Grand Theft Auto V: Torture Time With Uncle Trevor

By Shamus Posted Thursday Oct 11, 2018

Filed under: Retrospectives 112 comments

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.

The Setup

Why is Trevor not killing the FIB agents right now?
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?
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” hypotheticalAnd then to make their point, show the bomb wasn’t real, or the information was unreliable, or the problem was otherwise solved through non-torture means, etc. Whatever. I’m against clumsy brute-force political allegory in general, but if you’re going to do it then at least do it properly..

Either torture this guy or turn the game off. Those are your options.
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.
  • Waterboarding.

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.
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 questionIf you’ve played through this mission before and you know ahead of time who you need to kill, then you can assassinate the guy after the first bout of torture without needing to endure the whole thing..

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.
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!
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.

 

Footnotes:

[1] And then to make their point, show the bomb wasn’t real, or the information was unreliable, or the problem was otherwise solved through non-torture means, etc. Whatever. I’m against clumsy brute-force political allegory in general, but if you’re going to do it then at least do it properly.

[2] If you’ve played through this mission before and you know ahead of time who you need to kill, then you can assassinate the guy after the first bout of torture without needing to endure the whole thing.



From The Archives:
 

112 thoughts on “Grand Theft Auto V: Torture Time With Uncle Trevor

  1. Kathryn says:

    Shamus, I can’t tell if you’re joking when you present being against torture as a controversial political position, but just in case you’re serious, I don’t think the debate was ever on whether torture is just A-OK. It was on whether specific techniques constitute torture. This obviously isn’t the place to have that discussion (and if you think there will be a derail, or if you were joking, feel free to go ahead and delete this whole paragraph, because I don’t want to get into it either). I just don’t think it’s fair to characterize the debate that way – it’s analogous to saying the debate over abortion is whether it’s OK to murder children.

    With regards to the game, what keeps you playing when you encounter a scene like this?

    1. Redrock says:

      Well, no, the debate was and is about whether torture is acceptable and when. Sure, the public face of the debate that officials engaged in was about waterboarding and stuff, of course. But the broader cultural and political debate is very much about whether you can, say, torture known terrorists if the information might save lives. And, bear in mind, any humanitarian arguments here go straight out of the window, because then you’re railroaded into weighting the suffering of a terrorist against the live of possible numerous victims and that’s a dead end. Which is why it’s so important that the argument against torture is made based on it’s effectiveness and capability to provide useful intel. Hence the whole Zero Dark Thirty controversy, for example.

      1. Kathryn says:

        Oh, I see, you see it as an offshoot of the larger centuries-old debate as to whether/when it is okay to use violence. Okay, that makes sense. I was thinking more narrowly.

        So to bring it back to a nerd topic, in that episode of Stargate Atlantis where Sheppard “strongly persuades” the bad guy to feed himself to Todd the Wraith so that he and Rodney could find a cure for the nanites gone rogue that were about to kill Rodney’s sister… That was the moment for me when Sheppard went from Chaotic Good to Chaotic Neutral. Because you could argue it was for the best, and the bad guy deserved it, and it’s not like Sheppard used physical force, etc….but I don’t think a Good person could do that.

        1. Nimas says:

          To be fair, as SFSebris pointed out, they actually sort of lost that a lot earlier. This is especially bad when you consider SG 1 had that great talk when Apophis was dying and asked them to cross the line and they refused in the face of massive benefits.

          1. RCN says:

            Yeah.

            But in fairness I blame 24 for making torture acceptable in television first, and worse, popular. Then I think every other producer (or at least the network executives) started demanding that the script writers of their shows write in torture scenarios so that their show would be taken seriously.

            Regardless of if it even works with the show’s greater message. Stargate always pushed the message Humans are worthy of the technological leap within the show because we wouldn’t abuse it out of desperation. We turn down great technology several times because we wouldn’t compromise with the MEANS of acquiring this technology. Heck, at the very first season of Atlantis they refuse to tap into an unlimited and clean energy source because it was harmful to a parallel universe.

            Then they decide it is ok to use torture to find out who is an infiltrated Goa’uld. And they sic RONON out of all people on an unarmed guy that’s PART OF THEIR EXPEDITION without much proof of anything. Ronon the savage who’s done horrible things to escape the wraiths and don’t see any lines in the means of survival (or, in the D&D jargon, a chaotic neutral). And it was played for laughs that the scientist fainted before Ronon could torture him.

            The weird thing is that Rodney is the only one who consistently criticized this approach. At least it showed that in the end, the jerkass scientist was the guy who wouldn’t cross a line while Shepard would.

    2. DanMan says:

      I believe the debate was two-fold. Is something like waterboarding torture and does the ends justify the means.

      I feel like this scene jumps directly to the does the end (getting information) justify the means (torture). But they miss what I feel is the reason everyone was OK with torture was there was some perceived guilt the the person being tortured. Or maybe that was the point in making him extra innocent. Just because you assume the Arab looking man with a turban is a Muslim terrorist doesn’t mean he’s not completely innocent.

      For me, I would have dropped this game at this scene. The only thing that would keep me going would be someone I trusted telling me the rest of the game was worth it. If, for instance, Shamus’ retrospective here talks about some overwhelming good in the later part of the game

    3. PPX14 says:

      With regards to the game, what keeps you playing when you encounter a scene like this?

      I know, as soon I saw the “rip off Hermes’ head” scene in God Of War III at a friend’s house, there was no way I was every going to play a God of War because I found it so disturbing.

      But I’m not sure I’ve played a game that has made me stop playing… maybe if I’d started it from the beginning I’d have continued. Really interesting question!

      1. The Nick says:

        I don’t necessarily ‘quit games’.

        Sometimes, this stuff happens and you just tune it out. Ignore it. Pretend it didn’t happen. Realize it is *dumb* and go around it. Try to extract the good while ignoring the bad since you know and understand why it’s bad.

        Fanfic a better plot!

        That’s how I get around it. It’s like the ‘Instead of doing plots, I’ll just see how big of a Wanted Level I can get before saving, quitting, and trying again tomorrow.’ You understand that the game is not explicitly encouraging murder rampages in real life. It’s the same thing, just less artful.

    4. top6 says:

      You couldn’t be more incorrect about the debate; many US politicians (including the President) have explicitly stated that torture is effective and works. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trump-says-torture-works-backs-waterboarding-and-much-worse/2016/02/17/4c9277be-d59c-11e5-b195-2e29a4e13425_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.f1ecca4ca4e5

      1. DerJungerLudendorff says:

        Many people would also say that those politicians (and especially the President) have a lot to gain by making those claims, and a lot to lose if they turn out wrong (since the US government is performing torture on some of it’s prisoners right now).

        1. Not to mention that politicians are hardly trained or experienced interrogators. Heck, sometimes they’ll even say flat out that they don’t even know what’s actually in the bill that they wrote. If someone can’t even be trusted to do their OWN job competently, how are you gonna believe that they’re an expert on OTHER topics?

          1. Vinsomer says:

            Exactly.

            Most of the people who say torture doesn’t work have experience in intelligence and psychology, something most politicians don’t.

            It helps to remember that politicians are only experts in one thing – getting into office.

            1. Adam says:

              From professional experience, I can assure you that politicians often do not even possess expertise in that. They hire campaign managers, whose responsibilities include the difficult trick of nixing their bosses’ many bad ideas.

    5. Mephane says:

      Same disclaimer, if this goes too far, Shamus, feel free to lock or delete this.

      it’s analogous to saying the debate over abortion is whether it’s OK to murder children.

      Not going to debate the matter at hand, but I have to point out that just these days the pope made this very comparison.

      1. MikeK says:

        True, but to restate Kathryn’s point, the debate over abortion is not (in most cases) over whether it’s acceptable to murder children but whether abortion is equivalent to the murder of a child (unsurprisingly, the pope asserts it is). Likewise, the debate around torture is typically not about whether the act of torture itself is generally acceptable.

        1. Kathryn says:

          You put that many times better than I did – thank you.

        2. Mousazz says:

          I do believe the two cases aren’t as equivalent as you say.
          The way I see it, society (usually) sees life as being more valuable than choice and self-determination. If one chooses to end or break a life, the only acceptable reasons seem to be to save lives (or to protect lives, secure lives, eliminate threats to life), or to punish some legally reprehensible actions (and even then most countries have abolished the death penalty).

          Following from that, torture is viewed as having the potential to save innocent lives. Therefore, in the societal consciousness, it seems valid to question whether it’s acceptable to torture people, even with implements widely agreed to constitute torture. On the other hand, an abortion is (usually) made only for the benefit and well-being of the parent(s). It would simply be considered by the majority to be wrong to kill a life for such reasons, which is why the abortion debate is focused on defining whether (and when) an unborn child is truly considered to be alive.

    6. kdansky says:

      The sad part is that “racism, murder, rape and torture are bad” is considered a controversial opinion nowadays, when it really should not be. I get that there are grey areas (the classic: torture someone to get the nuke coordinates), but the general concept of “this is bad” should not be controversial.

      1. kunedog says:

        The sad part is that “racism, murder, rape and torture are bad” is considered a controversial opinion nowadays, when it really should not be.

        No, that is not a controversial opinion, and you missed Kathryn’s point. The problem is that people (intentionally or not) portray actually controversial issues as simple ones, and then act they are only saying that “racism, murder, rape and torture are bad,” so obviously anyone who disagrees with their specific claims and remedies must be a racist, murderer, rapist, or torturer.

        Kathryn is spot on when she talks about abortion being counted as murder, and which interrogation techniques are counted as torture. We’ve also seen scientific studies portrayed as racism, and regret portrayed as rape.

        Stop assuming the worst in people, and handle complex issues on a case-by-case basis.

        1. Kathryn says:

          Yes. I was getting upset by the implication that I think murder, rape, and torture are just awesome, so I walked away from the thread, so thank you (and MikeK above) for restating the point.

          I read a very interesting report today, called “The Seven Hidden Tribes of America”, which groups Americans ideologically, but not by simple left/right. I’m walking to a meeting and it’s hard to summarize briefly, but I think it’s probably relevant to Shamus’s interests at least. Recommended.
          https://moreincommon.squarespace.com/hidden-tribes

        2. DavidJCobb says:

          I don’t have anything to say about Kathryn’s poimts, else I’d reply to her, but

          The problem is that people (intentionally or not) portray actually controversial issues as simple ones

          Equally many people do the opposite. Bad-faith arguments and the misrepresentation of ideas don’t all work or happen the same way; you can make an issue controversial by creating illusory complexity, just as you can make it controversial by ignoring real complexity.

          Stop assuming the worst in people, and handle complex issues on a case-by-case basis.

          You might apply this advice yourself.

          I’ll grant that tone can be ambiguous in text, but you sound to me like you felt called out and took something personally. You assumed the worst in who you were talking to, and gave an explanation that claims all situations are the same, before then ending your comment by talking down to them. Your comment seems like exactly the sort of conduct that the no-politics rule was meant to prevent.

  2. Redrock says:

    Shamus, while I totally agree that the whole scene sucks and that the fact that the guy is so willing to talk completely undermines any possible message there, I really don’t think torturing Agent Steve is a plausible option there. Because torturing the obviously bad guy would be immensely pleasant and satisfying, and nobody wants that. There really isn’t a good way to do this scene, I think.

    1. Shamus says:

      Oh, I agree. In fact, torturing Steve might even be MORE uncomfortable since it would feel like you’re “supposed” to enjoy it. I just meant that the setup was flimsy and required Trevor to act against expectations.

    2. DerJungerLudendorff says:

      But if we had to do obnoxious QTE’s every couple of seconds, while your control scheme was inverted at random intervals?
      And if you miss one you have to rewatch the whole cutscene (unskippable of course).

    3. trevalyan says:

      On the contrary, you could make the scene say whatever you wanted to say. Slapstick psychopathy for people who just want to watch an idiotic jerk get hurt. Trevor angrily screaming a lesson in empathy while menacing a government agent with a car battery, for farce lovers. Trevor calmly and coldly dropping the torture implements before saying how messed up the situation was, for drama nerds.

      There are literally dozens of options. Any one could have been included. I think it’s hilarious that we rely on moral guidance from a clear sociopath, but that just backs Shamus up. The game could have won kudos by being zany and violent with the Steven Prison Experiment, and instead lost by being conformist and dull-witted.

    4. Vect says:

      Well, Steve comes with the plot armor that Rockstar villains typically have. Aside from GTA V, the most explicit one I can think of is Gary from Bully. While I understand that actually murdering Gary is not an option in that game since he’s just a dipshit kid, the problem comes with the fact that even after he clearly establishes himself as the central antagonist Jimmy always leaves “go beat up Gary” in the backburner, allowing the little douche to go around and continue his schemes. Even when he’s standing around doing evil gloating, everyone just lets him do his thing.

      Gary also has Plot Competence in that despite the fact that he’s explicitly described as a despicable weasel hated by everyone in the school he’s able to everyone, including Jimmy early on.

  3. PPX14 says:

    the victim pleads with you to ask him questions because he’s already willing to talk … Even a pro-torture thinker will readily admit there is nothing to be gained from torturing this guy.

    I’m not sure that this is true – confession not necessarily being reliable, I think the premise is that under sufficient duress the person will stop lying (and the counter of course being that someone already telling the truth would similarly then start lying to say whatever it takes to stop the torture.)

    In fact isn’t that the point that they are making – that torture is pointless and useless as a means of interrogation?

    (Not that I claim their presentation of it is any good, I’m just commenting on that specific point)

    1. Jabrwock says:

      If they had the victim spout out the true target, and then under duress finger someone else just to get the torture to stop, that could work (they’ve documented cases where the torture victim invents a narrative to satisfy the torturers, because the torturers can’t reliably know what the “right” answer is, so they’ll inevitably bring bias into their judgement of when the victim has truly spilled the beans). But we never find out if the target named was what the victim actually knew.

    2. Asdasd says:

      This was very much my read on it as well. Not sure how Shamus missed it.

      1. Asdasd says:

        My apologies to Shamus for this glib response. Here’s what I tried to edit it to before running out of time:

        This was very much my read on it as well. If you start from the (perhaps charitable) premise that Rockstar’s writers deserve enough credit that they wouldn’t have missed the obvious contradiction Shamus points out (re. the ‘need’ to proceed with the torture, in light of the victim’s immediate willingness to cooperate), the question of why the torture then does proceed obviously implies some sort of doctrinal belief on the part of those ordering it. The most straightforward one being, as you say, that it’s the stress of enduring torture that elicits or guarantees truthful statements.

        The events that transpire then put that wisdom to the test, because as you say, there’s an inverse to the assumption that duress draws the truth out of a liar, which is that if you’re telling the truth and your reward is more torture there’s an equally strong incentive to tell lies in the hope that that will make the torture stop.

        Which is why I think this scene, nasty as it is, kind of works. It dovetails with the assassination mission quite neatly, in that Michael kills somebody on information that increases in volume (the number of statements goes up) but the factual content of each statement is completely unknowable.

        But Shamus is in the right that it has to be the ‘right’ somebody and you fail the mission if you make the hit. If the only requirement was that Michael shoot someone who fit the information he’d been given at the time, Rockstar’s message would actually have been stronger. They missed an open goal.

        Having established that the game then seems to put forward the question: well, if torture is a great way to generate information guaranteed quantity, but unknowable quality, why do the powers that be continue to employ it? It’s a question asked of everyone and no-one; the characters, the players, the Man, shouted into the wind. If it’s not a question of utility, is it an indulgence in gratuitousness? Is a function of the link between holding power and abusing it? Is it correlation or causation? When you strip it down, do some of us just like hurting people?

        1. Geebs says:

          Yeah, I’m pretty sure that this concept – that people have to be tortured even if they are already willing to talk – features heavily in the point of this scene.

    3. Dork angel says:

      I think it is because torture is also about punishment and the information is sometimes just the excuse. People who are okay with a “bad guy” being tortured (if they really admitted it to themselves) are okay with it because they feel he deserves it. The fact it might produce information is just a way to make it easier to justify it to themselves. In medieval times people who were traitors or tried to overthrow the monarch had terrible things done to them. Look at what the Mexican cartels do to people before killing them. Sometimes it isn’t about information, it’s about sending a message to anyone else who might want to try it.

      Torture only works for information if 1) the person actually knows the information and 2) if you have some way of immediately verifying the information. (e.g. what’s the combination to this safe)

      As an aside I never got why in films people cave in so randomly. “I’ll never tell!” (until you’ve cut off four of my fingers). Sod that, either you talk on the first finger or you accept they’re all coming off.

  4. Inwoods says:

    I hate this scene to the point I don’t play the game over it. But here we go…

    I think the FIB here is more than just the FBI, they are representing a side of America (that may only exist in Rockstar’s head.) The “joke” in this scene is more along the lines of (and I hate using this word, ugh) but “haha cucks are funny.” Yeah FIB doesn’t want to get their hands dirty, but the point is that they’re on this huge power trip about how manly torture is and how amazing it feels to hurt someone yet they literally don’t have the guts to do it themselves.

    So the “joke” (or moral) is that Americans love the idea of hurting weak people for almost no reason at all, but then they wouldn’t have the balls to do it themselves.

    The Trevor/airport thing is to try to smooth the players feelings after being forced through this scene, IMHO. All of it is preaching first story last.

    1. John says:

      I’ll admit, I’ve never heard this “GTAV torture scene is about cuckoldry” argument before. However, I don’t know how prevalent cuckoldry was even in online discourse. I remember it becoming a solidified meme by 2015, but by then the game had been out for 2 years.
      Perhaps it’s not about cuckoldry itself, but the idea of vicarious pleasure in general “I can’t do that anymore, old injury, but look at my kid, he’s amazing, and since he’s my kid I’m responsible for his success which means I get some credit!” Most people have encountered something like that.

    2. BlueHorus says:

      I wish people still used ‘cuck’ as an insult. It was wonderful in that it told you so much about the insecurities of the person doing the insulting – to the point it just wasn’t offensive. Just pathetic, to the point of being funny*.

      Though I’m not sure I get how this torture scene is related. So the FIB are not man enough to perform their own torture? Fine, that’s a point they could make…I guess.
      Are Rockstar supposed to be mocking people who use the word ‘cuck’ in this scenario, or are they mocking the ‘cucks’? (…whose wives are cheating on them because they’re not manly enough to torture someone**…or…something?)

      *Bonus points if they call you a beta cuck.
      ** ‘I’m dumping you so I can go out with the torturer!’ doesn’t sound like a thing that’s said very often.

      1. RFS-81 says:

        Wait, they don’t? I thought that was a relatively recent thing?

        1. Hector says:

          There was a recent habit of a certain quasi-political group who shall go unnamed to go around namecalling people who are nominally on the side “side” but decidedly against their ideology, methods, and goals.

          1. RFS-81 says:

            Well yes, that’s what I was talking about, but that was a relatively recent thing and I’m surprised that they stopped already, according to BlueHorus.

            1. BlueHorus says:

              I have no proof that people don’t use it – I just haven’t heard it in a while. That could well be linked to my decision to ditch Cracked.com a couple of years ago…
              …but then again internet slang tends to get old pretty fast* (and consider that ‘cuck’ really isn’t a very good insult to begin with) so I wouldn’t be surprised to hear it stopped being used outside of very particular corners of the Internet.
              You could probably find it in use if you went looking…

              *how often do you hear about pwning n00bs or HaXX0r 133tspeak nowadays?

      2. I know! I cleaned SO many people out of my Facebook list, it was great!

  5. eldomtom2 says:

    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.

    I didn’t really get that impression from the scene. I feel we’re meant to think “poor sod” rather than laugh.

    If you want to be really generous to the writers, you could assume that we’re not meant to consider Trevor taking Mr. K to the airport as the right thing to do, but rather something that Trevor does to satisfy himself as not complicit.

    1. Lars says:

      The last thing we “see” of him. Later we “hear” of him during a radio news. He’s now a best selling author in South America with his autobiography about the “bad” Americans torturing him.
      No more words about wife and kids. I usually like the radio news happening after big missions you did. It feels like you have made some impact on this gaming world. But this episode was really, really, really bad.

      And there is no way around it, except stop withe the story (generally a good advice in this game). But than half the game-world is lava and a lot of later content ist cut as well.

      1. eldomtom2 says:

        Do you have a source on that? I don’t remember any such news broadcast and I can’t find proof of its existence.

  6. Galad says:

    Well, if I ever needed a justification better than “not my cup of tea” about not wanting to play gta5, there’s one – has a pointless interactive torture scene in it. Thanks for letting me know! :)

    1. Philadelphus says:

      Yep—I had zero interest in playing it before. My interest in playing it is now in the negatives. I can barely handle reading about it here.

  7. Nixorbo says:

    I’ll be back to actually read the rest of the article later but

    “torture is bad”

    Only the spiciest of takes here at 20 Sided.

    1. Mephane says:

      It’s not about that opinion itself, but about stating it in the first place. Shamus has deliberately abstained from giving us his personal political opinions in exchange for us doing the same, and that strategy has indeed kept this site a very healthy place.

      1. MadTinkerer says:

        As a counter-example: Moviebob has the attitude that everyone who disagrees with his opinions aren’t as good as him and he makes this very explicit in his videos. Shamus doesn’t want even a hint of unintentionally coming off like this, for multiple reasons.

        And, well, I still read Shamus’ blog, and as of the Spiderman article I’ll even read his articles on The Escapist, but I unsubscribed from the Escapist’s Youtube channel in spite of Yahtzee still being on there…

        Actually, I just realized that’s the main problem: Moviebob treats his potential audience the way Yahtzee treats videogame publishers and developers. It’s fine for Yahtzee to roast developers, even Indie developers, not just because he actually is an Indie dev himself, but in practical terms they’re not his main potential audience. Moviebob is a hipster* who wants geeks to pay him to roast geeks and, ethics aside, that’s just not a viable business model.

        So, anyway: I unsubbed from The Escapist, not because they re-hired Moviebob, but because I watched the first three videos he produced for them after coming back and he’s more abusive to his potential audience than ever before. Somehow. Meanwhile, Shamus is smart enough to realize people will give him more money if he avoids pissing them off even accidentally.

        You know, I don’t even understand why The Escapist is currently contracting Shamus and Moviebob at the same time. It really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

        *He claims to like things that geeks like, even identifies as one, but still thinks he’s better than them. That doesn’t actually make sense, no matter how much he thinks it does. Unless it means that in his own mind he’s actually not a geek but something else. Thus: hipster. (Or crazy person. But he seems too competent to be crazy. Thus: hipster.)

        EDIT: Okay, that’s it, I can’t comment here right after I’ve had coffee. Need to do something else until the buzz dies down.

        1. JakeyKakey says:

          I think it’s a bit innacurate to claim Bob isn’t a nerd, but a hipster. You talk about geeks paying him to roast geeks, but I posit that there are roughly two schools/groups/generations of nerds:

          The first ones are your 80’s style stereotypical Revenge Of The Nerds social outcasts that used to be genuinely ostracized for not conforming to the social and cultural norms at the time. You get the idea.

          The second group is the generation that grew up just as “nerd culture” started going mainstream. While there’s still some degree of looking down on the most stereotypical of “neckbeards”, most of the former nerd hobbies have either lost their loser stigma or became outright “cool”. Everyone watches MCU films, video games are seen as a normal past time, even D&D and tabletop are at their all time peak. These people will proudly and unironically claim to be nerds, unaware of the fact it wasn’t originally a term anyone would personally go by.

          Inevitably you end up getting a lot of tension – Group #2 likes to look down on Group #1 due to their tenendcy to be heavily misanthropic and maladjusted with regards to evolving culture, while Group #1 hates Group #2 and sees a lot of them as former cool kids and would-be bullies who are only now latching onto hobbies and interests they would previously ostracize others for participating in.

          Thus I’ve always pictured Bob as a very self-hating #1, desperately trying to distance himself from that image in order to fit in with #2.

    2. Viktor says:

      I know a significant number of people IRL who consider torture morally acceptable as long as it’s against “the right people”. Notably, guilt doesn’t enter into the discussion, since they don’t mind the chance the person is innocent. The person just has to be potentially guilty of terrorism and they’re fine with anything, because “those people” deserve it.

      So yes, saying “Torture is always bad” is absolutely a controversial political stance.

      1. Distec says:

        Just to clarify something here: the original statement was “torture is bad”, not “torture is always bad”. I’d wager that most people disapprove of torture in a general, default sense. But they could certainly envision scenarios where they’d possibly allow (or even commit) it themselves if were deemed absolutely necessary.

        From my perspective, the stance on torture you describe these people having does not seem particularly well represented in the majority of discourse I’ve witnessed revolving around this topic. But then I’m not all sure what “the right people” is supposed to mean here; although I can make a few guesses.

        1. RCN says:

          Have Brazil. Here the argument ABSOLUTELY is that “torture against the right people is good”.

          You see, we went through an anti-communist dictatorship from the 60s to the 80s (one of those the US backed all around south america at the slightest whiff of “they don’t support our hegemony over the continent, therefore they are commies”). Thing is, they didn’t leave because of popular demand or a counter-insurrection. They stepped down because of international pressure (a self-declared dictatorship is bad) and an economic meltdown (because they relied on NAFTA too much and then NAFTA started demanding its payback). Thing is, the dictatorship did horrible crimes against humanity, but when it stepped down it first burned down every document they had on their crimes (it took about three years) and only accepted to step down if the constitution of the new government didn’t allow them to be investigated under any circumstance (the amnesty law, amnesty to our enemies who fled the country under false accusations and amnesty for us for torturing and killing a bunch of our own citizens).

          So we had no dictatorship anymore (HOORAY!)… but the torturers and officials of the dictatorship not only kept their posts in our military and police, we are not allowed to investigate them, accuse them, or prosecute them, ever (hooray…?). And they’re allowed to keep telling their friends, families and subordinates their version of the story.

          So… how does it work now? If you try to tell someone who liked being in power during the dictatorship that the dictatorship is bad, they bark back “that’s communist propaganda. It wasn’t a dictatorship it was a military junta. We had vote (not for president, and you had only one political party) and the streets were safe. We could protect ourselves from the communist terrorists. And all these people they killed and hurt a little were just communists, terrorists and scum that deserved it very much.”

          I won’t get into the details of how the torture was done because it is really unpleasant. But here? Totally acceptable because everyone who was against the government were scum who deserved it, apparently.

          1. Distec says:

            Yeah, I realize in retrospect that I was only considering the US; or broadly the West in general. Bad oversight on my end.

            1. Syal says:

              Even in the US, right after 9/11 there was a pretty big “we should torture the bad guys” faction. Don’t know how many there are right now, but I’d bet if we got attacked again the debate would flare back up.

  8. Roofstone says:

    I think the argument that they should kill, dispose off, torture, whatever, Steve, falls flat. Because the game explicitly says that he and his team is under a enormous microscope due to their corruption, and that if he were to suddenly die there would be an investigation that would lead to a lot of people, including our protagonists, failing.

    True, this is only told to Michael, but it is pretty safe to assume that Michael told Trevor and Franklin this info as well.

    Trevor is a psychopath, but he also values his friends over everything else, even when they oppose each other, so he probably would hold himself back based on that.

    1. DerJungerLudendorff says:

      They should have made that explicit then.

      And from what I can tell that happens in the Michael story right? Isn’t there a big interval of Trevor stuff between that and the torture scene, meaning that players could have easily forgotten about such a fairly roundabout and convoluted threat?

      It also seems a bit weird that Trevor would restrain himself and let some twat boss him around because of a government corruption investigation. Wouldn’t he just try to help his friends shoot their way out of that one?

      1. Roofstone says:

        I agree on all points. It is not made very obvious that that is in fact a pretty big problem, at least for Michael and possibly Franklin, and it only gets mentioned once in the passing rather than being an actual point. Which is a great disservice to the story telling.

        I just wanted to get out there that there is a pretty good reason as to why they can’t just shoot him twice in the back of the head and then go out and have a pizza party, problem solved.

  9. ccesarano says:

    I really enjoyed this overview, though given your tweets on the matter and earlier blog posts hinting towards it you found it pretty painful to experience. So firstly, I appreciate you having to get squeamish in order to write this up. When the game first came out the gist I got from all the different articles was “This is so offensive because torture is bad and Trevor is a disgusting character”. From your write-up, this take-away baffles me because even if Trevor is clearly hard to sympathize with, he’s not the reason this season is so awful. In fact, I think he’s completely the wrong person for this scene. You already noted the reasons his character wouldn’t want to be involved, but I feel like for the point they’re trying to make it would have been better to have Michael or Franklin be the one forced to do the torture. Let the character express the discomfort of the player to help make it clear what the game’s messaging is supposed to be.

    Aside from making a political statement, I can only wonder if part of the reason this scene exists is because of No Russian in Modern Warfare 2. “Hey, we can top that, easily!” And if the goal was to make people uncomfortable, they certainly did. But as weak as I find No Russian to be and question its purpose, Infinity Ward at least had a more cohesive concept and execution than Rockstar does here.

  10. Mr. Wolf says:

    I can think of one other character that appears to be “innocent” (or rather, moral). The Mexican-San Andrean man that Trevor meets on the Minuteman sidequests, who talks Trevor down a peg and manages to get him to do a sort-of-noble deed for once.

    So that makes two characters who aren’t completely reprehensible! Doesn’t that give you a warm fuzzy feeling?

    1. DerJungerLudendorff says:

      If it get’s any more fuzzier it could beat out a box of kittens falling over into other tiny boxes.

      Presumably beat them with a baseball bat, but hey, baby steps.

  11. Joshua says:

    As far as making political points goes, I’ve always been of the mind that “Torture should be illegal for U.S. agents in ALL cases”. If the agent *really* feels that the torture is necessary and reliable to obtain information that will save lives (think your standard “24” scenario, then I would imagine they would take the consequences of committing an illegal act to save lives. Do we really think that an agent is going to be “Welp, if I torture this guy I will definitely obtain information that shows me where the nuclear bomb is so I can stop Paris from being nuked. But, I don’t want to lose my job or maybe go to jail over this, so, Au Revoir Paris.”

    1. Viktor says:

      That’s where I am. If you think torture is necessary, fine. But there should be major consequences, unavoidable ones, for anyone who does torture someone. If you’re willing to go to jail for 10-15 years to torture someone, then clearly this is major info and there’s no other options. If you aren’t, then clearly torture isn’t necessary.

      1. Joshua says:

        To turn this back to geekier subjects, that’s why I was more Pro Accords for Civil War (Tony’s poor rationalizations and Secretary Ross’s BS notwithstanding). People made arguments about “What if a situation occurred where you wanted to go into X country for dire reasons and the country wouldn’t let you in?”. Well, at that point you can choose to go in anyway, just knowing that you’re going to face consequences afterwards for breaking the rules. If the Avengers or a similar group violate some country’s sovereignty to deal with some perceived threat, do you think it’s going to make a difference whether they signed the Accords or not (as in, they get a pass if they did not sign?). It will, however, give them pause about doing a violation willy-nilly and require them to think about whether the threat is large enough to justify the consequences for violation.

  12. BlueHorus says:

    That sounds…every bit as bad, dumb and stupid as I feared. In an effort to make it ‘better’:

    JUST DON’T PUT IT IN THE GAME YOU NUMPTIES
    1) Have the guy be an actual ‘bad guy’, who IS withholding information. Because that’s the opinion that’s up for debate/discussion. Present the argument for torture well, at least at first.
    1a) Maybe they think this guy took the superweapon that Trevor stole? That’d be a twist.

    2) (Maybe) have the FIB just lie to you about the point of it all. ‘Oh, we’ve known what he said for ages. I just enjoyed watching him squeal.’

    3) (Maybe) make it so the player can fail, by not torturing well enough. You don’t get paid, the FIB don’t get their information, you get a Mission Failed screen… but the game goes on. Interesting to see see how many players would care.

    4) Make the FIB agents more likeable/professional, and possibly too squeamish to do it themselves. Then the final line of the mission can be them discussing Trevor: ‘We should be arresting that guy, not paying him. I get that it was necessary, but working with someone like that….’
    or ‘Who just does something like that?’ *meaningful look at camera*

    …all of which would actually say something worth a damn. Or coherent, at a minimum.

    1. shoeboxjeddy says:

      Point 4 would be an incredible bout of hypocrisy if they tried that. “Hey, PLAYER. How DARE you engage with the mandatory main story mission that we told you to do! Are you some kind of sicko???”

      1. PhoenixUltima says:

        That was basically the whole point behind Spec Ops: The Line, and I feel that game was not only good, but genuinely necessary. I think we need the occasional game to say “hey, these games you like are actually kinda disturbing when you really think about them, and so is the fact that you keep playing them anyway. Are you OK?”

        1. Corsair says:

          We really don’t. Deconstruct shitty stories all you like, but don’t try to make it out like I’m some kind of bad guy or damaged because I enjoy some particular brand of media or another. We got enough of that kind of bullshit from the Moral Guardians.

        2. BlueHorus says:

          But Spec Ops did it well. It was making a point about an entire genre of games – up to and including being an example of that genre. It built up to its point, and the criticism was the entire point of the story…
          …and a lot of people complained about it for exactly what shoeboxjeddy said. Telling you off for doing what the game made you do.

          Meanwhile, that message done by the GTA franchise (incidentally a crime sandbox game), with the classic subtlety and nuance we’ve come to expect would be…different.

          To clarify: it would be shit. But it would be coherent.

          1. eldomtom2 says:

            As a side note, I think Undertale manages to do the whole “criticize the player for not switching the game off” thing a lot better. But then again it does give you a choice, and it’s aiming its sights towards a mentality rather than a genre.

            1. Droid says:

              That mentality being “game mechanics are there to be interacted with”?

              1. galacticplumber says:

                “Going for everything will make you happy instead of miserable.” Compulsions toward completionism are dangerous.

              2. BlueHorus says:

                Well, you get told off for killing some of the NPCs in Undertale (AKA the Neutral ending). ‘Maybe those monsters had families, think about what it means to hit something with a knife.’ Nothing to bad, and leads you towards the Good ending.

                You have to reeeaaaally go out of your way and kill everything to have the game do something permanent. And, of course, the Good ending is quite clear that you can – and should – leave it there.

                1. eldomtom2 says:

                  The (light) criticism of killing NPCs in Undertale also works because the character – not just the player – can try and try again until they find a way to get through things without killing anyone.

        3. galacticplumber says:

          We really don’t. Games are a form of consumable art that people buy for the purpose of enjoying.

          This doesn’t work as intended when the game deliberately lies to its consumers.

          Why is this important? If you want to shout at me for engaging in a hobby YOU should be paying ME for MY TIME. I shouldn’t be paying for this “privilege.”

        4. shoeboxjeddy says:

          There’s some important differences between Spec Ops and the scene as described. If GTA criticized the player for all the typical things you do in a GTA game, that would be fair play. The player had some expectation that they’d be doing those things and bought the game for that purpose. However, “realistic torture simulation” is unexpected gameplay that’s new to GTA as a series. Inventing a brand new mechanic, putting it in the critical path of the main storyline, and then criticizing the player for doing it is just bizarre entrapment. That’d be like if Forza Horizon 4 suddenly had a mission where you HAD to run over nuns, then the radio went off on the player for killing nuns when the whole thing was sort of a non sequitur to the usual activities in the game.

          Meanwhile, Spec Ops has criticisms for MANY things, and most of them are not the player. For example, Walker as a try hard military hero is critiqued in many ways by the story, as is the guy you’re after, Konrad. These criticisms can also be seen as a criticism for military adventurism in general, such as that seen in Iraq. The player is also criticized for engaging in the “realistic military shooter” genre, but that was the advertised genre of the game. It’s fair play to say “hey, want to play an exciting game where you kill hundreds of people in a foreign country?” and then follow that up with “Uh… why do you want to do that? Do you… think that that is an okay fantasy to have? What if you weren’t killing foreigners, but your ‘own’ troops, the ones you’re constantly being told to support? Does that change your mind? If not, why?”

  13. ElementalAlchemist says:

    I do have to wonder if in this series you are ascribing far too much credit to supposed authorial intent, which probably explains why you find it so jarringly off-target.

    1. Viktor says:

      But that’s sort of the point. “What is this game trying to say, and what does it actually say?” You can’t really discuss art without asking those 2 questions. And sometimes the answer to 1 is “nothing” and 2 is “vaguely-status quo-supporting gibberish”, but there’s always answers, and those answers underpin the question of “does this communicate with the consumer effectively”, which is what Shamus usually seems to focus on.

      1. ElementalAlchemist says:

        I guess my point was that Shamus is arguing from an assumption that “the writer” was trying to convey a message or make a statement about torture. I don’t necessarily agree that was the case, and is in fact giving them too much credit. I think they put it in simply because similar scenes were in a bunch of movies they watched (and as Shamus has pointed out, the whole game is aping various movies), waterboarding was a hot button topic at the time, and because brutally torturing someone is right up the alley of a significant portion of their playerbase. There’s also the shock value of it for marketing purposes, which clearly worked given we are still talking about it half a decade later.

  14. Redrock says:

    This might be an unpopular opinion, but the thing that bothers me most about this scene is how stupid and nonsensical it is, and not the torture itself. Games are violent. GTA is violent. Very few people are bothered by violence in action games, even though a lot of it is sadistic to various degrees. Just yesterday I saw an article debating whether fire or poison is the upgrade to use in AC: Odyssey. The author settled on fire because they liked the flailing and the screaming. A lot of straight-up action games go out of their way to portray the violence as painful to the victims, not just brutally efficient. Batman and Sam Fischer both torture people. I’d never choose to hurt an innocent in an RPG where there’s choice. But a game railroading me into violence, often sadistic violence? That’s not really anything new, is it? So I can’t really understand the moral outrage a lot of people exhibit towards this particular scene. The esthetic outrage at the butchered writing and ham-fisted pseudo-preaching I get and wholeheartedly support.

    1. Karma The Alligator says:

      The problem, as I see it, is with the rather cartoony approach to violence GTA (or games in general) has when contrasted to one of the worst thing you can do as a human being to another human being. It’s kind the same thing as rape, there’s a reason it doesn’t come up a lot, no matter how violent a game is.

      1. RFS-81 says:

        RedRock, I don’t really see moral outrage about the torture scene, at least on here. People just find it disgusting and uncomfortable. The emotional response that people have to fiction doesn’t necessarily line up with how bad the depicted behavior is.

        Tone just matters a lot. If a game goes from over-the-top violence to a relatively grounded, realistic torture scene, then it’s not surprising if the torture bothers people more. For comparison, it doesn’t bother me one bit if Bayonetta shoves an angel…bird…creature…thing into an iron maiden that she just pulled out of hammer space. If she started pulling teeth out of some helpless guy with pliers, I’d find that very uncomfortable.

        1. Redrock says:

          Yeah, I get the idea behind that argument, but I can’t fully understand the sentiment. A lot of modern action games allow you to, for example, kill your enemies with fire, with all the agonized screams, writhing and flailing one might expect. Death by burning is not a good way to go. If given the option, one might very well choose to have a tooth pulled or be zapped by a car battery instead of burning to death. But burning people is A-OK. So are all the unnecessarily nasty moves Batman uses on mooks. So the problem is not the violence, nor the degree of suffering and pain inflicted. The problem is the chair with the straps. That’s it. Even though, the way games are built, the mooks Batman takes apart or the ones you burn with your flaming sword in AC are effectively as helpless against you as if they were all strapped down to a torture rack. And that’s interesting to me, just how powerful that arbitrary distinction is for some people.

          1. Syal says:

            The chair implies there was already a fight, and you already won it. Mooks in Batman or AC will try to fight you if they see you, they won’t just stand there. Doesn’t matter if they’re not a threat, they still intend to be a threat. The chair is the equivalent of picking up the body of an unconscious mook in order to do another brutality move.

            Length is another factor I’m sure. The average mook dies in a few seconds

            Then games like Batman and Yakuza where “the hero never kills anyone” have the wonderfully dumb dissonance between what the game says is happening and what is very obviously happening on-screen. Hero shot a helicopter out of the sky, or stabbed a guy in the heart? They’re fiiine, nothing hurt but their pride.

    2. BlueHorus says:

      I kind of agree, but that’s how people are; irrational. Though as Karma pointed out, it’s about the way volence is depicted – showing the full effect of it does make it less pleasent. Usually if a game goes into that kind of detail, they have a clear reason, like TWD or Heavy Rain.

      Something better about your average AssCreed game: it doesn’t seem to be ‘saying’ anything.
      They’ll make their violence fun, make it empowering, and they’ll put in some story to make the player feel like a Good Guy…
      …but they’re games and they don’t pretend to be more than that.
      The pretension exhibited by GTA, the way it acts like it’s got Stuff To Say – and then says something dumb – makes it worse, at least for me.

      1. Redrock says:

        The pretension exhibited by GTA, the way it acts like it’s got Stuff To Say – and then says something dumb – makes it worse, at least for me.

        Oh, absolutely. That’s my entire point. The scene sucks for a number of reasons, not least because it’s blisteringly stupid while trying to sound smart. I’m just surprised that a lot of people are squeamish when it comes to this scene, while presumably being ok with a lot of videogame violence that explicitly emphasizes actual pain and agony of the player’s victims. Obviously, my argument doesn’t cover people who dislike realistic violence in games on a general basis.

        1. Kathryn says:

          >>Obviously, my argument doesn’t cover people who dislike realistic violence in games on a general basis.

          *raises hand* I’ll Firaga hypermuscular, hyperaggressive dingo-wolf things into a pretty shower of colorful motes all day long, but give them blood and I’m out. I’m not the target audience for GTA or shooters at all.

          (I even feel bad attacking those little bunnies in FFXII, but I’m a completionist, and the bestiary cannot be denied…)

          1. Nimrandir says:

            Hey — another fan of FFXII!

            I had to make an active break from completing the bestiary because the game was eating too much of my time. Well, that and my complete lack of interest in fighting however many of those fargin’ mandragoras were required to fill in their entries.

  15. JohnnyComeLately says:

    Either I’m misunderstanding or you’ve gotten the context a bit wrong on the torture is for the torturer bit. While it is true that this can serve as a criticism of the government in that torture is ultimately something that awful people do for fun in universe I think it’s supposed to be the justification for why Trevor tortured the guy: he finds it fun. He’s put off and ultimately decides to help the guy not because he’s morally against torture but feels it’s hypocritical for the FIB guy to paint this picture of himself as fighting for american values or whatever when he just wants to torture the dude like he was doing prior to you getting there.

  16. DeadlyDark says:

    Shamus, tell us honestly – how many times in this article you typed FBI instead of FIB?

  17. Oliver says:

    “Either torture this guy or turn the game off. Those are your options.” They are indeed the choices and, weighing them up at the time, I ended up turning the game off.

    I later went back to complete any other available missions to see if there was a no-torture option, started the mission itself again to look for a workaround, but no. The writer had decided players MUST perform torture, and so I decided I was no longer a player.

  18. Cubic says:

    I felt this particular mission was too hamfisted in its presentation, but there are many GTA missions that are kind of gruesome and drawn out. For example, GTA Vice City has an optional mission where you assassinate some poor woman by slamming her car over and over while she cries for help and tries to escape. Or the portapotty mission in GTA:SA, for that matter.

    I thought the worst Trevor-part was when he arrives in SA and shacks up with a pair of yuppies he knows. Then over a number of cut scenes the apartment just turns worse and worse and it’s heavily implied (at the least) that at some point first the woman and then the man have been killed by our friend. I don’t recall that it’s shown explicitly though, but it’s been a few years now.

    1. Guest says:

      You’re correct, and the game implies that Trevor has been sleeping in the mans (His friend’s cousin IIRC) bed and likely assaulted him sexually. It’s not given the same focus as the torture scene, so it’s not as controversial, but for me, that was definitely the lowest part. The guy is presented as thoroughly emasculated and henpecked, gets pushed around by Trevor, who he does a lot of huge favors for, is abused in horrible fashion, and then killed off, and most of it is played for comedy.

    2. PPX14 says:

      I saw some of those cutscenes and found it horrifying, I’m glad someone mentioned them.

  19. Viktor says:

    So, after thinking about it, here’s how I’d make this scene:
    Rules:
    We want to say that torture is bad.
    We want the gameplay of this section to be fun.
    (Ideally we also care about story cohesion and character arcs, but those are clearly a lost cause so I’m sticking to fixing this one scene)

    To show that it’s bad, we can:
    Make the torture viscerally unpleasant(conflicts with gameplay being fun)
    Have characters we agree with condemn it/Characters we disagree with approve of it(may come across as moralizing)
    Show it being ineffective

    To keep it fun, we must:
    Not morally condemn the player
    Keep player input relevant
    If possible, provide choice
    Create an interesting system or reuse an existing one
    No long-term severe consequences. (A random battle or cash reward is fine, gameplay penalties like shaky aim beyond one mission are not)

    So, first off, one of the PCs is the one being tortured. This sets up the player as automatically opposing the torturer, which is good all around. It’s also good if, though you have the info they want, the char is innocent of whatever specific crime they’re accused of. You know where the stolen weapons are because you killed the guy who stole them, but you didn’t kill the torturing agent’s partner during the theft, that sort of thing.

    Step one, we make it possible to fail the sequence. You lose something minor if you do, but if the torturer gets the info he wants, you get attacked later or lose cash or something. Now, I’m an RPG player at heart, so I’m going with a dialogue tree* here. Guy asks questions, you respond. You can spill instantly(failure), lie for a while then spill(failure), hold out until escape becomes possible, trick him with false info, or spill the beans at a point where he doesn’t believe you and then hold to that until escape**. The actual scenes of torture are QTEs(yes, I know, but nothing else works). The guy asks you a question, you respond, then he waterboards you/beats you/etc. These should be viscerally gross sequences. If you succeed the QTE, you’re mostly fine. Fail it or do the final button-mash badly, your char starts coughing blood etc. Every time you shake/cough/moan, the cursor bounces to the “tell all” button, making it possible to accidentally spill. Don’t answer quickly enough, the guy gets frustrated and repeats the previous torture, meaning you do the QTE again just to reach the same point in the convo but with more damage. Otherwise, you get to pick a response depending on your strategy to get through this.

    Eventually, guy goes to move you(either after you spill and his boss leaves with the info, you trick him and his boss leaves with the fake info, or to really torture you and his boss leaves to maintain deniability) and you break free. After an easy*** hand-to-hand fight, you get the agent down. Now you can either snap his neck or pick a tool to torture him yourself, which will be played as just as disgusting as the previous section. If you decide to torture him, Trevor comments approvingly on it later, in a way that makes it clear Trevor is wrong.

    Pros: Shows torture not working, sets the player in opposition to torture, uses existing mechanics(QTEs) to do something different from what’s been done before, likely doesn’t piss the player off, has an interesting set of options to reflect individual players and their decisions, shows torture as viscerally disgusting.
    Cons: Not sure if this would be fun, the dialogue puzzle is probably not something GTA players would like, still disgusting.

    Is this good? Not sure. Is it better than the current mess? Definitely.

    *Options are, generally: Tell all, lie, “Go to hell”, mislead.
    **Actual endstates are: Spilled the beans, tricked him, held out. The details of how are irrelevant.
    ***Maybe have this depend on how much damage you took in the QTEs? I don’t want people to do the whole torture scene twice no matter what, but someone who really sucked could end up stuck in a nearly unwinnable fight.

  20. Duhad says:

    Okay, NOT trying to make a political statement OR defend this scene as it was what got me to quit the game on my own play thru (I just could not get thru it), BUT I think you misunderstood what the Trevor line about “Torture is for the torturer or their boss” line was meant to convey.

    The point is not, “Their sadistic and getting off to it”, but rather, “Its unreliable and shitty, BUT it lets them THINK their hard men making hard choices to get the job done and allows them to live the fantasy of being cool headed pragmatists saving their nation by being just so damn HARD CORE.” Obviously, Trev being Trev, their IS a sexual element to it, getting into the idea of literately getting off to pain in a BDSM sort of way, but I think what the writer was trying to get at is the notion that torturing someone for information is a bit like a corporate boss demanding changes be made to improve productivity on a micro level that actually just get in the way. Its unhelpful and its stupid, but it lets the people in power feel like their making a difference.

    Again let me be clear about this, I AM NOT MAKING THIS ARGUMENT MYSELF! I am JUST saying that I THINK this was the intention of the writer who penned this conversation between Trev and the victim.

    Not trying to argue about the politics of torture, just the intent of the writer.

    1. BlueHorus says:

      Okay.
      So Agent Steve and the FIB are torturing a guy to – basically – feel like they’re Doing Something, or Making The Tough Calls To Protecting Their Country, etc. Emphasised by the fact the guy will talk but they torture him anyway.
      And they can’t even be bothered/don’t want to torture the guy themselves, hence hiring Trevor to act out their fantasy for them.
      That’s…coherent, at least. Dumb, infantile, and it says nothing at all about the ethics of torture*…but coherent.

      *Well shit, game. You’re right. Torturing people for stupid, selfish reasons is wrong. If someone like Agent Steve actually existed, he WOULD be an asshole.
      Glad you made me play through a torture mini-game for that!

      1. One of Lois McMaster Bujold’s books has a great line about people getting so hypnotized by “hard choices” that they stop even looking for other options.

        Nowadays whenever I hear someone talking about making “hard choices”, I want to kick them.

      2. Guest says:

        I think you might have just come up with the best answer to the scene in general.

        Scene: “Torture is bad!”
        Player: “Well shit, game. You’re right. Torturing people is wrong. Glad you made me play through a torture mini-game for that!”

        I mean, that’s really it for me. Nothing they have to say there is worth the combination of a boring mission, with bad DIAS nonsense, and having to play through crappy minigames where you mutilate the only sympathetic character in the room. The problem has never been that you can’t show edgy content or torture, it’s that it’s just so damn trite. It’s saying nothing you haven’t heard before, so the scene is just pure edgelord nonsense.

  21. Mersadeon says:

    Now, I agree with all other parts of this entry and I’ll try to stay away from politics with this, but I really have to disagree with 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.

    Now, Trevor’s dialogue may be stupid in detail – I don’t know (I frankly could not stomach the relentless cynicism and shittiness in this game and thus never got this far). But the broad point that “torture is for the benefit of the torturer, not to gain information” is absolutely a valid point. The part you, Shamus might have gotten wrong is that you assumed this meant the individual torturer. Of course it’s not about that individual. It’s not about the guards at, say, Guantanamo Bay getting off on torture (although I am sure quite a few of them do in some way), but it is still about the benefit to the torturer: the torturer as a class of people, as a group. The exact benefit to this group can be varied and getting to far into this would certainly violate the no politics rule, but in my opinion either the game botches this basic explanation (not surprising considering how incompetent the scene apparently is) or you misread it.

  22. evileeyore says:

    On the point of torture… Shamus I’ll tell you whatever you want to know, please don’t put pop-out comments on the far right edge of the screen…

    https://i.imgur.com/tLHjlxt.png

  23. Yes, the FIB has leverage over Michael. But they have no such leverage over Trevor.

    Leverage over Michael is leverage over Trevor. It doesn’t absolve the scene of its dissonance completely mind, but it is something that has been firmly established by that point. But regarding that first part:

    Furthermore, if this was true then the FIB would have wanted to torture this guy themselves and not outsource the job.

    Except this isn’t the FIB. None of what they are doing is sanctioned by the government. There’s an entire shootout near the end of the game that revolves around this fact. Hell, at one point this agent has them attack the FIB building itself in order to cover up how illegitimate this all is! It’s a brazenly thin and blanket justification for why they have Michael and Friends jump through all these hoops, but again, it is still a justification nonetheless.

    The scene still doesn’t work for a lot of reasons mentioned and unmentioned, but those two particular ‘plot holes’…well, are not.

  24. This discussion reminded me of the whole Forsworn quest line in Skyrim, because the Forsworn quest involves doing stupidly unpleasant things for no good reason if you want to finish it. Also, basically everyone involved in that quest line is a colossal jerk.

    It was one of the few times in a game that I went Full Murderhobo, rejected the premise of the quest, and murdered LITERALLY EVERYONE. It was surprisingly satisfying, too, because if you time it right (at the final confrontation when you escape from the jail/mine), you can get both sides to give you stuff for “helping” them and then butcher BOTH of them and the guards do NOTHING ABOUT IT. And the quest is actually completed. Granted, it’s pretty clear from the way the confrontation is written that you’re supposed to feel all conflicted because you wound up supporting at least one bad guy, but I came out feeling pretty good about myself and my choices. :P

    There were actually quite a few quests in Skyrim where I ended up doing something like that. If you do Molag Bal’s quest you pretty much have to torture that priest of Boethiah to get the stupid quest out of your quest log, IIRC. But, in that case, he IS a priest of Boethiah, and they murder people to prove how badass they are, so really you’re just transferring the guy from Boethiah’s vile worship to Molag Bal’s vile worship. :P

    Skyrim was kinda weird. In some of the “evil” quests they give you a perfectly functional “out” that lets you complete the quest in a “goodish” way. And in some, they don’t. And, notoriously, they TRAP you into the stupid Thieves Guild questline and don’t even give you an OPTION to get that stupid thing out of your quest journal any other way.

    1. aradinfinity says:

      With Molag Bal’s quest in particular, you can fail it by killing the priest before he gets to the spooky house- that makes both Boethiah and Molag Bal unhappy, and it gets the quest out of your log.

    2. BlueHorus says:

      It’s the best way to deal with that Forsworn quest. Partly because both sides are jerks who try to push you around, and partly because the message is so shallow and ham-fisted that it’s annoying.

      And Skyrim’s Thieves’ Guild quest! That was amazing. While Shamus has already said a lot about how dumb it is, I think it’s worth pointing out how great it is when the members of the THIEVES Guild finally check their vault* and are horrified to find out that their leader (of the THIEVES Guild)…has been stealing from them!!!!!
      One of those ‘I HAVE QUESTIONS’ moments. Just so many questions. That lead to other questions.

      Somebody on the writing staff couldn’t be bothered to think this organization through.

      *WHY DO THEY HAVE ONE

  25. ElementalAlchemist says:

    Shamus: I know you have already written this series, but something worth considering as a small addendum (and something of a nice “upper” as counterpoint to all the failings and issues with the game) is an overview of some of the modding that goes on with the PC versions of GTA. A good example is something like LSPDFR, which turns the game into a police officer simulator. Playing a game where you spend most of your time driving around giving people speeding tickets is not my cup of tea at all, but it’s crazy how much stuff they have added to the game. The implementation looks a bit ropey in places, but the scope is impressive nonetheless.

    https://www.lcpdfr.com/lspdfr/index/

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P8HBIqSG1rU

  26. WWWebb says:

    Most game reviewers mentioned that mandatory torture was a thing (in big, bold letters) when the game came out. So I didn’t (and never will) buy the game. What I could never figure out is how this game didn’t get an Adults Only rating from the ESRB. This sounds like it’s pretty clearly “prolonged scenes of intense violence”. If mandatory interactive torture of a screaming victim doesn’t count, what does? It sounds like this ticks all the other boxes of strong language, sexual situations, substance abuse, etc. so I can’t really understand the rating in this case.

    Anyone remember any discussions of how this kept its M rating at the time?

    1. Droid says:

      I’d say at this point it’s very obviously cash.

    2. eldomtom2 says:

      Corruption. The ESRB is self-regulation by the industry, and there’s all sorts of reasons why GTA V could thus basically do whatever it wanted.

      1. Droid says:

        Wait, you’re telling me the people most partial about getting their own stuff distributed to everyone and their competitor’s games not seen at all are in charge of ESRB ratings? How was that ever a good idea?

        1. Guest says:

          Well, it wasn’t intended that way. Basically moral panics over video games, like music, were heading towards censorship of some sort. To preempt that happening through a government body, like say, how it worked in Australia, with political appointees making the decisions, like the comics industry before them, games publishers formed the ESRB to self-regulate.

          Of course, it turns out letting an industry regulate itself is open to a lot of dodginess, hence, yeah. It was probably a good idea at the time I guess?

          1. eldomtom2 says:

            At the time, yes. There’s certainly no risk of government censorship now, not after Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association.

  27. Joey245 says:

    You know you’ve done goofed when Mass Effect 2 does a better job of depicting torture as an unreliable means of information acquisition than your game does.

    (I’m talking about Jack’s recruitment mission, in case you’ve forgotten.)

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