from the public.
Some have defended this gaming element by stating that it was meant as social commentary. We all knew instantly that the option to waterboard your victim was no coincidence, and the fact that the player receives the order to torture from a shady government organization called the FIB (we see what you did there, Rockstar) makes its obvious that there is some reflection on the real world going on here.
But where I think that GTA V really missed the mark is by wanting to have its cake and eat it too: if the display of torture was meant as a vehicle for social commentary, then they’d only need to display it. The big mistake they made (if you want to call it that) is that they ‘gamified’ torture and basically forced the player to commit the atrocious acts himself. Had the game only shown the torture in a movie sequence and being committed by a character other than the protagonist, then it might have escaped the hypocrisy. Many people have compared the By the Book mission with the infamous No Russians level from the popular shooter game Modern Warfare 2. In this level, the player controls a special agent who is undercover in a terrorist organization while they commit a massacre at an airport. For several minutes, the terrorists fire automatic rifles at a large crowd of civilians and the player is expected to join in. But the key difference here is that the player has the option to fire into the crowd: you can still complete the mission and continue the game without firing a single bullet at non-combatants. GTA V does not offer this freedom of choice and effectively forces you to torture a man if you want to continue the game. What is worse; after the mission is over, Trevor is told to kill Mr K, but instead he refuses and allows him to escape by driving him to the airport. While in the car, Trevor delivers a monologue about how ineffective torture is and how it is all about exerting power.
Trevor: “The media and the government would have us believe that torture is some necessary thing. We need it to get information, to assert ourselves. Did we get any information out of you?”
Mr K: “I would have told you everything.”
Trevor: “Exactly. Torture’s for the torturer. Or the guy giving the orders to the torturer. You torture for the good times – we should admit that. It’s useless as a means of getting information.”
A rather odd turn of events. Keith Best, executive of Freedom from Torture, summed it up best when he gave his comment on this issue: “If Rockstar North’s message is a satirical critique of the practice of torture, it’s lost on us.” Moreover, it’s kind of confusing when you use a game-play element to criticize the use of torture while simultaneously awarding the player with a virtual medal if they successfully use all four torture techniques without killing the victim. To add insult to injury, the award you get for successfully using the pliers to pull out one of Mr K’s teeth is shamelessly called The Tooth Hurts. Rockstar’s message is lost on us because they don’t seem to have one.
Personally, I was rather disturbed by the game’s depiction of such extreme violence, but I’m glad that it is free to be sold and purchased by any one of age. Consuming popular culture should be a decision left to the individual and not to the state. Still, I wished Rockstar had handled things better. I was not all that shocked by the amount of violence, but rather by the careless delivery of it. As with most things, it is not so much the content, but the form that matters. Heavy topics such as sexual violence, torture, child abuse, suicide… they can all be used artistically to either make a case for a social cause, or to give the audience an aesthetic experience. I was moved tremendously by the French horror movie Martyrs, which has some of the most gruesome torture scenes I’ve ever seen in cinema, but these visceral scenes all served to make a point about how extreme suffering can lead to self-transcendental religious experiences. Contrast this with a pulp movie like Hostel II, one that is without redeeming qualities and which only serves to make you feel uncomfortable. The difference here is between using torture scenes as a means to an end (to highlight a philosophical or artistic point), or as an end in itself (when these scenes are shown simply because they excite the audience). The use of torture in GTA V clearly falls in the latter category.
Needless to say, there’s a thin line between artistic exploration of human suffering and so-called torture porn, and I’m surely not pretending to tell anyone where this line is. But this is precisely why it matters to think these things through, because values change as society changes, and we are constantly looking for a new vantage point.