For the moment, let’s take the Michael / Trevor conflict, the father / son stuff between Michael and Franklin, the FIB stuff, the Devin Weston stuff, and the Union Depository job, and cram these disparate elements into a cardboard box labeled “Main Plot of GTA V”. If we can really call those five-ish parallel threads the plot, then I think the conflict between Michael and his family is our B-story. Sadly, none of it really works. The writer put in the timeAnd then some., but the framing and tone work against what the writer is trying to do.
The central problem is that this plot thread is about Michael’s love for his family. The way the story is structured, we’re supposed to long for reconciliation. But this can’t work, because the writer frames his family as antagonists.
It’s not even subtle. Michael’s family are heinous people. Sure, Michael is heinous too and they all more or less deserve each other, but the family commits the unpardonable sin of being antagonistic to the audience. They work against the desires of the player. They pick fights, scream at our protagonist, cause problems, and drag him away from the cool gangster stuff the gameplay is designed to support and into crass melodrama that it isn’t.
Worse, they all unite against Michael, further solidifying them as an antagonistic force. The DeSanta family are all broken, obnoxious, selfish, and given to countless vices, but for whatever reason the rest of the family can tolerate each other’s shortcomings but not Michael’s. The big gotcha they pull on him again and again is accusing him of being a “drunk” and a “murderer”.
I suppose they’re right about the murderer thing. Although that since this is a GTA game, this makes them antagonistic towards the protagonist. They may have the moral high ground, but they’re still working against the desires of the audience to see Michael become a gangster again. Moreover, this position doesn’t make any sense in terms of the story. They hate him when he’s bumming around the house at the start of the game, and they reconcile with him at the end once he’s returned to his life of crime.
As for being a drunk? We never see this supposedly terrible drinking. Michael is always sober when we take control of him. More importantly, it’s not clear how his supposed drinking is a hardship for any of them. Does he get drunk and abuse them? Endanger them? They never say so. We never see it happen. The story shows us the awful things his family does, but then tells us that Michael is also somehow bad to them when he’s not on screen. As far as the audience can tell, Michael sits around the house watching 80s action flicks. The rest of them are busy with their own lives and are happy to ignore him, so his alleged drinking problem shouldn’t even concern them.
If this happened once or twice it wouldn’t be a big deal. But this is a constant running theme in the story. The cutscene shows us his family being awful, and then they justify it by alluding to behavior the audience never sees. This naturally reinforces their status as villains in the minds of the audience.
The other thing making them antagonists is that we can see how much Michael loves them, but we don’t get a sense that they love him back. In the prologue he gives up everything he loves (his best friend, his beloved job as a robber) to keep them safe. This was his whole life and the one thing he really loves doing, and he gave it all up for them. As a result, they get to live in a mansion in
Beverly Hills Rockford Hills. They are incredibly comfortable and fabulously wealthy thanks to his sacrifice. Not only are they not grateful, they seem to detest him. Again, this is antagonistic framing.
When they leave halfway through the game, it crushes him. He reaches out to them, tells them he loves them, and in return they insult him even more. In the context of a movie, a family drama like this would be structured so that the family is always looking reconciliation but our main character keeps pushing them away due to his own damage / neurosis / character flaws. The story is then a journey for the main character to overcome these inner demons so the family can be whole again. In GTA V, this is all backwards. Michael repeatedly expresses concern for his family, and they routinely reject his affection or try to use it to manipulate him. We never see the reverse, where one of them reaches out to Michael and is rebuffed. I’m totally willing to believe that Michael is a lousy guy to have around but the story is very vague about how he harms his family and very explicit about how they hurt him.
We can interpret this story in one of three ways:
- This isn’t supposed to be a story. This is a satire of family dramas. (This doesn’t work because there are no jokes and it doesn’t have anything coherent to say on the topic.)
- The family doesn’t want the money or the house, they just want their father to be engaged and involved. Michael needs to somehow change to reconcile with them. (This doesn’t work because it’s not clear how Michael’s behavior is a burden to them or how he needs to change.)
- The family are selfish idiots and they need to change by learning to appreciate the beneficial side of Michael’s violent outbursts. (This doesn’t work because the family is so repugnant and we have no reason to cheer for them.)
You can look at individual scenes and argue for any one of these three, but taken as a whole it doesn’t accomplish any of them.
Let’s look at a few of Michael’s encounters with his family:
Jimmy De Santa
Jimmy De Santa is 20 years old. He’s never had a job. According to his father, he spends all day “jerking off and playing videogames”. He is… not a nice person.
In one scene, we see Michael trying to watch a movie downstairs. But he can’t enjoy it, because Jimmy’s voice is booming across the house. Jimmy is playing some sort of online shooter and yelling gross slurs at the other players. Michael storms upstairs to get him to knock it off. Jimmy brushes his dad off without offering to tone it down or knock it off with the awful cringe-inducing trash talk. Michael gets pissed and smashes Jimmy’s jumbo television, putting an end to the videogame for good.
On one hand, yes, I’ll admit this is awful, destructive, and abusive behavior on the part of Michael. Michael is a bad father. However, the writer just got done portraying Jimmy as basically the bane of every gamer. In a movie, this is how villains are framed. The writer shows us a horrible strawman jackass so we can enjoy the cathartic sight of them getting their comeuppance. In another story, the TV smashing would be the moment of payoff for the audience where the villain gets what they deserve. So which is it? Are we supposed to be delighted or outraged when Michael smashes the TV?
The story spends all this time watching Michael yearn for his family, but the writer spends so much time making the audience hate them. This puts the audience at odds with the desires of the main character.
Worse, this scene comes shortly after a mission where Jimmy tried to sell his father’s boat so he could buy himself a car. Michael loved the boat, and Jimmy stole it so he could get something for himself. He didn’t even have a plan for covering up his crime. He was willing to brazenly hurt his father for a possession. After the boat is stolen Jimmy says, “Dad, relax. It’s just a thing.” But then Jimmy himself is deeply offended by the loss of his television. Jimmy and Michael are too dim to notice the symmetry here, but we in the audience do, and it further destroys whatever sympathy we might have for Jimmy. Michael might be distraught over his failings as a father, but as a member of the audience I’m glad to see Jimmy is off the internet and no longer screaming his vile nonsense at strangers.
The capstone to all of this is when Michael’s family leaves him. Jimmy spikes his dad’s drink. He then dumps his helpless father in the middle of the street and drives away in his car. This isn’t just irresponsible or selfish, this is outright evil. And it doesn’t come up again later. Jimmy never answers for any of this. This moment should feed into the conclusion where these two people realize how badly they’ve hurt each other and figure out why they keep doing it. Instead, it’s just one more reason to hate Michael’s son.
I get that Michael loves Jimmy, but their reconciliation arc is completely devoid of stakes and tension because the writer made the kid so horrendously loathsome.
Of all the family, I think Tracy comes off the best. Sure, we get a scene where she’s drunk and asking her dad for money (while we never see Michael drunk around his family) so her gripes about him being a “drunk” fall pretty flat, but she’s not as viscerally repugnant as Jimmy and (unlike the other two) I think she even has a good reason to have a grudge against her dad.
The story hints that she’s working in pornography. It’s not clear if Michael really understands this, but when he hears that his daughter is on a boat with business guys that are into “porno”, he swims out and “saves” her.
This might be understandable if she was still a minor, but Tracy is 22. She’s old enough to make these kinds of decisions for herself. On the other hand, why is she still living with her parents at this point? Whatever. You could argue that Michael is trying to protect her, but it comes off as kind of gross. It seems like he’s less worried that his daughter is going into sex work and more worried that his daughter is just, you know, having sex. Then again, his wife Amanda was a sex worker. (As a stripper, and sometimes prostitute.)
The dialog deliberately avoids giving a reason for why Michael did this. Maybe he’s trying to save her from making the same life-ruining mistakes her mother did, or maybe he’s trying to control the sex life of his adult daughter. In a story focusing on the conflict between the characters, it really confuses things when the writer leaves things like this vague. This is the source of the tension between them. It should drive their conflict and their reconciliation should be the point where the two of them work it out. They reconcile later because the writer says so, but Michael never has to deal with this and accept that his daughter is all grown up now and her sex life is none of his business.
Later, she’s auditioning for Fame or Shame, a reality TV show. Once again, she seems to be trying to use her sex appeal for attention. It’s reasonable to say this this is a foolish course of action, but Michael doesn’t handle it well. Michael and Trevor (this is the big bonding moment for them after being reunited) storm the studio and assault Lazlow, the presenter. Once again, she’s quite reasonably outraged by this.
Her arc works right up until the moment of reconciliation. For a third time, Michael barges into her life and interferes with her attempts to break into show business. C-list celebrity Lazlow is still hitting on her, and Michael disfigures him. Michael gives him a piercing he doesn’t want, cuts off his ponytail, and uses a tattoo machine to draw a dick on his chest. This assault is worse than the last one, but this time Tracy accepts her father back instead of getting angry.
Anyway, Tracy doesn’t overtly do anything to hurt her father besides shriek at him at a couple of points in the story, and his actions are humiliating and upsetting for her. If the other two family members were handled this way then I think this family subplot could work. You can almost see the intended structure: Michael loves his family but he doesn’t know how to express that love so he drives them away. The writer didn’t even need to make them sympathetic. They just needed to not be repugnant and we could get on board with Michael’s struggle.
We’ll talk about his wife Amanda next week.
 And then some.
Batman: Arkham City
A look back at one of my favorite games. The gameplay was stellar, but the underlying story was clumsy and oddly constructed.
The Mistakes DOOM Didn't Make
How did this game avoid all the usual stupidity that ruins remakes of classic titles?
Resident Evil 4
Who is this imbecile and why is he wandering around Europe unsupervised?
A look at the main Borderlands games. What works, what doesn't, and where the series can go from here.
Blistering Stupidity of Fallout 3
Yeah, this game is a classic. But the story is idiotic, incoherent, thematically confused, and patronizing.