I was completely oblivious to the recent release of GTA V on PC when I finally started tidying up this piece I started a year ago, already late then for the PS3 version. But here I am, accidentally almost-on-topic.
So there was that notorious scene where you torture someone. It certainly got a lot of coverage back in 2013, although everyone seems OK with it now. It’s graphic and unsettling — and not in a good way.
Between torturing sessions use B to view Mr. K's health and heart rate on the ECG monitor. If Mr. K is pushed too far he may need an adrenaline shot.
I say you torture someone, but really it’s Trevor the psycho thug — GTA V’s most ingenious and most wasted character — who does the torturing. You’re just watching.
Use ✚ and A to pick a torture weapon.
You might be repulsed by the torture, and it’s implemented so blandly that you might even be a little bored by it at the same time, but you’ll sit there and get through it regardless, eager to continue the rest of the game. That’s how much power GTA has over you, and how much power was wasted on gratuitous, laddish, nonsense violence.
Press R to swing the wrench.
But while this scene is pure, vapid, gross-out schlock, I wouldn’t change a thing about it.
Some unique tools games have for engaging an audience are barely used in Trevor’s torture scene:
Games can give us control, but here we have no option besides torture, and no significant say in how it happens.
- Games can depict physical interaction using player movement and force feedback, but the torture control scheme is rudimentary and unengaging — almost as abstract and irrelevant as in a QTE.
- Games can model systems and give meaning even to simple button presses, but since this scene rejects GTA V’s general control scheme, player actions lose all systemic meaning.
The potential of games as a medium is ignored, when it could have been exploited to give you ownership of Trevor’s actions. Had it been exploited, this torture might have been challenging. It might have unsettled us skilfully and made us think.
Hold R to grip a tooth.
As it is, it’s neither powerful nor moving; it’s just crass, gratuitously voyeuristic, and lazily unartistic.
Rotate ✚ to pull it out.
But wait. Who says we have to own Trevor’s acts? Who would even want to own them? Let’s take a different approach to fixing this scene up.
Imagining a better heartless torture
So what if the problem here isn’t the emptiness of the controls? I think this scene could have been much better — could have shown us something much more affecting — without being any different at all.
I just listed some examples of what games do well that are missing from the torture scene. Let’s keep all these glaring gaps, then, and make something of them: we have no real control; we have no real physical connection; there’s no real meaning to our actions. What can we do with those facts?
Imagine this: earlier in the game, Trevor’s struggling against a compulsion to commit violence. He begins to push back against that impulse, and his progress is demonstrated by introducing genuine opportunities for the player to decide to avoid sadistic aggression. Taking these chances for Trevor to act like a better person rewards the player with his positive character development — the beginnings of a redemption. The monster discovers some humanity, and those beautifully acted and animated cutscenes can flesh it all out and splash in a bit of humour. We care for Trevor: he’s doing his best. But Trevor’s a tragic hero, and all this is only setting him up for a fall.
In the torture shed, under the command of the FIB, Trevor, who has fought to redeem himself — who you’ve fought to redeem —is given every excuse to let his old urges take over. Presented with a bench of torture tools and a defenceless subject, and facing a threat against his freedom unless he applies the treatment, it’s just too easy for him to succumb once more and let his impulses overwhelm him. He’s powerless. Irresistible forces drive him to commit those awful deeds while he’s almost watching himself from outside his body, acting without connection or engagement. The gruesome acts just seem to happen.
Now that’s something the scene as it stands can convey. We’ll just keep on pressing the buttons we have to press, like it’s an illness, and the man in the chair will scream and tell all. It’s graphic and unsettling, just the same as before, but now in an unforgettably powerful way. Now we’re free to relish in it guiltily, taking on the role of Trevor, and we can better understand the brute we’re dealing with.
Press A to flip the chair
We changed nothing about the scene itself, but we changed the game around it. In particular, the controls weren’t the problem at all. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the much-derided Press-[F]-to-pay-respects model. In our imaginary game, we could even simplify the controls further: let’s have all the horrible actions mapped to a single button press. The scene still works, so long as we change the job it’s doing.
Where gamey techniques for audience engagement are deliberately and conspicuously absent, they’re still, in a sense, being used. Their potential is being exercised even if not instantiated. I could have stomached this scene and all its vacant savagery, if only it had been deployed with some artistic sense.
It’s failures of this kind that grate most painfully against the fantastic scope, production values, and fun that make GTA V an unfortunate classic. In a game showing such great quality in other areas, this scene might have been brilliant. All it lacked was some judgment. If empty-headed torture had had a dramatic place among the other parts of the game, the flippant inevitability of it could have been devastating. We could have wept as we pressed A — for Trevor more than for his victim. While GTA V is one of the most accomplished feats of videogame design and engineering, of polished storytelling and of experience design, it isn’t even nearly reaching similar standards of artistic emotional insight.
GTA V’s missing a heart. Its content, its humour, and its style are deeply uncaring and exclusionary, but infuriatingly well produced. In that way it’s like Top Gear, only with a thug in the lead role. Oh wait a minute.