While fans would argue there’s more to the series than endless murder, GTA is still infamous for being violent. Appropriately, YouTube has spawned an enormous subculture of GTA Online videos documenting the most vicious ways to kill NPCs, and that footage is enjoyed by millions.
Typically, videos in this genre include the words “Brutal Kills” in the title, and there’s a long, ongoing list of them—and it’s not slowing down, even in 2016:
The biggest video I could find, published earlier this year, had over 21 million views:
To put that in perspective, that’s more views than Pewdiepie’s most-watched GTA V let’s play.
Brutal kill videos are about murder, obviously. Some kills try to tell a “story,” like this video where Franklin uses a shotgun to kill a family, all so that he can watch TV. Some kills in these compilation videos are simple and straightforward, like shooting someone point blank with a shotgun. It’s not uncommon to see videos where players are shooting police officers, killing Amanda, and burning people alive.
Sometimes, the segments are scripted: the opening of this video shows Michael trying to run over his wife with an uncooperative bulldozer, which almost comes across as the creator living out a very specific revenge fantasy.
One of the most popular tropes in brutal kill videos is death by train:
The best brutal kill videos set up ridiculous situations you won’t see during normal play, like using a mod so that Spider-Man can punch a car a few hundred yards through the air. Another one of my favorite videos uses a Just Cause 2 inspired mod that adds a grappling hook, allowing creators to fling people into the air and shoot them, as if they were a clay pigeon.
With mods enabled, the possibilities for murder are practically endless...and yet so many creators insist on only using John Cena to carry out the kills.
John Cena is one of the most popular figures in brutal kill compilations, oddly enough. Searching for “John Cena GTA Brutal Kill” returns dozens and dozens of videos all featuring the famous wrestler. Sometimes Cena is the killer, sometimes he is the victim. Disappointingly, most of his kills have him using a gun or a car, not actually killing people with wrestling moves. Given Cena’s inherent popularity on the internet, his appearance in GTA videos isn’t as ridiculous as it might sound.
Actually, a few different wrestlers often make guest appearances on brutal kill compilations: The Rock and Brock Lesnar can also be spotted, and they’ll sometimes come together to do stuff like and rob a convenience store.
A recurring element you’ll find in brutal kill videos is slow motion, which is presumably done so the viewer can get a good, long look at the murder. Slo-mo is done in one of two ways: by using Michael, who has the power outright, or by using the built-in video editor the game comes packed with.
I’ve played hundreds of hours of GTA V and GTA Online, so seeing people get run over or shot doesn’t usually feel uncomfortable. Even so, watching hundreds of people get killed in slow motion back to back can feel gross sometimes, especially when it’s something gruesome like watching someone burning.
Based on conversations with the creators, the appeal of making Brutal Kill videos for YouTubers like Ivanowski is that they can gain millions of views. “I believe that any person who is clear in his mind would be perfectly able to see the difference between a real world and virtual world,” explained Ivanowski.
To make the videos, Ivanowski simply starts some mayhem in the game, and later uses the packed-in Rockstar Editor to change camera angles and edit the kills into a specific order, eventually uploading it to YouTube with music. The process takes about 2-4 days for a 10 to 20 minute video. For Ivanowski, editing together videos is therapeutic. “One of the great things for me about making videos is that it makes me relaxed—I love the whole process of it!” said Ivanowski.
“I feel like some people simply want to watch virtual chaos and madness,” Ivanowski said.
Checking out the comments on these videos I found a mix of reactions. I saw comments which appreaciated the humor, and of course some commenters just like all the ways people die.
Other commenters weren’t as easily entertained, and instead think that the so-called brutal kills videos weren’t actually that brutal:
The huge popularity of Brutal Kill videos captures the same sort of morbid curiosity that drives people to watch others die on sites like Liveleak. Searching for “brutal” on Liveleak will return hundreds of videos of real people dying in gruesome ways, and that footage also get millions of views. Digging into this part of the internet is not fun and I don’t recommend it, but the fact it exists at all is a testament to the audience that’s out there and interested in watching people die in horrific or brutal ways. GTA just happens to give people a safe sandbox in which to do it.
Zach Zwiezen is a critic currently living in Kansas City, Missouri. He has written for Gamecritics, Killscreen and Entertainment Fuse.