Morality systems in video games appears to be a simple concept. Your character comes to a point the game, and you can either choose A or B (sometimes C and D are also choices), and depending on what you choose, the world around your character changes slightly. Oh wait, it is a simple concept. Fallout 3, maybe the best use of a morality system (either that or Skyrim), has a morality spectrum, where your character’s actions change your position on the spectrum (there are three major positions: good, neutral, and evil). Depending on your position on the spectrum, the game changes around you, and you can have different alliances or rewards (if my memory is correct. It’s been a number of years since I journeyed the Wasteland alone, only with Kanye West’s then-recently released My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy as my companion). Still, your position on the spectrum depends on choices like “Disarm this bomb and don’t ask for payment” or “Use the bomb to blow up the town”. Fallout 3 asks you to make fairly obvious moral choices. There’s no real struggle. Of course, I am speaking broadly, and I also haven’t played every single game with a morality system, so I am sure someone will put their hand up (metaphorically) and object to what I am saying, because that is the nature of the internet.
In other words, I have never felt personally affected by making a moral choice in a video game. Now, this could be because I am an unemotional robot, or that video games are a poor storytelling medium, or maybe I haven’t played the one game that you have that you are totally convinced will make me change my mind. The only game that came close to making me feel was The Walking Dead: Season One, especially in the first episode (or was it the second?), when you had the choice to try and save the farmer’s son or save Kenny’s son. In the beginning, this choice feels like it means something (I chose to try and save the farmer’s son, but he ended up dying anyways), but the longer you play the game, you realize that no matter what choice you make, the game will still end up at the same destination. In a later part of the game, you have the choice to save a character or let him die. If you save him, he dies early in the next episode. Oops! Essentially, it doesn’t matter which choice you choose.
Trevor from GTA V
However, with all of this said, one game touched an emotional nerve with me. It’s a game that didn’t give me the choice to do an action, and it had me wishing the morality system was implemented, even if it was for this one scene. I am talking about Grand Theft Auto V, specifically the mission where Trevor has to torture a man because the F.I.B. orders Trevor to torture him (forgive me if I make an error here. It has been a while since I played the game, and I am mostly going on memory). This mission garnered a bit of criticism at the time of its release, but it came and went, as these criticisms typically tend to do. It’s weird, because the GTA series allows you to let your inner-maniac wild. I have run down a countless amount of innocent civilians without any thought to this act of senseless killing, but the moment I am locked into a room with a man I am forced to torture, my empathy is brought out and I want to refuse the mission. I am presented with a choice: if I want to progress through the game, I need to torture this man, no matter what my feelings are on the matter. If you haven’t played through the game, or the mission, here is a YouTube video that shows the entire ~10 minutes.
The game forces you to choose between three of four possible torture tools (waterboard him, use pliers to pull out his teeth, hook a car battery to his nipples, or swing a monkey wrench him in the groin), and again, you are forced to do this. You are playing as Trevor, and by making you play, the game makes you complicit with Trevor’s actions. The agent who is with you tells you to “get rid” of the man after you torture him, which is when Trevor decides to put the man on a plane back to his home country (Trevor feels like a libertarian’s ultimate fantasy — a video game character unhampered by government intervention, who continually utilizes his free will. This is an observation that doesn’t have much to do with this post, but it felt like I should include it). The game forces you into an undesired action, and then backtracks by trying to criticize that action. Is this Rockstar’s stealthy attempt to condone torture by showing you, the player, the effects of state-issued violence? Maybe, but this victim also gives the torturers valuable information about a man the F.I.B. wants dead (you kill this character while you play as Michael, one of the three playable characters in GTA V). In a sense, while you may ethically object to the torture, it is a useful tool to procure valuable information.
At this point, I figure a common response from the many readers reading this (I assume that after I post this I will have a million hits) is “it’s a video game; who cares?” (which I do not agree with, but maybe that’s another post? (probably not)). I am just speaking to my own feelings. Video games rarely elicit this type of response out of me, especially as I get older, so it was odd that this mission stuck in my craw as much as it did. Zero Dark Thirty, the recent Kathryn Bigelow film, depicted torture and also got criticized. But, while torture is shown in the film, it is also wryly depicted as being a useless tool of the U.S. government (no worthwhile information is gained from the torture scenes). There is also the torture porn genre, horror films that depict a villain torturing their victims, and I have never objected to them as much I have with Trevor’s scene (well, that’s not true. I Spit On Your Grave is a brutal, bleak watch. So is A Serbian Film. Just thinking about these two films is enough for me).
I had to add this picture to this post to lighten the mood
Maybe it’s because the F.I.B’s involvement with the torture scene so closely mirrors the ongoing torture administered by the U.S. government post-9/11. The CIA’s torture report was released a few months ago, and If anything, the scene with Trevor was tame compared to what was included in the report.
1. The CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” were not effective.
2. The CIA provided extensive inaccurate information about the operation of the program and its effectiveness to policymakers and the public.
3. The CIA’s management of the program was inadequate and deeply flawed.
4. The CIA program was far more brutal than the CIA represented to policymakers and the American public.
Throughout the program, multiple CIA detainees who were subjected to the CIA’s techniques and extended isolation exhibited psychological and behavioral issues, including hallucinations, paranoia, insomnia, and attempts at self-harm and self-mutilation. Multiple psychologists identified the lack of human contact experienced by detainees as a cause of psychological problems.
Is there a way to present torture tastefully in a video game? I am not sure. I am not even sure if GTA V‘s presentation was distasteful. Just because it made me feel uncomfortable doesn’t necessarily mean it was distasteful. However, I do feel like the creators want it both ways, in that they want to condemn the torture (again, by having Trevor saving the man after torturing him), but also want the player to revel in the torture (getting to pick the weapon, for one). It is a difficult question to answer, and unfortunately, I cannot make up my mind.
Well, that was fun! I am glad you stuck around to this point. When I started the blog, I was convinced that I would be wholly negative towards the scene, but I have relented a little, and I do not think I can state a view definitively. I am sorry that you got to this point if you were hoping for an answer. Just let it be, though.