Violence and conflict have always been fundamental in video games. As video games became defined by win and loss states, violence and death followed suit. Twenty years ago, early ultra-violent titles such as “Doom” and “Wolfenstein 3D” took a heavy share of the market. Even classic nonshooter games such as “Super Mario Brothers” had central mechanics of killing and avoiding death. And just as in any other entertainment medium, tensions rise when the stakes are high, and what could be higher than life or death?
While more recent games have expanded upon exploring deeper, more profound themes, gunplay and conflict remain at their core. In fact, the three most critically acclaimed games released this year are games in which your interaction with the world is done mainly with your gun. “The Last of Us” attempts to explore the idea of self, family and community in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. “Grand Theft Auto V” attempts to satirize the American Dream in a world of excess and luxury. “Bioshock Infinite” attempts to explore the idea of fate as contrasted with American exceptionalism and political dichotomies. These themes are explored only through expository cutscenes; for the other 90 percent of the game, the virtual worlds are viewed by looking down the barrel of a gun.
Yet one of the largest controversies surrounding the release of “Grand Theft Auto V” two weeks ago was based not on the mindless murder of innocent civilians or the casual violence throughout the game but on a player-controlled torture scene during one of the missions. It’s one of the most brutal and uncomfortable segments I’ve ever played in a game. But in contrast to the use of excessive violence and gore in the rest of the medium, the violence in this scene opposes and satirizes the use of torture, even if its message isn’t entirely original.
To provide some context, almost every character within the universe of “Grand Theft Auto V” is an awful human being — calling the protagonists “antiheroes” would be a stretch. Playing as Trevor, the eccentric lunatic of the three protagonists, you’re forced by crooked federal agents to torture the clearly innocent electrician of an assassination target. The torture provides little information, just enough to provide a vague outline of a target who most likely was innocent. But this scene makes the player confront this man begging for mercy and freely choose which torture methods to use.
Aside from antagonizing the federal agents you’re forced to work for in the context of the game, this scene confronts the uselessness and horrors of torture. It’s a message that has certainly been expressed in more complex ways in other media, but being placed in the role of the torturer, mixed with the game’s satirical dark humor, adds a certain weight to the game’s message. In a medium in which violence is within the norm, it’s saddening that media outlets are criticizing the scene that actually is attempting to say something about violence and the horrific acts we, as players, are willing to commit.
If anything, criticism and concern should be directed toward games that sanitize violence, such as “Call of Duty,” which equates warfare to a sport in which killing others becomes reduced to increasing numbers and statistics in its metagame. Even if “Grand Theft Auto V’s” torture scene is a bit excessive, this surplus of violence confronts the player with the question of how far he or she is willing to go.
As video games grow to provide deeper, introspective experiences, chastising them for depicting graphic, disturbing scenes that attempt to make a statement only sets the medium back. If anything, we should be more disturbed by games that are willing to permit the player to evade any serious critical reflection in order to provide a mindless, more “fun” experience.