Despite the craziness that generally accompanies the holiday season, I’ve taken advantage of what free time I’ve had of late to catch up on some Grand Theft Auto V. Having made some good progress in the game over the past week, it’s been on my mind quite a bit this week. On my blog, I wrote up a Listmas list of some of my favorite things about the game so far – those things that keep me (and will keep me) coming back to the game. But recently I encountered one more thing element of the game that has more than captured my attention: the De Santa family.
*Did my best to avoid spoilers, but there are a few ahead mostly concerning a specific GTA V side mission*
I don’t think I need to rehash much about the game here – it couldn’t be escaped in the news this past year – but one of the three protagonists you get to play as in the game is Michael De Santa (formerly Townley). In a past life, he was a wanted criminal with a spotted past. In the game, he’s trying to put all that behind him and lead something of a “normal” life with his wife, Amanda, and his two kids, Jimmy and Tracey. Throughout what I’ve played so far, Michael professes that just about everything he’s doing is for his family and that everything he did the past was somehow meant to help his family as well. To say that Michael, Amanda, Jimmy, and Tracey live in a constant state of dysfunction is an understatement. The quad mirrors well many of today’s real celebrity families. Both Amanda and Michael have been unfaithful, Jimmy has a drug habit, and Tracey lives just above the threshold of seedy stardom.
Early on the game contains a few side missions involving the De Santas, and they mostly involve Michael getting his children out of trouble. Then at a certain point, Michael becomes separated from his family and despondency sets in. He’s promised they’ll be reunited at some point, but until then, he’s going to have to follow someone else’s rules. And he does because he wants his family back. When Michael and his wife and kids are reunited, you can play a side mission that’s aptly titled “Reuniting the Family,” which involves various bits of payback and a therapy session. I recently completed this mission, and it’s been stuck in my head ever since. In my head, I keep coming back to it with questions about and confusion over the notion of “family” in games.
The scene that really got me thinking about this was the therapy session. (Lots of NSFW yelling ahead should you choose to watch…)
There’s a lot of hate in that scene, but none so scathing as what Michael says just before the session is suddenly ended, about putting Amanda in the ground “with the rest of ’em.” Michael is by far my favorite character in the game, and he’s certainly no angel, but I was shocked when those words came out of his mouth. But then, I was absolutely speechless at what happened next. Outside the therapist’s office, Michael and Amanda somehow agree to give their relationship another go. It’s made pretty clear in the game that Michael and Amanda tread a very rocky road to love, but I was sure that that scene was going to end with Amanda throwing the kids in the car and screeching off in utter rage. But nope, they reconciled and went home.
Not too long after this mission, Michael receives a message from Amanda telling him both how awful he is and how they need to be a family. No one else could understand them, after all, so they need each other, even if their relationship involves outright threats to kill one another.
Though I don’t agree with how the De Santas function, at that point, I kind of got them.
The nuclear family is a hard thing to express in video games. I mean, no two people have the same experience growing up or the same family structures. That’s probably why we seem to end up with semi-idyllic, mission-driven depictions of family, like in Red Dead Redemption. The whole goal of John Marston’s quest is to get his family back. And once he does, everything picks right up where he left off, and, to the detriment of the story, he goes on with the “perfect” life. The Fable games played around with the notion of creating a family, getting married and having children and keeping spouse and children happy. But it’s very artificial and there’s not much to be gained by going through the trouble of acquiring family members. In both cases (and I welcome other examples in the comments), “family” is just another mission. It doesn’t involve any emotional investment from the player.
Turning back to Michael and Amanda, I was furious at Michael after that therapy session, and I was even more upset when they agreed to get back together. How terrible! How pathetic! How despicable! I continued the game in something of an angry stupor, and for a few moments, I really wanted to reach into the TV and throttle both Michael and Amanda for just being so damn stupid. Amanda’s message to Michael changed all that, no matter how on-the-nose it was. I understood better this wacky family. No matter how awful they were to each other, they really did need one another. The De Santas aren’t a good family, or the perfect family, or even a typical family, but they are family nonetheless. And I applaud Rockstar for putting on display all their wretchedness. No family has it all figured out, not mine, maybe not yours, and certainly not the De Santas. And I hope they serve as taste of things to come in the depiction of family in video games.
Postcript: Dear GFNers, speaking of family, with my own obligations getting the best of me next week, I won’t be posting here on January 3rd. So I hope you all enjoy a wonderful New Year’s with your own family and friends, and I’ll see you back here on January 10th. — Cary