My Dad is a Real Life Version of GTA V's Michael De Santa

Cassandra muses the similarities and disparities between Michael de Santa and her ex-gang member father.

Article by Cassandra Khaw, .

"Here are two numbers. If you're ever in a situation you can't get out of, call them."

Warning: Some spoilers are to be found here.

Those weren't my father's exact words, of course. At home, we spoke a creole language built of English and Hokkien with smatterings of Malay riveted in for good measure. Still, I remember the evening when he sat down and keyed those digits into my phone. There weren't any introductions, no awkward endeavors to quick-fix some unshakeable bond between stranger and would-be god-stranger. It was just names, conspicuously inconspicuous names, and numbers. Don't ask questions. Just call if your back is ever against the wall. For the record, I never found out what would happen if I dialed in but I suspect it would have involved blacks, blues and bits of people that normally belong on the inside.


It's no secret that the Grand Theft Auto franchise is a caricature, real life painted over with broad, ribald strokes. GTA doesn't pull the punches or make any pretenses at modesty. Hell, there's even a naughtily named stock market in the most recent one which should tell you everything you need to know about the series. Given how unrealistic and exaggerated everything is, you can imagine how weird it was to read about GTA 5's Michael de Santa and instantly think, "Dad?"

Like Michael de Santa, my Dad looks like he might have misplaced tufts of hair over the years. Similarly, he's a little dopey, a little squishy around the middle, an alumni of the School of Profitable Hard Knocks now luxuriating in the easy life. In his youth, Dad ran with a hard crowd, one that included cleaver-clutching colleagues and bloodied knuckles. He eventually gave it all up, of course, somewhere between an almost accident and my mother's pointed reminder to think of the children. Unlike Michael, however, Dad didn't quite make it to the happy family finish line. My parents divorced twelve years ago. I haven't spoken to him for three.


"What was it like living with a real life Michael?"


Retirement for the average Joe tends to be a time for introspection, a space of years dotted with nostalgia and the brandishing of memory-tinted photographs. But it's different for people like my Dad. The idea that anyone with a less-than-legal background would be forthcoming about their pasts is largely a Hollywood construct. Crime is glamorous there, all fast cars, fast women and fast answers. It's a thumping soundtrack to chart every footstep, a stylish grittiness and just enough 'bad boy' appeal to ensure no one will ever second guess the value of your affection again. A 'power fantasy', if you want to be cynically succinct about it. The apotheosis of that moment when you wanted to shovel your boss out of their more-valuable-than-existence ride and speed off into the Technicolor twilight with their spouse on an arm.

What entertainment moguls often seem to forget is that blood - real blood - is impossible to wash clean.

My Dad would destroy me if he saw me hanging around like this.

Dad never talked much about his youth. When he did, he would couch them as bedtime stories; inoffensive tales about some dude he chased around a classroom because he was being a jerk or a teacher too afraid to discipline him twice. Innocent, schoolyard anecdotes that positioned him as a irrepressible Asian Tom Sawyer. Sometimes, though, the lens would widen and little, disquieting details like an off-handed mention of how an associate was caught, pinned down and doused in acid would fall through. These occasions used frighten me. It was during these times that he stopped being my Dad and became somebody else, somebody who could delight in the prospect of brutalizing a kid who made the mistake of talking smack. Nonetheless, the grin he wore during such visceral oratories didn't scare me half as much as the fact these accounts never came with any closure. Every narrative inevitably ended on a cliff hanger. Dad never explained the social dynamics associated with leaving someone, ribs crushed and spirit broken, in a ditch and I never asked.

Needless to say, I can't imagine him having a therapist.


The single biggest incongruity between my Dad and the patriarch of the de Santa family lies in the way they parent. Even discounting how drug possession was and still is a capital offense here, it's hard to envision being remotely like Tracey and Jimmy de Santa. I get that they're supposed to be exaggerated pastiches, that Tracey's tramp stamp and Jimmy's deplorable online carriage are meant to be iconic of misspent youth (I hope so, at least) but it's still jarring to consider. While my father never lambasted his past, he also made it amply clear that the last thing he wanted was us diverging from the straight and narrow.

The slightest misconduct was invariably addressed with a rattan cane or a belt. We weren't allowed to cry, to exercise anything but the most cutting poise. My earliest memory was one of undiluted terror: After knocking over a glass of Chinese tea, I spent the rest of the night pleading tearfully for leniency. You can imagine how I felt when my mother ratted out my inaugural boyfriend.

Michael is surprisingly tolerant of his children's insubordinate behavior

I wonder sometimes what he was trying to keep my sister and I from. Men like him? Missed opportunities? Becoming echoes of people unraveled by destructive lifestyles? All of the above? I don't know. What I do know is that it accentuate the superficiality of Grand Theft Auto V's content for me. There's no question that this is a big game but, in some respects, it's not big enough. Gamasutra's Editor-at-Large Leigh Alexander frames the tragedy of GTA V better than I ever could. Everything is running on well-manicured rails. If it's not part of the ride, it doesn't exist. You can do yoga but you can't ask how Michael's kids went hideously wrong. They're god-awful stereotypes because, hey, that's part of the game's appeal, right? (And, to be fair, budgetary restraints are a killer.)

Still, it's disorienting. I'm on Skype and a friend is telling me about a dialogue sequence in a mission called Daddy's Little Girl. Michael and Tracey are arguing about her cocaine consumption. They're taking shots at one another. Tracey tells her father to grow up, that the 80s are over and Michael says they're not over in his head. It's poignant, it's sad, a not-quite-direct stab at how easily the young prostitute themselves for attention. But Michael doesn't really do much except mow down people for Tracey. There is no option to sit down and navigate through uncomfortable dialogue to make things better. Grand Theft Auto V will only arm you with guns, not words. Not the kind that matter, at least.

Picturing a flesh-and-blood Michael de Santa as someone who would even allow this to happen is even stranger still. He trussed his family up with money, bought them class with blood. How could he let a decade spiral out of control? Realistically, anyway. Michael's dysfunction familial situation works as a setting: you get a reason to engage in all of those scenarios we've come to associate with such households. But when you've lived with someone like Michael? It rings a little hollow.

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Comments 10

  • Avatar for #1 4 years ago
    I can relate to Michael for reasons I wish I couldn't. I, too, have a sketchy past and am now middle age (I consider 40 middle age) and know regrets over things lived while trying to be a good guy going forward.
    While GTA is a game, so it rightly should stick to the violence and action for the style of game it is, I understand where you're coming from with a sureal feeling of seeing so much in a character that both rings true and also has some over the topness.

    Now this is simply my interpretation, but what I took from Michael's kids (and I know retired gangsters that do have brats as bad as shown in the game) was a man given up.
    I thought he felt so evil for past sins, he deserved the abuse inflicted by his family, so he did nothing to stop it. No will to fight it left, he was running on empty spiritually at the beginning of the game.
    Even the other guys, it's funny to me when I've seen articles on the web who hate playing as Franklin because of the language. But how he and his friends talk is accurate.
    Or people thinking Trevor is completely over the top. I envy the life people lived to never know a Trevor, because they do exist. I know at least two even to this day.
    GTA5 is over the top. But not nearly as over the top as people in gated communities born well off think it is.
    Good article. Different. And I really didn't to see something that relatable to my life at a game site.
    I guess the ultimate point of my comment is that I understand your article, relate more than I think most would. So you're certainly not alone.
    And I'm sorry you had to grow up scared. Most guys who parent that way are just doing all they can to keep you from making choices that would make you live in the pain of carrying a heavy past delivers.
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  • Avatar for baggingspam #2 baggingspam 4 years ago I can relate to this too, there's when you get away scott free and then something bad happens to you it's like "I deserve this"
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  • Avatar for cassandrakhaw #3 cassandrakhaw 4 years ago

    Re: Brats like Michael's.

    I shudder to thin. And yeah, I'm not disregarding the possibility. Only that it didn't happen with my own father. (Or many other families with skeevy pasts that I know of). I suspect a lot of it may have to do with the country I grew up. East Asian decorum seeps into everything.

    Re: Michael, and finding him relatable.

    I hope you find everything you need to get on with life. My Dad isn't the only one who had a sketchy past. I've known far too many other people in a similar boat. And, from what I've seen, it's never simple in any way, shape, size or form. Good luck. I wish you nothing but happiness. Being able to owe up to your past and wanting to fix your mistakes is /hard/.

    Re: Being scared.

    Weirdly, what you said didn't occur to me till I finished writing it. for the longest time, I accepted it for what it was - the way we understand the sky is blue, I guess. But the realization came home when I was done. I don't forgive some of the things that happened, but I'm glad my father cared enough to try.

    <3 Thank you for writing in. Do stick around on USGamer.
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #4 jeremy.parish 4 years ago
    I haven't played GTA V yet, but this is a fantastic piece of game writing. Thanks for sharing it, Cassandra.
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  • Avatar for filgate #5 filgate 4 years ago
    @jeremy.parish I came to this site after hearing years of personal gaming stories on Retronauts. This fantastic piece of writing reminded me of Kat Bailey's Ms. Pac-Man story.
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  • Avatar for grpoindshakre #6 grpoindshakre 4 years ago
    hei guys check the new gta 5 strategy guide at and join the community.
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  • Avatar for bigdsweetz #7 bigdsweetz 4 years ago
    I'm not going to run my life story here, but what I will say is that it's funny how slapstick this game is, but at the same time how close it hits to home. I see I'm not the only one to ever say, "Wow, I actually did some of this dumb shit....How in the world did I make it."
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  • Avatar for matt0207 #8 matt0207 3 years ago
    the awesome game ever
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  • Avatar for ferrux #9 ferrux 3 years ago
    oynamaq isdiyiremm
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  • Avatar for kongenher51 #10 kongenher51 3 years ago
    im the real life trevor.. just a lot more psyko and creepy..
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