For reasons I’ve explained before, I have a firm “no politics” rule here on the site. There are lots of places to have the standard Red v. Blue debates, and most of them are sewers. The last thing I’d want is to play referee in that never-ending screaming match. Having said that, I’m going to break my own rules and make a political statement:
I think government-sanctioned torture is a bad idea and – inasmuch as I have any say in the matter – I’m firmly against it.
I apologize for the breach of etiquette. I’m not announcing my beliefs to pick a fight or in the hopes that I can sway you to my thinking. In fact, I don’t really have a stake in what you think and I’m certainly not interested in trying to change your mind. If you disagree, that’s fine. We’re still friends as far as I’m concerned.
The only reason I bring this up is because I want to make it clear that I am ideologically in agreement with the author of this scene. My objections to this mission aren’t because I don’t like having “someone else’s opinion” shoved down my throat. My grievances here aren’t based on party politics or tribal thinking. My problem here is that the GTA V argument against torture is so childish and inept that it made me want to disagree.
Of all the things in Grand Theft Auto V that don’t work, the torture scene is the not-workingest. It takes a rare skill to be simultaneously sanctimonious and incoherent. This scene is fractally wrong. As you zoom in on a mistake you’ll see it’s made up of smaller mistakes that are just as misguided as the whole. The last time I was presented with something this dense with problems was the hotel scene in Hitman: Absolution. It’s actually hard to analyze this in an orderly way because the problems are so thick and interconnected. But I’ll do my best.
Why is Trevor not killing the FIB agents right now?
The FIB summon our antiheroes to a creepy warehouse on the edge of town. The FIB have a prisoner and they want to torture him for information, and then use that information to assassinate someone. Or rather, they want our protagonists to do these things while they stand back and pretend to not be involved.
This is already a bit thin. If they’re trying to make it so they’re not blamed for the human rights violations you’re about to commit, then why are they hanging around the crime scene?
The problem here is that we’re about to go through a fully interactive torture scene. The player will choose from several different torture implements and then use the controller to apply the chosen device to the victim as he screams and pleads for mercy. This is something a lot of people are not going to want to do, which means a lot of people are going to be asking for a solid justification for it, which means you need to make sure the whole thing stands up to scrutiny.
When I go on one of my rants about the lack of logic in a given situation, a common (and more or less reasonable defense) is to say, “Shamus, you’re over-thinking this. Just go with it and enjoy the gameplay.” That excuse doesn’t work here because the game is demanding we think about the situation, and we can’t “enjoy” the gameplay because it’s actively, deliberately unpleasant.
What makes this really awful is that the victim is the only explicitly innocent person in the entire game. Oh sure, there might be other people in the cast that you find sympathetic or likable. Tracey, Amanda, and Jimmy qualify as non-combatants. But everyone, and I do mean everyone in the world of GTA V is some combination of shallow, cruel, vindictive, toxic, greedy, abusive, manipulative, gross, hateful, bigoted, or nihilistic. Everyone except the guy you’re about to torture, who makes it clear up front that he’s willing to answer any questions and just wants to go back to his family. This is a very sensitive topic, and the game is going to engage with it in the most blunt-force way possible.
Agent Steve gives Trevor the job of torturing our victim while Michael and Agent Dave go to the other side of the city to do the assassination. The problem is that Trevor has no reason to go along with any of this. We just spent an entire (overly long) chapter establishing that Trevor is fearless, single-minded, and capable of violence on a shocking scale. He hates being bossed around, he hates when people are rude to him, he hates the government, and he’s basically unstoppable. And now he’s taking orders from a condescending government jackass in a polo shirt and the story doesn’t even give us a fig leaf excuse for why. It doesn’t even look like agent Steve is armed!
Left: A totally annoying prick who we want to kill the moment we meet him. Right: The only sympathetic guy in all of GTA V. Guess which one we torture?
Yes, you could argue that maybe Trevor is in the mood for some torture. I can believe that. Except, wouldn’t he torture Agent Steve instead? The designated victim is a complete stranger to Trevor and means nothing to him. Meanwhile, Steve is smug, irritating, and deliberately going out of his way to piss Trevor off. Yes, the FIB has leverage over Michael. But they have no such leverage over Trevor.
The moment Trevor doesn’t strap Steve into the torture chair and go to work on him, this entire scenario collapses. This is not at all a plausible sequence of events. Sure, we can come up with some fanfiction that might explain Trevor’s behavior. But if you’re going to force the player to do something really unpleasant as part of some sanctimonious lecture / mission, then the reasoning behind it needs to be airtight and not reeking of contrivances.
Just to make it all as pointless as possible, the victim pleads with you to ask him questions because he’s already willing to talk. The writer is railroading us through this ridiculous mess so they can beat us over the head with the idea that “torture is bad”, and their presentation of the topic gives us a nonsensical strawman scenario that undercuts their point. Even a pro-torture thinker will readily admit there is nothing to be gained from torturing this guy. Which makes it feel like the writer doesn’t actually understand the debate. If they were actually going to take some sort of coherent swipe at the topic, then they really ought to present it in the context of the usual “ticking time bomb” hypothetical.
Either torture this guy or turn the game off. Those are your options.
You must torture the subject several times, with the game encouraging you to try a different implement of torture each time. Your available tools are:
- Use pliers to rip out one of his teeth.
- Use a massive pipe wrench to crush his knee / balls / arm.
- Car battery to the nipples.
There are even optional things you can do to make the whole thing more sadistic, like sparking the battery connections right in his face to terrify him. The game won’t let you go easy on him, but it will allow you to be even more cruel. For some reason.
Pointless Yet Mandatory
A scene protesting the lack of accountability in government-sanctioned extra-judicial killings has accountability built into it. For some reason.
After each bout of torture, Steve asks another question about the guy they’re trying to assassinate. As we go we learn he’s an Azerbaijani with a full beard who smokes a lot and is left-handed. While all of this is going on, Michael is up on a hill overlooking a house party, peering at the guests through the scope of a sniper rifle. Once you have all of those facts, you can switch over to Michael and shoot the guy in question.
This is supposed to be commentary on how torture yields unreliable information and that there’s not enough accountability in the system, yet the mission itself undercuts this entire idea because the monomaniacal game designer can’t let go of their precious DIAS gameplay for one stupid mission, no matter how badly it clashes with the heavy-handed sermon the writer is hitting us with. If you shoot the wrong person then somehow everyone clairvoyantly realizes they’ve made a mistake and you fail the mission.
Imagine how much more sense it would make if you just had to kill someone at the party, and nobody was much concerned with fact-checking. Maybe players would torture the guy, only to realize later that it didn’t matter. Other players would just shoot someone at random and get a free pass, underscoring how easy and tempting it is to abuse a system with no accountability. There’s your message right there!
The Writer Thinks You’re Stupid
This is how subtle the messaging is in this scene.
Once you’re done with the torture and Michael kills his target, Steve orders Trevor to kill the informant. Trevor finally begins acting in-character and disobeys this order, instead taking the guy to the airport to “escape”.
It doesn’t make a lick of sense, of course. Regardless of what you did in the torture room, this guy is in no shape to fly. The game sort of assumes you used each torture implement once. So the informant is shirtless, covered in blood, slurring his words due to the missing tooth, and limping badly. He has no money, no ID, and no way of obtaining these things. What is he supposed to do at the airport? I have no idea. He tumbles down the steps in what I’m assuming is supposed to be “slapstick comedy” and that’s the last we see of him.
Turning this gruesome ordeal into a pratfall isn’t the writer’s big sin here. No, the really obnoxious thing is that after this blunt-force message, the writer turns Trevor into a sock puppet and has him explain to the informant (and to the audience) the point the writer is trying to make! I don’t know which is more disappointing, their lack of trust in the audience, or their lack of confidence in their craft.
And just to make it as bad as possible, Trevor’s “explanation” is wrong and incoherent. He correctly points out that they got no useful information out of the victim. Ok, fair enough. But then he goes on to say that torture is for the benefit of the torturer, or their boss, or their boss, etc.
Of course they made the tooth-pulling completely interactive. You can't cut corners on stuff like this!
This makes no sense. The US government didn’t adopt a torture program for the benefit of a handful of agents who get off on it. That’s the opposite of how power dynamics work. To say more would get into politics and involve pointing fingers, but the machinery that brought us here is a lot bigger and a lot more powerful than the will of a few CIA agents. Furthermore, if this was true then the FIB would have wanted to torture this guy themselves and not outsource the job. The only thing worse than explaining the lesson is the fact that the explanation disagrees with what we’ve been shown.
So the FIB brought in Trevor, a guy that is personally dangerous to them and has no reason to cooperate and they have no means to control. They did this so they could outsource a job they should have been able to do themselves, in order to extract information they had no means to verify from a guy who was already willing to tell them everything. This is all done in service of making an overt political statement, which is undercut by both the actions of the characters and the ingame mechanics. In doing so they take a real topic involving real human suffering and turn it into an incoherent slapstick farce. Then at the end the writer decides to just explain the lesson to us and gets it wrong.
*Slow sarcastic applause.*
Way to go, Rockstar. You managed to offend me with my own opinion, and I didn’t even know that was possible.