"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.
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.
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.