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

Our GTA5 diaries roll on with thoughts on the now-infamous torture scene, and why a pinch of subtlety would have helped it deliver its message.

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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.

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From The Chatty
  • reply
    September 26, 2013 11:45 AM

    Steve Watts posted a new article, Grand Theft Auto 5 diary: Trevor, torture, and sending a message.

    Our GTA5 diaries roll on with thoughts on the now-infamous torture scene, and why a pinch of subtlety would have helped it deliver its message.

    • reply
      September 26, 2013 6:07 PM

      Eh. I feel like getting upset about torture when you're already straight up murdering tons of dudes is like worrying about the peeling paint on your industrial slaughterhouse. The GTA series is already a self-indulgent bloodbath, what's the controversy over adding a bit of graphic torture on top of that? The series has always used satire as its veneer of legitimacy and cultural relevance. Even though the writers clearly attempted to elevate the game's satirical aims, the real purpose of the games undercuts this satire at every turn. GTA may style itself after a HBO crime drama, but it has always had more in common with Troma. I think in order for there to have been an opportunity to cause video games to "progress as the medium" the entire premise and style of the game needs to be reconsidered in the first place.

      Basically, considering what GTA is, I don't find the torture scene all that objectionable, at least not any more than rest of the game. The half-hearted justification of the scene's inclusion through the conduit of Trevor's dialog is at least honest and consistent with everything else GTA has done.

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        September 26, 2013 8:42 PM

        I think there are two reasons the torture bothers people more than the other random violence.

        One is that, outside of (possibly interactive) cutscenes like the torture scene and Trevor's intro, the violence is unrealistic, almost slapstick.

        The other is that the random people on the street don't really register as characters. They're empty clones, not real people. The characters in the cutscenes actually register as characters or real people, so seeing them killed or tortured has more impact.

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          September 26, 2013 9:07 PM

          both of those reasons are silly, though.

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            September 27, 2013 8:13 AM

            Under rational analysis, maybe, but we're talking about visceral reactions.

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              September 27, 2013 12:06 PM

              if those are people's visceral reactions, then their hearts are in the wrong place.

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          September 26, 2013 9:40 PM

          You can also choose weather you want to murder all those pedestrians or enemy targets. There was no choice during the torture scenario. This greatly differentiates the levels of violence.

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      September 26, 2013 7:49 PM

      Random violent acts in public = Good
      Torture = Bad

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        September 27, 2013 2:41 AM

        Yeah, you kill people indiscriminately, including hundreds of cops, and no-one bats an eye. Torture a guy, though, and everybody gets on their moral high horse.

        On top of that, the scene is pretty horrific, and it's very obvious that nothing is really gained from it. Contrast that with JBPH, which practically glorified torture at every opportunity.

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        September 27, 2013 4:55 AM

        Imagine if the game had chemical weapons.

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      September 27, 2013 1:37 AM

      Well its kinda the same as, say, Casino or Goodfellas, right? Violence in movies ~ but I guess if you are the one doing the torturing then it could give the impression that you really are hurting this person. Well the voice that is screaming in pain, that's definitely real... poor fellow :(

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      September 27, 2013 1:43 AM

      This kinda stuff is never going to be actually offensive or damaging; but its still shit if its incongrous with the rest of the games writing and style.
      So much of GTA seems to fuck itself with dissonance of the gameplay and story from mission to mission.

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      September 27, 2013 5:01 AM

      I haven't gotten to the torture scene, but how is it handled in comparison to No Russian?

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        September 27, 2013 6:30 AM

        Different style, content and presentation altogether. But both make you feel no so great.

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      September 27, 2013 9:24 AM

      In GTA we drive around indiscriminately running over pedestrians, shooting cops, mugging people, (remember harikrishna's?!) without any remorse whatsoever. The game is all about cold blooded murder. I don't see the difference in this torture scene. R* crammed this square peg in a round hole as a sign of our times - that none of us thought was done particularly well - and that's perhaps the point. After the event in question, what Trevor's does says more about R* than anything else.

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      September 27, 2013 9:59 AM

      I don't own the game yet (waiting for eventual PC release) but i'll give my two, maybe uninformed and uneducated but who cares, cents.

      To reiterate what people have already said here, the GTA games are definitely not for children. The characters you play as are criminals. They are bad people, especially Trevor, possibly even psychotic and sociopathic in ways. They mercilessly kill and murder civilians every day, so it would seem weird that a single torture scene hours into the game will make people feel uncomfortable. However, the fact that you are, it seems, torturing a well-known person in the game with a name and a face differentiates itself from all of the other murders of nameless clones that you've already took part in. It reminds me of a little psychology scenario that I heard late into my senior year of high school. Found and stolen from Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trolley_problem):

      "There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. Unfortunately, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You have two options: (1) Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track. (2) Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person. Which is the correct choice?" When presented this, most students in my class would pull the lever.

      Then, we get hit with this scenario: "As before, a trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by dropping a heavy weight in front of it. As it happens, there is a very fat man next to you – your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you proceed?" Almost everyone who agreed to the first case disagreed with going through with the second one.

      While this scenario is of course very different then the torture scene in GTA, one obviously hypothetically taking place in the real world the other being portrayed in a video game, I feel like the fundamental theme presented here is very similar to the one shown in GTA and why people are so against and disgusted by the torture scene in GTA after they got done robbing a jewelry store and mowing down civilians. It is when you make the violence more personal, when it is you performing the actions and most importantly you have no choice or say if you want to do it yourself, that you start to feel a little bit more disgusted and be more likely to get on your moral horse. It's the same reason why, in another psychological scenario, if you're in a crowd of people and see a person hurt on the ground for whatever reason, you are more likely to ignore them. However, remove the crowd, if it's just you alone walking and you see this man hurt on the ground, you are MUCH more likely to help him then if you were in a crowd. This is mainly because you now feel responsible for this man's well being if you choose to either save or ignore him, the same way you feel when you torture this well-known character in GTA V.

      So, in the end, I feel like it's all how the person approaches it. If you're going into GTA V expecting a game where you know you are going to be playing as these horrible people who do these horrific things but want to see their stories and how they end up where they are and look at this game as a sort of media or art form, expecting a sort of satirical look America, Los Angeles, and it's culture but also want to have fun while doing it, then you probably wouldn't be bothered by the torture scene. However, if you're just going into this game wanted to FUCK SHIT UP AND BLOW UP EVERYTHING BECAUSE WHY NOT IT'S JUST A VIDEO GAME they you're probably going to be very appalled by the torture scene. From the response and the marketing for the game, it seems that R* was going for the former yet most people wanted or expected the latter, and if you wanted the latter then you probably should just play SRIV. Again, I don't claim to be very smart compared to other people, especially to other shackers, but I just wanted to throw my two cents in here.

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