SPOILER WARNING: If you haven't played GTA5 yet, then reading this feature will reveal details of a mission about a dozen hours into the game, along with some of the surrounding context. This won't ruin your enjoyment of the game, but it will reduce the impact of one of its most extreme moments. Read on with that in mind or return when you've gotten there yourself and feel like talking about it. You have been warned.
Grand Theft Auto is no stranger to controversy, but now that Hot Coffee has gone well and truly cold and highbrow networks like HBO have made sex and extreme violence a more regular fixture in polite living rooms, Rockstar obviously feels comfortable expressing itself again fully. In the case of GTA5's most disturbing scene, however, it draws inspiration from real life rather than fiction.
The US government's use of "enhanced interrogation techniques" is the basis of a mission called "By the Book" where Trevor Phillips, one of GTA5's three playable characters, tortures a man suspected by the GTA world's government agencies of harbouring secrets about terrorists. Players must choose between various instruments of torture and press buttons and rotate sticks when prompted in order to use them on the suspect. If the suspect's heart stops, it can be restarted so the questioning can continue. Meanwhile, one of the game's two other playable characters, Michael, races around Los Santos following any leads gained during the interrogation.
You can watch the mission below. It's pretty graphic.
A bit like Modern Warfare 2's infamous "No Russian" mission, where you gunned down innocent people in an airport, the absence of context does this sequence no favours. This is a series best known to people who don't play it as the one where you sleep with a prostitute and then murder her to get your money back, so the news that you can now waterboard people and rotate analogue sticks to wrench out teeth with a pair of pliers is unlikely to leave a positive impression. The fact you have to use the full range of torture techniques to get a higher score is unlikely to improve anyone's mood either.
Even to people who know the series intimately, it is likely to hit hard. GTA is a game full of violence, of course, but it is mostly slapstick, impersonal, cartoon violence - floppy-limbed pedestrians flying over your bonnet, cars flipping through intersections, or tanks and helicopters exploding. You're always slightly zoomed out from the impact of your actions by the lack of close-ups and the way everything resets to normal a few minutes later. It's very unusual to be hurting a single person in isolation over a prolonged period, which is why the torture scene is a different and unpleasant experience.
The context provides a little clarity, at least. Trevor, Michael and Franklin are caught in the crossfire of a high-stakes inter-agency war, and in a typical GTA conceit they are being forced to do the bidding of corrupt officials in order to remain at liberty. The torture routine is itself coerced, then - the guys are doing it because they have no choice.
Torture was always going to be a hard thing to justify in a GTA game, because GTA is chaotic at the best of times - a rollercoaster of mood swings and explosive diversions that it would be mind-f***ing to try to take seriously as a whole. Narratively, though, I'm not sure the scene would serve any useful purpose even in a more linear game like a corridor shooter or action-adventure.
It has a lot of impact, but there's not enough meaning behind those zaps, cracks and screams. Michael disapproves from a distance, but Trevor's character isn't fazed in the slightest. When you first meet him, he is already killing people without remorse over the slightest grievance and has a disregard for human life that is spectacular even by GTA's standards, so when he walks into a warehouse and has to torture someone, he just shrugs and gets on with it.
Perhaps the point is that the torture is harder for the player to go through than the character we're controlling, and that afterwards our distrust and dislike of Trevor is complete, setting up his arc for the rest of the adventure. But if that is the intention then I don't think it works. I already disliked Trevor intensely because of something else he did earlier in the game, so watching him torture someone just felt like a cynical escalation of his ultraviolent schtick, a redundant emphasis on his inhumanity that gave the impression of a game being flippant with really troubling material.
It's particularly troubling because torture conjures up such intense empathy in the viewer that it is a really hard thing to employ effectively in visual art like film, TV and games. Used carefully, it can be transformative, not just for the victim but also the torturer, and raises all sorts of important questions in the mind of the viewer. In GTA5, however, it has no lasting effect on Trevor, while the victim is quickly and completely forgotten about, which just leaves the player to suffer through and remember the whole unsettling experience.
Another possibility, I suppose, is that Rockstar sees this scene as an attack on state-sponsored torture. The writers' usual weapon for taking on a real-world subject is humour - as with its Fox News parody, "Weasel News, confirming your prejudices" - so this is something of a departure, but there's nothing inherently wrong with a game using a blunt tool like a torture scene to make a point that resounds beyond the fourth wall, providing we hold it to the same standards as other media when assessing its effectiveness.
Unless they break the habit of a lifetime and start speaking out about their work in the coming weeks, however, the writers' true motivation will remain shrouded in mystery, because I don't think this sequence is particularly effective without some commentary. As a component of the story, it feels unnecessary - at best it's a numbing full stop on the end of a sentence that was already unpleasant reading, while at worst it just falls flat. As a statement about something the writers believe, it struggles to get beyond that context.
Speaking as someone who really likes GTA5 and found this part of the game tough to play through, I would have found it a lot easier to defend it to friends and colleagues if I thought it was successful. As it is, I think Rockstar has the right to put it in there, but I also think it's a flawed sequence that may draw attention away from a lot of things GTA5 does that are worth talking about for the right reasons. And in the absence of a stronger explanation, a lot of people will assume - rightly or wrongly - that it has been included as much to chase headlines as anything else.
It's not as much of a flop as No Russian, then, which I felt was all shock and no awe, but it's a shame that GTA5's torture scene could end up as just as much of a distraction. Here's hoping it doesn't.