The day I stopped playing GTA

So Grand Theft Auto 5 is out and a lot of people are discussing the controversial torture scene. People like Eurogamer editor Tom Bramwell, who writes:

“GTA is a game full of violence, of course, but it is mostly slapstick, impersonal, cartoon violence – floppy-limbed pedestrians flying over your bonnet, cars flipping through intersections, or tanks and helicopters exploding. You’re always slightly zoomed out from the impact of your actions by the lack of close-ups and the way everything resets to normal a few minutes later. It’s very unusual to be hurting a single person in isolation over a prolonged period, which is why the torture scene is a different and unpleasant experience.”

With respect to Tom, I think he’s wrong to call this scene an exception. In fact his description of Trevor’s graphic torture reminded me very much of a small section in GTA 4 that put me off the series forever. The mission in question is called  ‘I’ll take her (Ransom)’. It’s short and remarkably simple, all you have to do is beat a defenseless woman and take a photo of her battered face.

I know it sounds hyperbolic to put it that way, but it’s also completely accurate. In order to get this out of the way I’m going to describe the mission as dispassionately as possible:

Niko has kidnapped a woman called Gracie Ancelotti in order to extort money from her mob boss father. Gracie herself is an innocent, she is not involved in her father’s business. When the mission starts Nico is told Gracie’s dad wants proof they have her, so he drives to the grubby apartment where she is being held and is told to take a picture of her. Whilst the guard, who refers to her as “that bitch”, lounges in his chair watching blurred out porn Nico attempts to take a photograph. However this is ruined by the fact that Gracie is not looking up, so the player receives a prompt: “press E to make her look at the camera”. Once the button is pressed, Nico backhands Gracie across the face, cheerfully exclaiming “Come on Gracie! I want you looking pretty for the photo!” She then looks forwards, still obviously terrified. Niko takes the photo, sends it, and leaves.

That’s it. That’s the whole mission. If you’re interested to see in in action I’ve embedded a video below:

At this point in my life I didn’t really think about games in the same way I do now. I’d cruised through the game as fast as possible. I hadn’t even minded when Niko had knocked out Gracie in the previous mission (the two of them were struggling for the wheel, it made sense to me) but this moment was something else. I felt betrayed. I hadn’t elected to hit Gracie, I’d been tricked into it.

There’s a lot of violence in GTA, but this felt different somehow. It’s like Tom says about GTA’s torture scene: it was personal. It wasn’t cartoonish, or zoomed out in any way, but grubbily realistic. Gracie didn’t make a comical pratfall when Nico hit her, she just cried and looked terrified. She was a real character in a way that pedestrian victim #5 wasn’t. Neither was there any purpose to Nico’s actions. This wasn’t violence to achieve anything, it wasn’t even running over someone in his way, it was pure, needless cruelty. He hurts her because he can, and then he jokes about it.

Over twitter, Craig Lager asked me if I would have reacted differently if the victim had been male.  I think I would still have found it distasteful, but I’d be lying if I said it would be just as bad. Like everyone else I’ve been conditioned to see women as helpless victims, but there’s something more. The way in which the scene is framed: her afraid to look him in the eye, him insistent that she treat this as normal, making jokes about how ‘pretty’ she looked, made me think of a battered wife and an abusive husband. Looking back, it’s astonishing how much this scene affected me. In my mind’s eye I saw the slap as far harder than it really was, while Gracie sported a black eye from the earlier altercation, but going back I realise this wasn’t actually true, my imagination had simply filled in the details I expected to see.

More importantly, I cannot imagine a context in which Rockstar would create such a scene with a male victim. To present a man who was as helpless and innocent as Gracie just doesn’t seem their style. There’s always been a certain sneer in the way that Rockstar have presented male weakness. The elderly, infirm or unfit are objects of scorn in their games. What I could see them doing was depicting ‘manly’ torture, with a tough and nasty male character resisting horrible cruelty at the hands of the player, and lo and behold, that’s exactly what they did. It’s a very different kind of cruelty, but the reaction it produces is much the same.

GTA 4 screen 1

Knowing the scene made me uncomfortable, I began to ask the most important question of all. “Why?” Why was it here? No matter how hard I tried, I simply couldn’t imagine a good reason to include it.

Were Rockstar exposing the ugly truth behind glamourous depictions of organised crime? Not really, since unlike GTA 5’s Trevor, Nico Bellic was always depicted as a sympathetic character. We journalists often joke about how ridiculous that is given his many crimes, but I’m not sure it’s really funny any more, it’s just frightening that anyone would ever consider that to be the case.

It certainly wasn’t satire, since it was neither funny nor subversive, simply awfulness presented without comment. The GTA 5 version is even more ridiculous in this regard, presenting the right winger’s wet dream of justified torture without any kind of comment. Clearly we’re meant to be reminded of US foreign policy, but not to any end, it’s just there. It’s like they wanted to make a statement, but they forgot to actually make a statement. Jon Stewart this is not.

Of course it’s possible that I was the one being satirised. That the game was admonishing me for going too far in my love for violent crime. But this too rang hollow. While the ‘you could have stopped playing’ twist has been used with varying success elsewhere, it surely couldn’t be applied here. I’d been offered no choice in my actions, no warning that violence would occur.

GTA 4 screen 2

When a game contains horrible acts, but makes no effort to satirise or admonish them, it inevitably feels like it is supporting them. The torture scene is a prime example. Like 24 before it, GTA presents torture that is both necessary and produces results, and the net result of that is that, intentionally or otherwise, it appears to be pro torture. Similarly when our sympathetic protagonist beats a defenseless woman like it’s no big deal, and is never called out on that by the game designers, then it certainly feels like GTA thinks beating up a defenceless woman is no big deal.

No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get what GTA was trying to say. Was it ever really satire? Certainly there were shallow political parodies on the radio, but not really to any end beyond cheap laughs. GTA punched up, down left and right, but never for any reason beyond the sheer joy of punching.

When I play Saints Row, I know what the developers wanted: They wanted me to have fun, silly, ridiculous fun. That’s all the Saints Row series is about (we don’t talk about the first game) which is why as time has gone on Volition have carefully removed the uglier parts of the series, ensuring that my fun was never spoiled with any pesky moral concerns. GTA has steadfastly refused to do this, instead doubling down on the nastiness, giving us no choice to avoid it. Any attempt to treat the series as lightweight entertainment is thwarted by these scenes, yet they don’t seem to serve any purpose. As US Gamer’s Jaz Rignall puts it, the game is just unpleasant for the sake of it.

Maybe I’m wrong to search for reasons. Maybe GTA has always been a series about awful people doing awful things, and Rockstar have every right to make that game. But once they do I have to ask myself the other big question. “Why would I ever want to play a game in which horrible cruel violence is presented without comment, without satire?” With this constant aura of nastiness, GTA seems to be almost daring me to put the controller down and walk away.

So I did.

Footnote: Just to be clear, I’m not judging anyone else for enjoying GTA, just trying to articulate why I don’t (see Cara Ellison’s excellent post on problematic art for a great explanation of this). If you find it easier to ignore the troubling aspects than I do, then all power to you. If you’ve managed to get it in a way that I obviously haven’t, I’d like to what you think the point of the series is, because I have no idea.