Is GTA 5 highlighting gamers' hypocrisy, or should we always have a moral choice?

WARNING! SPOILER AND MATURE CONTENT ALERT! If you haven't played a large portion of GTA 5 or GTA 4, you might want to do so before reading this article, unless you want a couple of key scenes spoiled for you. It also discusses adult themes so probably shouldn't be read by children. You have been warned.

The little ‘tooth’ icon is still firmly set in the centre of the screen because I haven’t circled the right analog stick. I haven’t even gripped the tooth with the pliers because I don’t want to. The man’s clearly had enough. And he’s asking me not to hurt his teeth because they are ‘perfect’. He's right, too. So I hold R2 alone to merely grip the tooth, in vain hope that he’ll crack and talk. He doesn’t. And the game waits. There’s nothing left to do. If I want to continue playing GTA 5, I *have* to extract a man’s tooth while he’s bound to a chair. And my mind is telling me: ‘This isn’t right’. Strongly.

Now, I’m not here to preach about violence in games. There is something deeply programmed into the human psyche that reacts to the sight of blood and violence. It’s undoubtedly a remnant of our instinctive, primal behaviour from a time before society as we know it, where the body would react to witnessing blood or violence with a surge of adrenaline, ready for fight or flight. Adrenaline is the body’s natural drug and yes, dammit, it makes you feel alive. I can appreciate that.

I can also appreciate the reason consenting adults are allowed to have access to 18-rated games and films so they can be safely exposed to such imagery within the comfort of their own home. You don’t have to go and defend a cave from a bear just to feel the rush. You can just turn on TV instead. But the reason such imagery is restricted to over-18s is because adults are meant to be able to distinguish the difference between right and wrong.

So, accordingly, let’s rewind a few minutes to the action preceding this torture scene. I’m deep in sandbox GTA 5 gameplay and feeling ‘a bit naughty’. I’m running over pedestrians, flinging myself at people sat on benches and pulling people out of their shiny new cars because I want to drive instead. There is a moral twang in my head when I do these things. I can hear my parents in my mind, saying ‘well, that’s not very nice’, even though they’re miles away. It’s just how I was raised. But I know it’s not real and I know not to do it in real life, so I’m reasonably comfortable. And it is fun to sticky-bomb a virtual cop car. It just is. But then I get to that scene.

Now, if you were to freeze the action after the torture scene and examine the physiological damage done to the guy in the chair compared to what I’ve been doing to everyone else in the game, it’s probably going to be comparatively tame. Sure, he’s lost a tooth and sustained some bruising and minor burns, but that’s nothing compared to the poor pedestrian that I crushed between a bus and a wall, whose misery was compounded by a falling lamp post. And all because I was seeing how fast I could drive a car without working front wheels. My bad.

What’s the difference? Why does one seem acceptable to me and the other doesn’t? There is undoubtedly the extra clout added by characterisation-- the man in the chair has a voice and he’s pleading with Trevor to stop. The guy seems likeable. By comparison, the woman outside the restaurant has never had a chance to become more to me than a collection of polygons and ragdoll physics. But I knew what I was doing when I held down the accelerator and could have stopped at any time. The key here is choice.

So I’m sitting there with the controller on the table in the last of the four torture scenes. I’ve turned the sound off because I don’t want to hear the screams. I look away from the screen, hold the button and rotate the stick. The tooth comes out and it’s over. I didn’t like it. Not at all. In fact, in that moment, I’m not sure I like GTA 5. I mean, Niko was mean when he wanted to be, but at least you had a choice when faced with killing cut-scene characters. By comparison, the first time you meet Trevor, he stamps on The Lost & Damned protagonist Johnny’s face until he’s dead. You can’t prevent it… and then you’re expected to play as Trevor? Well, hey--what if I don’t want to play as Trevor?

GTA 4 seems tame by comparison. The ‘good choice’ at the end of  the game, where Niko heeds his cousin Roman’s plea not to kill Dimitri ends up getting Roman killed. Practically a punishment for doing the ‘right’ thing, it would seem. It makes for an interesting dilemma, sure. Do you reload your last save and kill the guy in cold blood, just so Roman lives? That’s a choice and poses an interesting question either way. The outcome stays with you and comes with its own moral questions. But it’s your choice that you need to live with, and that makes it very powerful.

Finally, I appreciate that the defense for having a scene like this in the game is that waterboarding and some forms of torture are actually used by some governments. Even ‘legally’. It’s highlighting a legitimate issue. GTA has always poked fun at society’s problems while actually making a deeper commentary. No wonder there are a couple of references to the brilliant early 1990s TV satire Brass Eye dotted about in GTA games. The two are remarkably similar.

Maybe Rockstar is poking fun at us by including this scene? Proving that we gamers will obediently do anything they ask us to do in scripted scenes, just so we can continue to consume the rest of the game. The ‘LifeInvader’ assassination mission is quite funny and enjoyable until you see the result on the in-game TV and realise what you’ve actually done. First I was shocked, then surprisingly angry. Perhaps Rockstar is suggesting we should consider the consequences of our actions more carefully? We're given such free reign to do as we please, it's a shock to the system to suddenly be made to feel guilty.

My conscience tells me it’s ostensibly ‘wrong’ but contextually acceptable to go on a rampage of deliberate vehicular destruction in GTA, yet rings all manner of alarm bells in scripted events. There’s clearly a line that’s been crossed in terms of my personal up-bringing. I can see the arguments for the inclusion of such scripted events, sure. But I know one thing. I really feel there should have been a decline option, or even just a skip option or--perhaps best of all--a ‘turn the wrench on the FIB guy asking you to do the torturing’ option.

At least I’m fortunate enough to be able to understand the moral issues with two of those options. But I’d still take either of them over what actually transpires. And, I’ll be honest, I haven’t played half as much GTA 5 since the torture scene. I still intend to finish it, but I don’t feel the same about it as I did. 

The alternative, of course, is to play something like the excellent LEGO City Undercover, which features the same driving/freeroaming gameplay without any of the nastiness. But an adult shouldn’t have to play with such outwardly childish toys. An adult should have choice. And that’s why it’s so frustrating when ‘choice’ is off the menu.

You know that kid at parties who talks too much? Drink in hand, way too enthusiastic, ponderously well-educated in topics no one in their right mind should know about? Loud? Well, that kid’s occasionally us. GR Editorials is a semi-regular feature where we share our informed insights on the news at hand. Sharp, funny, and finger-on-the-pulse, it’s the information you need to know even when you don’t know you need it.




  • Eyebrows - October 15, 2013 7:35 p.m.

    I admit to feeling a tad bit uneasy during that point in the game but nowhere near enough to make me want to stop playing the game. It’s not a desensitization issue either as I’m pretty averse to things like that. While they’ve introduced choices since GTA4, the series has never been about role-playing. Perhaps I’d have had second thoughts if it’d been Franklin or Michael but at this point in time it was clear that Trevor was a complete monster anyway. It may have been out of character (hopefully!) for the player but it certainly wasn’t out of character for him. We aren’t being asked to identify with Trevor by making choices the way we might in an RPG. Committing terrible deeds with no choice isn't new in GTA games. You’re forced to blow up an entire section of Staunton Island as Toni Cipriani. The only difference really is the mechanics. For me the scene served to reinforce two things. That Steve Haines was a corrupt asshole that deserves what can ultimately happen to him and that Trevor, as entertaining as he can be at times, is a monster. Either of them can get their comeuppance in the finale should you choose. Trevor is hilarious in parts but I disliked him after his first cut-scene.
  • ziggystarship - October 4, 2013 5:37 a.m.

    Agency is all good and well, and this is definitely the 'No Russian' of GTAV, but i think being able to skip the scene (as suggested by Mr Justin Towell) would be even more problematic. If the game gave you the option to skip it, then you wouldn't be confronted by the monster that is Trevor, and your own values. And it is important that you are. Desensitization is such a hot topic with the ruination of the youth of today, because we are not confronted by things which are horrible. I think we can all agree that in order to dispel the popular image of the nutter-gamer, we've got to show that we are actively thinking about what we're doing in these violent games, rather than ignoring them and risking any kind of interpolation. By burying your head in the sand you're actually perpetuating the issue. We need to watch and be in the scene; we need to feel uneasy/disgusted to justify our view of ourselves as normal people. And Rockstar needs to put us in that situation too, otherwise it is shirking the issue as well. I think this is going to be one of the hardest things to explain to detractors, and it was a masterstroke that Mr Justin Towell compared it to running someone down in a brutal hail of fenders and brick. Because in the end, would we rather only partly engage in this content, or show that it isn't changing us; rather it is showing us who we are. The closer games come to reality, the more care we must take with ourselves; because of this, i think the torture scene is probably one of the most mature things Rockstar has done. I hope!
  • Terrorrizor - October 3, 2013 8:56 p.m.

    Honestly I think you're looking too much into a somewhat forced interactive scene that was meant to be satirical and dark. It's just there for shock value. Why don't you write an article about how disappointing GTA V was? It was like a Fast and Furious heist game with Mechanics Kane and Lynch could've had that turned out to have flawed execution. GTA is a character driven series of games most of the time, and Trevor and Michael were as 2d as it gets, Franklin was the only somewhat 3d character. Franklin had the only like GTA kind of missions. The heists are fun, but they weren't better than Franklin's failed drug deals. There was no really interesting story and it just felt really disappointing. Honestly it should've been a Franklin and Lamar game, it felt too much like just a heist game. Those "heists" could've just been missions among other better missions, but the whole damn game was a heist thing. Remember when they took down Steve, Stretch, The Asians and Devin? That was GTA. Trevor and Frank could've had great stories on their own, I expected side missions about Trevor's Meth ring and Franklin tryna help Stretch get up in the world, I thought it would be dealin Meth and robbing liquor stores, but it was just an overhyped AAA heist game. And if I wanted a heist game I'd go back to playing Payday.
  • Meleedragon27 - October 3, 2013 5:54 p.m.

    I remember the torture scene. I wasn't wholly disturbed by it until I picked up the pliers and the game told me to pull out that guy's tooth - I was pressing every button I could in the hopes I could put the pliers back and do something else. I think the tooth-pulling got to me not because you were hurting the guy - the electrocution, the waterboarding, the blunt force trauma... he would've recovered from all of that (or at least physically, anyway... mentally and emotionally, he's probably scarred for life), but I seriously doubt he's gonna be able to grow that tooth back. I dunno, I think the whole "permanent disfigurement" thing is what really bothered me, combined with Trevor's borderline hypocritical comments after the scene is over about how torture is bad (yet he didn't seem to feel bad about doing it, did he?) and how the guy I'm torturing clearly didn't do anything to really deserve any of this (having been at the wrong place at the wrong time). However, I'm against the prospect that we should've had an "opt-out" function. Yes, I would've loved to smash that FIB agent's head in with that comedically oversized wrench instead, but I think this scene also paints a grim picture of reality in that sometimes we have to do things we don't want to do. Plus, it also establishes just how dark Trevor's insanity can get - making it cutscene-only would have lessened that impact (it'd still be disturbing, but it would've lost some edge since you weren't being forced to do it). Cutting the scene out with only implications/commentary of what happened would've outright killed most of the impact. In the end, the torture scene made me feel like a horrible human being and while I'm convinced that the only reason I kept playing the game after that point was so I could better take my mind off of that grisly "minigame," I respect R* for having the balls to do all of that. Of course, this is R* were talking about - "controversy" is practically their middle name.
  • Slayer11496 - October 3, 2013 5:29 p.m.

    Interesting article, but I disagree. I too was cringing pretty hard at this scene. But I appreciate that rockstar put it in, and made you watch it by forcing prompts. It forces you think about, well, actual torture, and how many people get subjected to it, even by Governments. Maybe you don't want to think about torture and corrupt governments, and I respect that. I however, think it was the most intense and affecting commentary in the game. It was, and felt, very realistic, and it wasn't presented as satire like the rest of the game. You had to look, do, and most importantly think about it. I'm about to be dangerously close to giving R* too much credit, so keep that in mind. The scene might have also been a very poignant message about how we turn away from bad news to forms of entertainment like GTA, for instance. So, in a medium you bought for entertainment, they MAKE you watch. And perhaps give you a wake up call. Anyway, interesting article, I look forward to seeing what others thought about the scene.
  • GoldenEagle1476 - October 3, 2013 4:35 p.m.

    I wish you could've killed the FIB guy right then and there.
  • somerandomchap - October 3, 2013 4:25 p.m.

    If you are actually feeling adrenalin, guilt or an actual sense of wrong doing when playing games maybe you need to get your head checked because you can't differentiate between game and real life wrongdoings.
  • GoldenEagle1476 - October 3, 2013 4:42 p.m.

    So you're in a game and you shoot some random civilian--you're telling me the average, normal-minded person isn't supposed to feel just a tiny bit wrong?
  • BladedFalcon - October 3, 2013 5:48 p.m.

    Enough to make them not want to play the game anymore? no. At least, not if they feel completely fine if mowing down hundreds of soldiers in a war scenario.
  • triplex_ca - October 3, 2013 10:25 a.m.

    its a game do you not play call of duty gears of war killing is killing in a game if people are so put off with this they shouldnt watch movies that have killing in it or violence (70 percent of all movies) SO NO SUPER HERO MOVIES and games that are rated M thats just my opinion
  • RayPaw - October 3, 2013 9:56 a.m.

    Grantland has a thoughtful piece from Tom Bissell along the same lines. His core thesis is that Rockstar has a fundamental contempt for its audience; if that's true, the discomfort you feel when playing as Trevor is intentional — Rockstar is holding up a virtual mirror for you. Interestingly, right after that scene Trevor is very nice to the guy he tortured ... almost as if he was saying, "I was just playing a role back there but I'm a nice guy at heart!" As players who routinely guide our avatars to commit unspeakable acts, we tend to make the same kind of distinctions in our minds ... especially after sequences like the GTA 5's torture scene where we "have no choice" but to do the awful things in order to progress. In fact, that was the theme of Spec Ops: The Line. Its unmistakable takeaway is that even when the game itself offers you no choice, as the player, you always have the ultimate option: to simply stop playing. The fact that we very rarely — if ever — exercise that option speaks volumes about human nature.
  • BladedFalcon - October 3, 2013 10:07 a.m.

    This, this right here, is very fucking true, and I applaud you for bringing it up, even when it didn't occur to me myself. I mean, ultimately, I feel GTA 5 was making a statement in that scene similar to what Bioshock did with the whole "A man chooses..." scene, in that it challenges the player to question about what they were doing not just in that moment, but in gaming in general. And I find it funny that everyone applauded Bioshock for doing that, while a TON of people are criticizing GTA 5 for doing the same thing... Just because they highlighted something in a way that made people uncomfortable.
  • ultimatepunchrod - October 3, 2013 5:52 p.m.

    I get what you're saying here, but I think it speaks more to the fact that I just spent $60 on this game and no store takes returns on games once they've been opened.
  • luna-reyes - October 3, 2013 9:25 a.m.

    I didnt like not having the choice not to torture the guy either, but if i did i would probably still have tortured him anyway because i like explore every option in video games which is the reason why i didnt likr not having the choice not to torture him (less options) Also as you mentioned people do torture other people in reality so it was nice to see rockstar doesnt hold anything back. As u stated u were raised better than to take pleasure in the senseless suffering of others whichis good, but actinh it out in a game might be a way to remind us that it is not a humane tactic, that way when we hear the news say "some one was tortured" we dont dismiss it so easily...maybe
  • BladedFalcon - October 3, 2013 9:09 a.m.

    I honestly think you yourself Towell, highlighted the one who's at fault here: You and your hipocrisy. I mean, yes, the torture scene is a VERY uncomfortable thing to go trough, but it's meant to be. Just as the final "playable" scene in The Last of Us. These scenes are so impactful BECAUSE you have no choice but to go trough with them, you make them optional, and then they become as forgettable as any optional choice available in games like Mass Effect or even Spec Ops: The Line. Which, ironically, many of those games most memorable moments are ones that you DON'T have a choice or say in. And look, I get that people get uncomfortable having to do some of those more twisted action in games... But it really IS fucking hypocritical of going "well I don't want to play this game anymore..." When before getting to that scene, you've killed hundreds or sometimes even thousands of people in cold blood, headshots or brutal melee kills. So all those are suddenly okay just because you didn't get to know the people you were killing at all? I'd say that makes you an even worse person then. I seriously don't understand the mentality of people that go "wow, this is way too much, this is wrong, why does the game making me do this?" When most of us that have been long-time gamers have been murdering and obliterating countless of people in so many different, brutal and sadistic ways in the name of fun. In fact, I find it very ironic that a lot of the people that probably defended or tried to justify Mortal Kombat's violence back when it came out, are now people that are bitching and condemning scenes such as the GTA V torture scenes. Instead of being hypocritical nancies, why don't just take the material for what it is, and move on? if you found it disturbing, then find a lesson in that. But it speaks very poorly in my opinion, when you suddenly go against something and want to have a "choice not to do it" the second a game asks you to endure something, to challenge you, in a way.
  • Vonter - October 3, 2013 9:43 a.m.

    I assume it's referring to a change of tone. I know most games have you being a one man army slaughterer of a thousand souls but most of the time the violence has no meaning from a narrative perspective, it doesn't matter if you kill 2 or 50 in a stage since if it's not an important character there isn't a reason to care. However torture (and I'm just imagining it since I haven't seen the scene) can be more impactful and disturbing because you're prolonging someone's suffering, so it becomes personal either if you're the torturer or the one being torture. IMO it's also about tone MK is campy and goofy despite it's graphic death animations. Also I hope it's not in the near future but I rather have the choice of not doing or having rape if that's the next thing they go for. Since Rockstar sometimes like to push it much at times.
  • BladedFalcon - October 3, 2013 9:57 a.m.

    ...So just because it's meaningless, or because it's goofy, it makes it okay? Again, isn't that hypocritical in itself? You're STILL brutally murdering a person. And actually, the fact that in most games you're doing it for no real reason, makes it even WORSE than when the narrative gives you a clear reason to. To put it in other terms, say in real life they put you in a ridiculous looking place with bright colors and surreal tone, and they ask you to kill a dude dressed in a clown suit, with a mallet, just because. Does that make it any more acceptable for you?
  • Vonter - October 3, 2013 2:39 p.m.

    Context in my opinion gives weight to the crime. Just reread that. I don't think anyone will say it that way to describe a tragedy. Murder is not acceptable, however it's part of nature. Killing in self defense or reaction to danger it's kind of debatable but also context it's ALWAYS important. But returning to games; it's mainly how you show it how it tells if I should care for killing/destroying/crushing, and also having options of either doing it or not, since if not I appeal to the self defense argument that most run & shoot games present. Still games lIke Batman show developers could give neutralizing means to take out foes and still feel good.
  • BladedFalcon - October 3, 2013 3:17 p.m.

    Yes, of course, Context is always important. And that's precisely why, going by what you just said, you're being a huge hypocrite if you think the importance of murder, even in fiction, can be measured in terms of whether you should care about who you're murdering or not. To specify: You say murder is never right... BUT it's acceptable when is for self defense or reaction to danger, right? Going by that criteria, then you're wrong: Most shoot and run games are NOT presenting self defense scenarios, at least, not trough the majority of their stories. Any game in which the protagonist is the one that triggers the shooting, or silently assassinate someone is NOT doing it in self defense, so that automatically invalidates all the popular games of the modern era: Call of Duty, gears of War, Tomb Raider, Uncharted, Skyrim. All of these games the character reaches a point in which he's not killing so much for self defense, but to achieve a goal, in which murdering is justified to reach that goal. Now, let's go back further, to the early days of gaming. Super Mario bross, of all games, lets you stomp enemies to death, even when you could clearly could have just jumped OVER them, there's no self defense in there at all. But EVERYONE chooses to jump and squash the enemies most of the time, why? because it's FUN. That's not self defense at all :P Lastly, let's go back to Mortal Kombat. You say violence is that game is okay because it's campy and goofy... Except the very first mortal Kombat wasn't really campy and Goofy at all, it's only the later iterations that made the series become increasingly cartoony and silly. the first game actually took itself fairly seriously, and being one of the first games that popularized digitized characters, it looked even more grizzly and "real" than most 2D games at the time. And furthermore, fatalities were NEVER necessary or for self defense, they were rewards for playing well or knowing what input to use to humiliate your opponent... So again, how is it not hypocrisy to have defended that kind of violence back then, but now suddenly go "it's too much!" even though if you translate the actions in real life, they really aren't even worse. They are just presented in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable. And if THAT is your justification to condemn it, then yes, you ARE a hypocrite.
  • BladedFalcon - October 3, 2013 3:51 p.m.

    To further drive my point home... Let's take that final example you made: The Arkham games. Yes, the game goes to painful lengths to show that no matter what, batman never technically "kills" anyone... So wait, that automatically makes every single person he violently beats up and brutalizes alright? Again, translate that scenario into real life, if they reported in the news that a guy beat up, broke bones and left countless injuries on more than 50 inmates or prisoners, even if he didn't kill a single one, do you think the media, much less the law, would condone it? Heck, while we're on the subject of batman, let's go into the way he interrogates people, shall we? In several points of both games, he grabs the last person standing in a fight, lifts him by the neck, and forces him to give him information under the implicit threat of more pain or even asphyxiation if the doesn't comply. It's obviously less brutal, detailed or graphic than the torture scene in GTA V, but the practical effect is the same: Threaten with violence and pain a person in order to gain information. And yet, because it's batman, because you don't technically "kill" anyone, (even though by breaking important limbs apart, you're guaranteeing that most of those people's lives are ruined, or at least greatly affected.) and because the way in which he interrogates people doesn't make you uncomfortable... Then it's totally okay?

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