Last week I talked about Michael’s relationship with his kids and how they don’t really work in a dramatic sense. This week let’s wrap up the family drama by talking about Michael’s relationship with his wife.
Amanda picks fights with Michael at every opportunity. If the two of them share a scene, it will only take a couple of lines of dialog before she begins digging at him and trying to start a fight. That’s fine. These two have traded a lot of lies and insults over the years and they’ve both been unfaithful. They’re both trapped in this marriage by the “witness protection” arrangement they have, and neither one of them seems to have much in the way of friends. I understand these people are unhappy.
What Does Amanda Want?
Rather than find herself a nice quiet boyfriend elsewhere, Amanda seems intent on banging guys around the house where her restless retired gangster husband is likely to find out about it. In this story she screws both her tennis coach and her yoga instructor.
This is a good setup for a quirky family drama. Unfortunately, it’s all setup and no payoff. Is Amanda having these affairs at the house because she wants Michael’s attention, or is she just dumb and careless? Is she trying to get Michael to care, or does she want him to leave her alone? At various points in the story you can find scenes that could support either of these contradictory readings. In a storytelling sense, the writer needs to answer the fundamental question: What does this character really want?
The story doesn’t say and it’s hard for the audience to care because she’s so grating. Again, the arguments are usually framed such that Shrill and Hysterical Amanda picks a fight with Totally Reasonable and Trying His Best Michael. Maybe the writer is afraid of giving our protagonist palpable flawsI mean, beyond the flaws of being career criminals and killers., but by doing things this way they undercut one of the major plot threads in the game. Just like they never explored Michael’s over-protective nature towards Tracy, they never explored the root of the conflict between Michael and Amanda. This story is all sizzle and no bacon.
But Shamus! This is a GTA game, not a drama! You can’t expect the writer to make some Cannes Film Festival shit. The writer isn’t writing Oscar bait!
True. I agree that this is a lowbrow pulpy adventure story. But the writer spends a lot of time on these family scenes. No matter what you claim the writer is trying to do, it’s not working. It doesn’t work emotionally, since the story is trying to get us to invest emotionally in repulsive people. It doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t even work as imitative filmmaking. Scorsese has a lot of interpersonal drama in his movies, and it’s always bang-on.
As an example: In Casino, Sam (Robert DeNiro) is married to and infatuated with Ginger (Sharon Stone). We in the audience can tell that she’s dangerous and toxic. She’s bad for Sam. But the writer also spends several scenes establishing her as gorgeousOkay, that’s as easy as pointing the camera at Sharon Stone, but you get what I’m saying., clever, and manipulative. We can see why Sam likes her, even if we don’t. We get why he likes her, and we come to understand the root of her dysfunctionDrug addiction, avarice, and a pimp that’s basically brainwashed her.. When their relationship turns possessive, vindictive, and ultimately destructive, we can see how all of it is a result of the choices they’ve made as characters.
Meanwhile, in GTA V the characters fight because they’re irredeemable toxic jerks and they stop because the writer says so. The story does this pantomime of an arc without delivering one. In the end we don’t care because the writer doesn’t do anything to get us invested in the characters first. These people don’t have any redeeming characteristics. Fixing this would be as easy as giving Amanda a creative hobby, or making Jimmy really funny, or showing that Tracey is actually clever and self-aware.
They’re not even good at being bad people! We could at least enjoy them as antiheroes if they each had a skill that made them special. Jimmy could be a fantastic liar / con artist, Tracy could be good at manipulating dudes with her sex appeal, and Amanda could be good at using her sharp tongue on people who aren’t Michael. Instead, the entire family is terrible at everything. Jimmy has no charisma, Tracy dances like an idiot, and Amanda is shallow, dim, and pretentiousHer attempts at tapping into the spiritual side of Yoga are an embarrassment.. These people have nothing going for them. We can’t even respect them as rivals within the story. They just hang around the main character and make unpleasant noises at him.
The inciting incident is during a yoga lesson with Amanda’s yoga teacher, Fabian. Fabian ropes Michel into joining the session. (Yes, the yoga session is an actual gameplay mode. I mean obviously this game would feel incomplete without YOGA MODE.) After a few minutes of this, Fabian begins doing “yoga” that involves rubbing his crotch against Amanda’s backside. Michael does not respond well to this. He tries to attack Fabian, whiffs, and falls into his own swimming pool. Amanda goes ballistic over this and storms off. After this we have the scene where Jimmy drugs his father and dumps him in the street. When Michael sobers up and gets home again the next morning, his entire family is gone.
After this we have a bunch of missions where we see how devastating this is for Michael, even though it’s probably a huge relief for the audience.
Much later in the story (after they all take turns rejecting his pleas for reconciliation) he meets up with his family again. Amanda is with Fabian now, and it’s obvious everyone is sick of the guy. Fabian throws some passive-aggressive snark at Michael, who responds by bashing him in the face with a laptop. After this the family comes back with Michael.
So he assaulted Fabian a second time, and Amanda accepts him back for doing the exact same thing that caused her to leave him in the first place?
This follows the structure of a drama. You’ve got scenes of conflict, escalation, estrangement, and reconciliation. But none of it makes any sense because it’s not really based on anything concrete. His family is mad about drinking that we never see and which isn’t a burden to them, then they leave him over crimes that are less than their own, then they accept him back despite there being no change in anyone’s behavior.
Michael and Jimmy get a scene of reconciliation. Except, at the point where you’d expect an apology / hug / expression of affection, Jimmy gives us bathos by asking for a car. The scene is structured like a family drama, but then sabotages the moment of catharsis with vapidity and cynicism. If you’re going to tell a family drama, then make a proper drama with emotional payoff. If you’re too cool for that icky emotional stuff and you just want to mock family drama, then put some jokes in there so we can laugh along. Or, you, know… do both.
You can make fun of something while also appreciating it Examples: Galaxy Quest, Shaun of the Dead, Deadpool, Saints Row.. But Grand Theft Auto spends a lot of its expansive runtime on this family drama where the characters are irritating, the stakes are nonexistent, and the drama is undercut by nihilistic bathos.
I have no idea why this story is in the game, since it feels like the writer didn’t want to tell it in the first place.
 I mean, beyond the flaws of being career criminals and killers.
 Okay, that’s as easy as pointing the camera at Sharon Stone, but you get what I’m saying.
 Drug addiction, avarice, and a pimp that’s basically brainwashed her.
 Her attempts at tapping into the spiritual side of Yoga are an embarrassment.
 Examples: Galaxy Quest, Shaun of the Dead, Deadpool, Saints Row.
The Best of 2014
My picks for what was important, awesome, or worth talking about in 2014.
Why Batman Can't Kill
His problem isn't that he's dumb, the problem is that he bends the world he inhabits.
Pixel City Dev Blog
An attempt to make a good looking cityscape with nothing but simple tricks and a few rectangles of light.
The Disappointment Engine
No Man's Sky is a game seemingly engineered to create a cycle of anticipation and disappointment.
The Middle Ages
Would you have survived in the middle ages?