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.
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