When torture doesn’t work

A Way Out Interrogation

Even the best of games will have hit and miss moments. This is particularly so when a game tries, but fails to provoke a strong gut reaction. Such as when using torture. Torture in digital games are often quite problematic. If your hero character is captured, and subjected to torture there might be some discomfort tied to the visceral and violent imagery, but you’re seldomnly compelled to talk, as you’re either not given the option by the game (you are a bad ass and about to escape after all) or you don’t feel threatened as you are safe in your game area – why would you talk? You can just look away if it becomes too graphic. Recently I started thinking about torture sequences in games, and how games tend to get it wrong.

One of the best games I’ve played so far this year is Josef Fares’ A Way Out, which can only be played in two-player co-op and tells the story of two prison inmates wanting to escape and exact revenge on the man they both blame for being imprisoned. If someone presented this story and the two characters, the working class Leo and white collar Vinnie forced to work together in prison, as a movie or a premise for a TV-show I would be bored to tears. We’ve seen and heard this story before. And this is where the game medium shines, as this rather trite and tropey story becomes an emotionally engaging experience. Due to your involvement and engagement with the game. Your complicity if you will. As the kids would say, this game has the feels.

While playing you start identifying with your own character and his story, sympathizing with both him and his partner – your partner. The game itself is not too difficult, a mix of point and click adventure with simple puzzles, some quicktime events, car chases, shootouts and even a moment of side-scrolling beat’em up that had me laughing out loud from nostalgic kick. But what sets the game apart is the focus on co-op mechanics, the game can’t be played without a partner, either online or on your couch, and the puzzles can’t be solved if not both are working together, in tandem. In one early segment, they attempt to climb a shaft, back to back, and the players have to time their movement. Over the six or eight hours of the game, the game mechanics condition the players to work as a team, and to think of themselves as partners (in crime, as it were). And to understand the impact of this, I’d recommend you playing as I’d like to keep this post spoiler free.

While the game is very enjoyable, and has many merits, there is one sequence that I felt didn’t live up to its potential and it left me wondering why. This is a scene that had great potential to upset me as a player – but didn’t.  In this scene our two protagonist hunt down a “bad guy” who has vital information, and in order to get him to talk submit him to torture. Rather lackluster torture unfortunately. 

A Way Out Interrogation

And the tools provided to you are absolutely gruesome, and includes nail guns and hammers. But you never use them, you only threaten to use them. And the bad guy refuses to talk. You shoot the nail gun, but not at him. And he still refuses. When the two partners have threatened with enough items from the construction site, he breaks and starts talking. I was disappointed. While it may have been, or not, out of character for Vinnie to torture this man, it wouldn’t be for Leo who acts as the violent tough guy throughout the story. The designers simply decided to pull the punches, but it also reveals the ugly truth about torture – it doesn’t really work. And even more so, torture in games doesn’t work. Because what is truly at stake in a torture scene when nothing is actually at stake, when it becomes all about the procedure of filling the pain or fear bar, whether visible or not, of the victim?

A game that seemingly does this a lot better is Grand Theft Auto V, which controversial torture sequence crossed many people’s boundaries. Mechanically the two games are similar though. You have to do “torture” with x amount of objects, y amount of times. Each different object gives you a different reaction and animation.

What makes this scene work, while the scene in A Way Out doesn’t? I am not sure, but I would point to the visuals of the scene. Where the sequence in A Way Out can be seen from a distance, and is a bit more chaotic as you are two people “working on” the same victim, you don’t get the same visceral graphics in Grand Theft Auto V. Also, in A Way Out you don’t actually get to see torture being performed, whereas in Grand Theft Auto V you have to do it, with your controller. This combination of visual element and the fact that you are actually doing something with the controller to perform the torture may tip the scale of that scene towards being an emotionally transgressive experience. And for some it was enough for them to quit the game.

For me though, the scene in Grand Theft Auto V also lacked something, beyond the visceral experience. To me, there wasn’t much at stake. I didn’t identify with the victim. It might be because torture involves dehumanization of the victim, you are stripping them of their humanity, turning them into an object to play around with. This process is maybe too easy or simple in a game, when you are already dealing with an object, whose sole purpose is to be manipulated mechanically to fill a bar.

That is not to say that torture never “works on me” in a game. The stellar example to me is a scene from the first episode of Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead: Michonne, to my mind an underappreciated season in this oft-talked about series. Here a teenage kid is tortured, and you are forced to go along with it, asking him the questions and complying with your captors wishes, lest he be beaten and tortured. It was a nerve-wracking scene, and I think it works much in the same way that actual torture works. You are responsible and complicit in what happens to the victim, but not by being the perpetrator. You are responsible because you can stop someone else’s pain, to keep them from being harmed by complying. Resisting and spiting those who torture you, is maybe easier when they only harm you, but when they threaten to harm someone else, especially someone you care about, you are a lot more defenseless. And it circumvents the issue of the victim being just an object of your manipulation in a game. The victim is rather someone whom you can save. And this may make you even more complicit. And to be frank, that is how you actually would go about using torture effectively.

The second episode of The Walking Dead: Michonne allows you the chance to return the favour, and torture one of the bad guys. And maybe this scene works because you are at this emotionally engaged with the situation, and it is your choice to do it, but also… it is a pretty graphic scene, compared to the other two games. And the torture is made even worse by the fact that it doesn’t really work and the victim will only taunt you as you inflict more and more pain, eventually having to choose between killing him or not.

I’m still trying to figure out the differences between these sequences. There are several factors at play. There’s the graphical elements that can cause discomfort and revulsion, even fright, in some of these torture sequences. There are the procedural aspects that dehumanize the victims, to the point of making torture a harmless game. And there are the questions of identification and complicity. All of these work on a contextual and subjective level, but I believe that there are qualitative differences between these three scenes. Where the torture in A Way Out is much more of a mechanical game sequence, and while the same is true for Grand Theft Auto V there are visual elements at place here that are profoundly transgressive and disturbing to some players, and then there’s the scene in The Walking Dead: Michonne that works by making you complicit in the harm, without objectifying the victim. It doesn’t help that the victim in the latter is a defenseless teenager, who in the end suffers humiliation when he wets himself from fright.

But these are just some random thoughts, if you disagree or have a counter argument, please let me know. Heck, let me know if you agree as well.

A Way Out Police Car

And don’t let my critical judgment of one scene in A Way Out scare you away from the game. It’s a marvelous game experience, that had my partner and I’s hearts beating and we were yelling at the screen (and each other) towards the end. I just don’t want to spoil anything, go play it.

About Kristian Bjørkelo

PhD student attached to Games and Transgressive Aesthetics, performing ethnographic studies of gaming culture online.

One Reply to “When torture doesn’t work”

  1. Great article, I think torture in games is an interesting subject. The scenario you mention from A Way Out was a definite low point in an otherwise great experience, just pointless and boring really.

    As for the points about gta v, it’s certainly more intense, and it even tries to have an opinion on torture by having the crazy asshole character call out that it’s pointless unless you’re doing it for fun. But like you said, there’s no connection to the character being tortured, and it ends up falling mostly flat.

    I’d like to call out what I feel is an example of effective use of torture in a game. The first Metal Gear Solid has a scene where you have to resist torture through a button mashing mini game. While you can just give the bad guys what they want and move on, this has consequences and actually causes the death of a character the protagonist cares about. If you don’t give in, the mini game is of such intensity and goes on long enough to exhaust you and maybe even cause you pain. Fail to mash the button hard enough and the hero dies, making you have to go through it all over again. It’s not exactly a rumination on the horrors of torture, but it does have that Kojima meta-touch of making a thing in the game reach out and involve you personally, if ever so slightly.

    Oh, and thanks for bringing up the Michonne season of Walking Dead. I skipped that one, but it sounds like that was a mistake, I’ll have to check it out now.

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