The GTA V Torture Controversy: Has Rock* Gone Too Far?

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.

GTA VC
Earlier GTA games kept the presentation relatively light-hearted with overtly colorful graphics and tongue-in-cheek humor. source

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:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x5s8C9PIPKU

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.

Frank Kool
Frank Kool
Born and raised in Holland, spent his time procrastinating and studying Psychology and Philosophy. Frank harbors a special interest in weird social phenomena (which are ALL social phenomenon if you think about them long enough).

3 COMMENTS

  1. Frank, interesting article. I haven’t reached that mission in the game yet. In defence of Rockstar I would say that there have been many torture scenes in movies and primetime TV shows for years.

    Jack Bauer used to routinely use torture in 24 and it’s been shown in many other shows such as the Soprano’s. GTA has alway been a sly and not so subtle satire of pop culture and modern events in general and this version is no different. Fans of GTA know exactly what to expect when loading this game up. Random and excessive violence is actually part of the fun of the game.

    I enjoy it, but then again, I am a shallow man.

    • Thanks for the reply.

      I do realize that GTA is an extreme game in the sense that it pulls no punches when it comes to showing violence. Still, I think there is a continuum of how morally questionable something is. Compared to previous GTA games, this ‘gamification’ of torture is still a significant leap. The catchphrase “it’s just a game” cannot maintain being believable as games keep pushing the boundaries. Would it serve to defend Rockstar if the next installment featured gameplay elements of child abuse?
      This isn’t an appeal to the slippery slope, it’s an appeal that “it’s just a game” only works as long as the one saying it is already OK with what the game is about anyway. In other words: the fact that it’s fiction never nullifies the moral argument.

      Moreover, I’m kind of put off by this trend in movies and games where torture scenes become more prevalent, more graphic, and longer. I expect torture scenes in extreme Japanese horror movies, but I was quite disillusioned when I went to see the new Bond movie seven years ago and I had to go through minutes of Bond being hit in the sack with a knotted rope.

      My main point is that I have thus far only seen one example in art where torture is actually used as a vehicle for an artistic/philosophical point instead of just a shock-gimmick. Except maybe Metal Gear Solid 3; that game had a torture sequence that was at least vital to both character and plot development.

      • Thanks for this …..
        Great Piece of Writing .

        Over the years I have scoffed at countless groups up in arms over Rockstars shenanigans but this latest one knocked the wind right out of me .
        See gut punch )))))))
        If they wanted to shock or grab my attention …. they surely got it . Still , more shocking than the inclusion of this interactive scene are the number of persons supporting it . Artistic expression is a great privilege and should not be stomped however ,I do feel however if there were a hand of justice that simply reached across the universe it might just snip this piece out .

        I should like to think that it was a massive error made after thousands upon thousands of iterations where the creative team got so off track ( and numbified ) they missed the boat .

        I wish to Rockstar N to sit through the entire production of
        ” Phantom of the Opera ” ( front row ) …. is that too cruel .

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