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On torture in games


Hello! I just discovered this sitting in my drafts area from way back in November 2017. It's not as fully complete as I want it to be, but it's still something I'm pretty passionate about.

I'll get right to it: this'll be about Grand Theft Auto V and The Last Of Us and how we, the players, are coerced into acting and feeling certain ways during torture scenes in the two respective games.  Needless to say, that entails spoilers.  Now, let's select our first tool and start sharpening.  Heh heh heh.

Immediately upon beginning the torture sequence in The Last Of Us, (herein TLOU) I found myself completely rooting for Joel.  I actually wanted him to act violently towards the two captured survivors in order to find Ellie.  I felt I was being emotionally manipulated as a player, yes, but the brutal violence is such a large element of the game even from the prologue that the kill-or-be-killed mentality was well-drilled into me from the get-go.  I felt it was necessary because how else were we to find Ellie? There's no GPS, no map marker, no nothing that can magically show the way in-universe or outside of the game itself.  Therefore I knew it could only end one way because of all of the building blocks that had led me to this peak, so to speak.  Joel, an injured man, had no idea where Ellie was and his only chance of recovering her is to torture...right?

The build up to this is that the story deliberately develops so that we, the players care perhaps quite deeply about both characters and the sudden swap to playing as Ellie in 'WINTER' - where, lest we forget we have no clue whether Joel is alive or dead - makes Ellie's quest for medicine all the more important.  Previous to this I was personally convinced Joel was dead.  The harrowing escape sequence from the university and the depth of his wound made me believe Joel was a goner.

I suppose what helps use sympathise with Joel and indeed Ellie's actions is the excellent camera work Naughty Dog present.  After Joel takes his knife and thrusts it into the sitting captive's thigh, we don't witness a simulated hole showing blood, torn muscle and impacted bone.  We just see the expressions on the two men's faces as they discuss the whereabouts of Ellie and see the bloodied blade Joel puts into the captive's mouth to make him mark on the map where exactly she is.  Elsewhere, the fear in the eyes of the second man as Joel supposedly approaches him to confirm the location of Ellie after strangling his comrade to death is real.  But they are simply minor enemies in the scheme of things: men and bandits we have battled for hours beforehand and they do not hold the status that David and his woolen hat wearing butcher do.  It's them we want; it's them we're looking for.

My experience with Grand Theft Auto V (herein GTAV) was somewhat different.  I had avoided rumour articles, spoiler posts and other preview content aside from Rockstar's officially released trailers in the run up to release and so came to the game fresh without knowing what the story would entail.  So then I read articles like this in the aftermath of playing through the torture scene and reflected on what I felt.  Mostly, very little - story wise, at least.  My own interpretation, which may or may not have been influenced by aforementioned articles, was that Trevor was a conduit for the player to act out all of the violent fantasies we all do in GTA games without huge consequences for characters we may care about moreso than Trevor within the actual story itself: Franklin and Michael.  (I'm well aware of possible contradictions here as I do feel Trevor has his own characteristics that make him likeable, if only in a humourous way.)

The overall context of Trevor's torture scene is entirely different: he's pretty much a paid contractor for the in-game version of the CIA/FBI and he enjoys the torture.  It's not as though it's something of a personal revenge story for Trevor that drives his actions and therefore has us egging him on. It's just some nameless captured guy you're mining for information.

So, is cutscene torture is better than player-enacted torture?

This whole issue is about ludonarrative dissonance: first coined by game developer Clint Hocking, suggesting there can be a disconnect between what the story is telling you about your actions within the game world and what your actual actions are as a player (with agency) in the game world - usually to cause chaos in the form of combat. With Trevor and the others, you're following the narrative but can act in whichever way you want to during the missions to get there, to an extent. As far as I know, GTA V didn't do what Modern Warfare 2's 'No Russian' did: allow the player to pass the mission without actually taking part.

Should GTAV have had an optional skip for the torture? Perhaps. If Rockstar's intentions were noble and they wanted American, UK and other international audiences to open their eyes to torture, extraordinary rendition, CIA alleged blacksites, then fine. That makes sense But my internal, initial reaction was: 'This is gratuitous, even for GTA.' It felt cheap, unnecessary and somewhat overdone.

Maybe I was just having an overreaction to it. I've since upgraded to GTA V on PC this year and played the same mission again and felt very little for it either way. I suppose reflects it they way we feel as a society about torture.  We acknowledge it as a practice even if prefer to acknowledge it without seeing it.

Notable links

Bramwell, Tom. 'Is the most disturbing scene in GTA5 justified?' Eurogamer.net. September 2013. http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2013-09-16-is-the-most-disturbing-scene-in-gta5-justified

Burden, M. & Gouglas, S.  'The Algorithmic Experience: Portal As Art.' Game Studies. (Vol. 12 Issue 2) December 2012 http://gamestudies.org/1202/articles/the_algorithmic_experience

Hocking, Clint. 'Ludonarrative Dissonance in Bioshock.' Click Nothing. October 2007 http://clicknothing.typepad.com/click_nothing/2007/10/ludonarrative-d.html

Rockstar Games: Grand Theft Auto V. http://www.rockstargames.com/V/

Naughty Dog: The Last of Us. http://www.thelastofus.playstation.com/index.html 

- This is the end, friend.

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About bry159one of us since 2:18 PM on 11.09.2013

Born in '85, Bryan's first self-bought console was the sublime SNES and he hasn't used his opposable thumbs for much else since then. Still searchin' for them glory days he never had.