Sep. 17, 2013 at 6:32 PM ET
Not even 24 hours into its long-awaited release, "Grand Theft Auto V" is already attracting criticism for an extended scene that puts the player in control of one of the game's protagonists as he tortures a man suspected of harboring secrets about terrorists.
Dubbed "the most disturbing scene" in the game by the popular gaming site Eurogamer, the episode comes midway through a mission called "By The Book," which has players oscillate between two of the game's player characters — Trevor and Michael — as they work to hunt down a terrorist at the behest of a fictional version of the FBI. Trevor chooses between using a variety of torture-friendly appliances like a wrench and electrified clamps to persuade the suspect into divulging more information, while Michael uses the intelligence gathered from this enhanced interrogation to hunt down the alleged terrorist and take him out with a sniper rifle. In one particularly ugly moment, the player makes a circular motion with the gamepad's joystick to wrench a tooth out of the suspect's mouth.
Just last month, another game industry heavyweight, Ubisoft, found itself in hot water for its own depiction of torture and terrorism. In the game "Splinter Cell: Blacklist," players are also put in the position of torturer, so to speak. And, within the last year, another of that company's titles, "Far Cry 3," featured a graphic and emotionally upsetting scene in which the player character, in a "Breaking Bad"-esque tragic turn, is forced to torture his own brother lest he alert the bad guys to his true identity.
When it comes to sparking video game controversies, however, "Grand Theft Auto V" developer Rockstar Games has long served as a poster child. In 2005, the company was subject to an investigation by the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) because of a sexual minigame in "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas." The ESRB said it didn't know about that minigame when it initially gave "San Andreas" an "M for Mature" rating. (The minigame, "Hot Coffee," was accessible through a modified version of the PC edition.) Journalist David Kushner would later describe the furor over the "Hot Coffee" mod as "the biggest scandal to ever hit the game press" in his book "Jacked: The Outlaw Story of Grand Theft Auto."
As video games continue to mature as a medium, attitudes about what kinds of content are acceptable to include in them are evolving as well. To Rockstar's credit, many of the game's early critics have noted in their reviews that the entire torture episode was intended as satire of America's own debates on the subject. Whether players think the satire is effective is a different question. But with the game being available to the public for less than 24 hours, the vast majority of Rockstar's audience will still have to play and see for themselves.
Yannick LeJacq is a contributing writer for NBC News who has also covered technology and games for Kill Screen, The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic. You can follow him on Twitter at @YannickLeJacq and reach him by email at: Yannick.LeJacq@nbcuni.com.