GTA V (Grand Theft Auto 5) is an open world action-adventure video game that surpassed $1 billion in sales three days after its release, making it the fastest selling entertainment product ever. In the game’s story you play out one of the most harrowing scenes in the history of video games: the now infamous GTA V “Torture Mission”. In the mission “By The Book”, the player is given the task of extracting information from a man named Mr. K in order to provide the FIB (the thinly veiled in-game version of the FBI) with information about a dangerous Azerbaijani fugitive.
Torture has long been a theme on the big screen–think Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs–and has even been seen in a number of video games, such as Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. But the playable torture mission in GTA V blazes new territory as far as torture simulations go–the player takes an active hand in the simulated torture.
The implements used to loosen the tongue of Mr. K include a car battery clamped to his nipples, pliers for extracting his teeth, and a wrench with which to bash his knees. Mr. K’s vitals are monitored, and if you bring him to the brink of death, you have the option to stab him in the heart with adrenaline so that you can mete out more pain. The player may also choose to waterboard Mr. K, making use of an “enhanced interrogation technique,” to employ one of the euphemistic absurdities of the day.
In the story, you are confronted with the need to perform these grisly deeds while playing the character Trevor, the psychopathic criminal. But even Trevor points out that the torture is ineffective, as Mr. K was more than willing to supply the FIB with information even before being tortured. Trevor is left to ruminate on the function of torture. In the mission, Trevor says: “The media and the government would have us believe that torture is some necessary thing…”
“…torture is for the torturer. Or the guy giving the orders to the torturer. You torture for the good times–we should admit that. It’s useless as a means of getting information.”
This impromptu condemnation of torture is coming from Trevor, the darkest and most nihilistic playable character in the history of the franchise. It is a commentary on the effectiveness of torture as used by the government of the United States, and it is about as subtle as nipple electrocution.
At a different point in the game, one of the other protagonists, Michael, questions whether his own insane criminal violence is the result of someone else’s will and not his own. This touch of postmodernist irony alludes to the fact that it is the player controlling him who is complicit in his murderous rampage, not he.
The GTA V “Torture Mission” is steeped in this same kind of meta-commentary on simulated violence in video games. The fact that the player controls the torturer is the most unsettling aspect of the scene–but also what makes it highly effective.
By K. Elsner