Grand Theft Auto 5 diary: Trevor, torture, and sending a message

We're waiting for the release of Grand Theft Auto Online before doing a formal review of Rockstar's latest game. Until then, our Steve Watts will be offering insights into some memorable moments from the single player adventure.

Given that I'm in the process of evaluating it for review, I've tried my best to keep away from the general din of discussions surrounding Grand Theft Auto 5. But try as I might, certain conversations are just ubiquitous, and I've caught wind of some of the more controversial points in the story before I reached them myself. Those include the much talked-about torture scene.

Spoilers follow.

For those uninitiated, our three heroes end up working at the behest of the FIB, Rockstar's send-up of our Federal Bureau of Investigation. (FIB! Get it?) The bureau is having something of a turf war with the IAA--as you might guess, Rockstar's CIA--over false flag operations intended to increase their funding. One mission has you kidnap a man being held by the IAA, only to torture him for information while Michael looks for the correct target to take out using a sniper rifle.

As with any sensitive topic, this has generated quite a bit of buzz. Defenders of the scene often claim it's satire, which is true enough. But simply being satire doesn't mean it's well-done, and if our games are going to start reaching into heady subjects, we should probably demand that they raise the bar of quality to match.

Ultimately, my distaste for the torture scene wasn't about the torture itself. Instead, I felt saddened because Rockstar failed to really utilize the strengths of the medium in making its statement. It's all well and good to defend the artistic ability to make statements, but at a certain point we need to evaluate if those statements are being delivered with a deft hand.

In this case, Trevor is tasked with meting out the punishment, perhaps commenting that only an unhinged sadist could treat a person like this without compunction. Through Trevor, you're given access to four torture implements, but the interactivity feels stunted. You can choose which tool to use, but nothing seems to change. By the end, I was forced to do it four times, assuring I could use each tool once. I got the impression that his responses would have been the same no matter which order I used them. It could have just as easily been a cutscene.

It all felt so scripted that I didn't feel like an active participant. Video games can be a powerful storytelling medium, and that goes doubly for forcing us to squirm and face our own discomfort with certain actions. So why give us so little agency in this? All games tend to boil down to pressing a button and watching action unfold on-screen, but this one felt especially distant, and as a result it lacked any emotional punch that was intended.

To the extent that Rockstar is making a statement, it's a fairly simplistic one: torture is both morally repugnant and functionally useless. But it delivers these themes in the most ham-fisted ways possible. The morality point is brought up by the sheer nature of Trevor's actions and his seeming enjoyment. It crosses into the absurd a few moments later, when Trevor refuses to shoot the man and instead drives him to the airport while delivering a lecture on why torture doesn't tend to produce usable intelligence. That point had actually been made pretty competently, by showing Michael's uncertainty in picking his sniper target based on a few superficial qualities, so spelling it out for us was entirely unnecessary. It's as if Rockstar was afraid of being too vague, and decided the solution was the storytelling equivalent of a battering ram.

Even the voice performance felt too on-the-nose at one point. After waterboarding the subject, he exclaimed, "that was torture!" But the actor placed emphasis on the "was," as if going through the experience had proven his point against some unseen debate opponent claiming that waterboarding isn't torture. It sounded less like a plea from a scared victim, and more like: "Ha ha, see, that WAS torture!" Even on subjects I find myself agreeing with their messaging, the commentary is so self-conscious that it's hard to swallow.

Yes, Grand Theft Auto 5's torture scene is satirical. Maybe Rockstar felt that for an audience so large and varied, it couldn't use a feather touch. Maybe they're even right to think that. But as someone who wants video games to progress as a medium, seeing such clumsy handling of the subject left me wishing they hadn't bothered to try.

This diary is based on retail PS3 code provided by the publisher. Grand Theft Auto V is now available at retail for PS3 and Xbox 360. It's also available digitally on PlayStation Network for $59.99. The game is rated M.