A closer look at GTA V’s most controversial scene

With spoilers, Luke examines a disturbing moment in GTA V, and asks whether it's a legitimate part of its story, or a gratuitous misstep...

NB: This article contains GTA V spoilers.

When you’re introduced to Trevor Phillips, you’re hardly left uncertain as to whether he’s a pleasant man. His introduction sees him engaged in a conjugal act across a kitchen bench; his bedraggled companion only complicit, we discover, in exchange for a blast or two of free meth. Outside, bench-lady’s biker boyfriend meekly voices protestations. So Trevor smashes a bottle in his face and casually stamps him to death.

It’s a moment that’s easily shrugged off in the blithely nihilistic world that Rockstar’s created; one imbued with a detached, satirical tone sharpened to a hypodermic point across the years since 1997’s original. Yet there’s one moment in GTA V that sticks out – one that, even in a game largely built upon the action of shooting people in the face while swearing, feels… iffy. Now we’ve had a fortnight to play through the story and allow the dust to settle, it feels like time to address By The Book, one of Trevor’s more unsavoury contributions to the narrative triptych.

Trevor is not an easy man to root for. In fact, he is, to use narrative parlance, an evil, remorseless bastard. A complete and total one. He is a psychopath, a bully, a drug-crazed, shambling timebomb, the midpoint in a Venn diagram between Tommy from Goodfellas, Hunter S Thompson and Heath Ledger’s Joker, forever a gnat’s bumhair away from slaughtering those he considers to be his closest friends. His reason for being in the game is to be the moral antithesis of Michael and Franklin, two men who – despite their own, frequent forays into mass-murder and robbery – are fully aware of the reprehensible nature of their actions. Trevor has no such qualms.

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And neither did players – until, it seems, the mission in which a rogue group of agents from the FIB task Trevor with extracting information from an alleged – and, as it turns out, innocent – captive, Mr K. Mr K is tied to a chair, terrified, in the sort of ominous, dank, sound-muffled room where nothing good has ever happened to anyone. Next to him, a table, festooned with a panoply of pain: pliers, a car battery with clamp attachments, a hulking wrench. Playing as Trevor, it doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to ascertain what the game is asking you to do. And you do it. 

The clamps are applied to Mr K’s nipples, and he writhes in electro-convulsive agony; you descend upon his mouth with the pliers, waggling the control stick to pry loose one of his molars; you kick over his chair, drape a cloth across his face and begin pouring; the wrench is swung heftily at his knees. All the while, one eye is kept on his heart monitor so, if you go too far, you can jab adrenaline into his heart and the process can continue. Note the use of the word ‘you’ in those descriptions. YOU do these things. It’s one of the nastiest, most uncomfortable sequences in videogame history, and not one any player who doesn’t enjoy setting animals on fire would call ‘fun’.

The scale of the ensuing – and, yes, predictable – media jowell-wobble has been fairly measured in comparison to previous videogame witch-hunts (your Hot Coffees and No Russians, for example), but no less vehement, and perhaps with good reason. Torture is still very much a subject fresh in the collective consciousness, and the inclusion of the infamous ‘waterboarding’ technique in the mission in question implies Rockstar are betting on this fact. Let’s face it, Rockstar knew exactly the sort of reaction the scene would elicit. Dan Houser is no idiot. Whether he’s deeply cynical or not is another matter entirely.

The thing is, entertainment has long rubbed against the boundaries of what is considered tasteful, usually blundering through them before snapping back into some kind of new, looser equilibrium. Sex used to be the contentious issue, as did fruity language, violence, or gruesome combinations therein. It’s actually a credit to the human mindset that torture is still such a raw nerve, considering how far the limits of taste have been stretched in other areas. Videogames appear to be a good 20 or 30 years behind other forms of media in terms of how far they can go: sex is rarely depicted in any serious sense, and rape is a definite no-no – see this Tomb Raider’s last-minute about-face for evidence of that. Conversely, torture has been touched upon several times (from Metal Gear Solid to Call Of Duty), though never with the player assigned so squarely as the torturer. 

If Carmageddon, Manhunt or Mortal Kombat were gaming’s video nasties, then perhaps a decent analogue to draw for GTA V is Reservoir Dogs. Anyone of sufficient vintage will recall the furious media reaction to the scene depicting Michael Madsen’s treatment of a captive police officer, after which the young copper was left with one ear and Madsen with three. In hindsight, many would argue that that this sequence was an essential, if gruesome and uncomfortable, establishment of Madsen’s character: he was a man to be feared, and this scene explained precisely why. Could this same insight into the character’s psyche have been provided by less visceral means? Perhaps. Would it have had the same clarity and power? Probably not.

Assuming By The Book was included to imbue Trevor with genuine malice, it partially succeeds. Your perception of Trevor has been incorruptibly altered after this mission: he’s taken on a new, prickled edge, and when he threatens Michael or Franklin, all of a sudden, he means it. You genuinely start worry about his discovery of the truth about Brad.

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Yet despite his ultra-violent, mousetrap temper, he is, to all intents and purposes, still the comic relief. His conversation with Michael, in which Trevor is accused of being a hipster, is some of the funniest writing Rockstar has ever produced, and switching to Trevor to find him wandering the streets in his wretched grundies howling at passersby is mirthsome in the extreme. More so, Trevor himself chides Michael for killing hundreds of innocents one day and being a family man the next. “Compared to you,” he says, “I’m the sanest person in the world.” He may have a point, and this dichotomy of morality and mass-murder is one GTA has managed to ignore up until now. But Trevor’s still the clown. 

The juxtaposition of savagery and humor is nothing new of course – anyone who’s read American Psycho, for instance, will have experience snorting with laughter one minute and struggling to keep down their Alphabetti Spaghetti the next. Like GTA, Bret Easton Ellis also used brutality to say exactly what he thought of the American Dream. But neither Ellis or Tarantino once treated torture lightly, and there’s the nagging sense that GTA V glibly drops it in as merely another mini-game. It’s hardly as if proceedings take on a somber, reflective tone after this chapter – the merry gunslinging, quipping and pastel-coloured snark continue unabated. The game spits out the bitter taste of the sequence long before it’s left the mouths of many players.

Many won’t have a problem with it, of course, but with the most successful entertainment release in history you have to assume there are plenty that do. The first-person nature of the mission (which can, it has to be said, be skipped) is perhaps the difference between GTA V and torture as depicted in books, TV and movie, and any who are uncomfortable with torture as a subject at all will only have their reservations magnified by being complicit in it, even if they agree that such violence can be used effectively to tell a story. But By The Book serves no real purpose in the narrative, and Rockstar appear to have put it in solely because they can. That’s never a good reason to do anything.  

The problem with most op-ed outcries about gaming is that, generally, they’re thumbed out during the dinner hour of a journalist who’s never once held a controller – someone still oblivious to gaming’s power and popularity as a mature storytelling medium. There people are idiots. The difference here is that a lot of the best stuff written on the subject of By The Book is on websites like this one – fans of the format, genre and series, saying, ‘Oooh. Really…?’ That’s not a good sign. 

Perhaps there are mountains and molehills flying all over the place at the moment, and, if nothing else, the scene feels like a milestone in gaming: a taboo broken, for better or for worse. And boundaries should be pushed, taboos broken, The Daily Mail annoyed. Games should dare to go as far as any other form of entertainment because they are an equally artistically-valid one.

As they continue to mature, games will end up playing host to all the nasty facets of human nature that have challenged other media for decades. And rightly so. But if they want to be taken seriously they have to do it responsibly, and not for column inches and media brouhaha. Put simply, they have to do it better than this.

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