I wrote the physics system for the original GTA and its immediate sequels, and enjoyed doing so. It was a funny little game, with a playful and cartoonish sense of humour, and no-one with any sense of perspective (so we developers felt) could be seriously troubled by the silly “cops and robbers” gameplay, even if it meant that your character sometimes did reprehensible things in-game.
 
We can all tell the difference between fiction and reality, and it was clear that our “anti-hero“‘s activities were not to be approved of, or in any way emulated.
 
Of course, that didn’t stop the publicity people from trying to generate an artificial controversy with the help of “PR Guru Max Clifford” and a number of gullible rent-a-quote MPs, but such is life…
 

 

Anyway, I haven’t worked on the series since the early days, but was keen to see what the current incumbents (some of whom are old colleagues of mine) had achieved with it in the eagerly anticipated, and in many ways highly impressive, new GTA-V.
 
Then I read about the torture.
 
I’ve seen a video of the offending scene (and “offending” is the right word), and was utterly disgusted by it. Then I saw the strip-club “mini-game”. Then I saw the section where you sneak onto someone’s property to film them having sex.
 
Is this anything to be worried about, in an adults-only game? Yes, I think it is.
 
 
The torture scene is a disgusting piece of work, and anyone involved in it should be utterly ashamed of themselves. Yes, it’s just pretend. Yes, no-one was actually tortured in the making of it (as far as I know!). But the scene asks you to be complicit in a truly awful crime, and is as tasteless and ham-fisted a piece of “content” as I’ve ever seen in any game or film.
 
To give you an idea of why I object so strongly to it, let’s consider a hypothetical: what if the horrible protagonist that you control was also a rapist, and the game included a “rape mini-game” in which you were required to participate in a violent sexual assault, “wiggling your joystick” to control the intensity of the action?
 
I would like to think that almost everyone would consider this to be a horrendous lapse in taste, and the outrage would surely be considerable. No, it wasn’t a “real” rape. No, it might not even have any real-world causal impact on those who “play” it. But would you do it? And would you reward the people who made it by giving them some of your money, so that you could take part in this appalling spectacle? I’m hoping the answer is a firm “no”.
 
 
So, what is the substantive difference with torture? In my opinion, there is none.
 
Furthermore, this scene is supposedly part of the main “narrative”, and you must complete it to proceed. You have no choice but to comply. The only decisions open to you are selecting which techniques to employ (e.g. tooth extraction, electrocution, water-boarding, etc.). I’ve been told there is a bonus for using them all.
 
How many people have completed this “mission”, I wonder. How did they rationalise what they were seeing and, in some sense, “doing”?
 
I am reminded of nothing so much as the famous Milgram Experiment, in which people were found to be alarmingly compliant with their instructor’s demands to electrocute a victim in an adjoining room. Clearly, there is an important difference here: the Milgram subjects thought that what they were doing was actually real (it wasn’t), but the same moral buttons are being pushed in both cases.
 
 
Some have attempted to defend all of this as “satire”. It is nothing of the sort. One need only look at the “satirical” portrait of the in-game strip-club (featuring a molestation mini-game), to see that there is little here in the tradition of Swift and Voltaire.
 
In authentic works of art where sex and/or violence are themes (e.g. “Clockwork Orange”, ”The Godfather”, ”Videodrome”, “Reservoir Dogs”, “Fight Club”), there is often an “authorial voice” which clearly transcends the behaviour of the characters in the tale. The only such voice I detect in GTA-V is that of a giggling 14 year-old delinquent who is on the verge of psychopathy.
 
 
What are we to do? I think it’s quite simple. Don’t buy the game.
 
And, if you already have, return it. Because there is a part in this “interactive” game where the only way to proceed (in the game-world) is by participating in a sickening act of torture, while your victim screams for mercy. There is no option to show such mercy. There is no option NOT to torture him. 
 
This game is broken. Demand your money back.
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