At PAX, I had the good fortune to catch Bethesda's Brink demo. While there was a lot of cool stuff in the game worth blogging about, what stuck with me was the use of torture in the game.
Of course, the game doesn't call it torture. I think the term they use is "extreme interrogation tactics." But when is something "interrogation" over "torture?" Is it just how badly you beat somebody up, or does it matter what you're trying to get out of the person/NPC?
In Brink, this is what happens: you're playing as a military operative in a futuristic setting. During a firefight, you sneak behind enemy lines and happen upon an injured rebel writhing on the ground. An option pops up, prompting you to press X to interrogate the guy and it looks like if you select it, your character pulls out an iPhone-iish device. Your character then shocks the heck out of the guy until he screams, "Okay! I'll talk!" Then your objective screen updates and a new icon appears on the map.
In the grand scheme of violence in video games, it's not graphic. It's actually similar to what happens to Snake in the first Metal Gear Solid when Revolver Ocelot has him strapped spread-eagle style and shocks him (as the player, you press buttons to Resist or Submit — Submitting kills Meryl and I couldn't hit that button fast enough). The difference in Brink is that my character is doing it to someone else. So on a gut level, I don't want to call it torture because I'm the "good guy," right?
But then there's the Punisher game with interactive torture. That's torture because I think the game goes so far as to call it so, but as a player I'm comfortable with it because I'm playing as the Punisher. Yeah, he fights for justice, but he's not what people would call a "good" guy. So it's okay for me as a player to play as him torturing somebody because that's what the Punisher would do — never mind what I would do. Besides, they were probably bad people who deserved it anyway.
Now think about Red Faction: Guerrilla where you're playing on the side of a rebel faction. Like Brink, it's a wartime situation and gaining information is crucial to the success of missions. In one scene, explored by Stephen Totilo, an NPC sidekick "interrogates" somebody for said information. With knives. Is that torture? If you're not sure, apply the same line of questioning to Killzone 2 when Rico gets a little "extreme" when interrogating an enemy.
To confuse you even more on the subject of torture, think about situations where it's not about information — it's about control. For example, there's the Grand Theft Auto: Vice City mission, Death Row and the Ransom mission in Grand Theft Auto IV. In both cases, somebody is deliberately hurting someone else for revenge or just because they're violent by nature. That's really easy to spot as torture — but at the same time, in GTAIV, you're playing as Niko, the guy that hits a woman tied to a chair and then takes a picture of her. You don't really want to call that torture, do you? It's easier just to play it down as no big deal or write it off because it's not an interactive part of the game — so "you" didn't torture anybody.
Lastly, let's talk about torture being inflicted on you, the player. In these cases, you probably wouldn't think of what you're going through as "torture," (unless it's a Saw game), but by definition, a game is deliberately inflicting suffering on you. Example: Missile Command. The game is about mutually assured destruction in the Cold War era, but at the same time, it's a psychological exercise that tortures the player: by design, you cannot "win" Missile Command. Sure, a lot of early arcade games were un-winnable — but by forcing the player to realize that no matter how good you are at the game, no matter how many quarters you sink into it, you cannot save six cities from a nuclear holocaust, the game is deliberately messing with you. A more obvious example of mental anguish inflicted on the player would be Fable II — because it's not just that your character is being electrocuted, it's that you're losing all of that XP you gathered and racking up evilness (which is torture to a goody-two-shoes gamer like me).
So what's really going on in Brink? When I zap the guy with my iPhone-looking device, am I committing torture or just "extreme" interrogation? I didn't see an option to just question the guy before shocking him. I'm not sure if there were other ways to get the information that the subject had. I do know that if the game actually called it "torture," I'd be way less inclined to play as that class of character. For me, that would be the worst kind of torture: role-playing as a character that I want to play as benevolent, and then being forced to do something I'm not okay with because the game has other ideas about where the line between torture and interrogation lies.
P.S. You want the line clearly drawn? Check this game out.