Michael DeSanta is an angry, broken man.
His wife and children have deserted him. His wealth does not satisfy him. His return to a life of crime—while initially invigorating—has landed him in an interagency war between the FIB and the IAA. It's also brought Trevor Phillips back into his life, forcing him to confront the sins of his past in a way he hoped he would never have to.
It is at this point in Grand Theft Auto V that film producer Solomon Richards invites Michael into his office to show him something.
In the heirachy of Vinewood moviemaking, giving DeSanta an associate producer credit on the movie he's helped Richards out with (by murdering someone) is probably a small thing. He hasn't been paid. He's not guaranteed any future work from Richards. He's still got too many guys gunning for him, but there's his name on the screen.
On the screen! Not a wanted poster. Not on a bank statement.
All the anger, all the spite, all the emotional pain Michael DeSanta has been going through... it all goes out of him at once. For the first time in the twenty or thirty hours I've been playing, the smile on his face isn't tinged by irony or anger.
He's happy. By god, he's happy.
It was the most surprising moment I had in gaming last year.
A lot of critics, including this site's own Gene Park, complained that one of the chief problems of Grand Theft Auto V is that the stories of Franklin, Michael, and Trevor don't go anywhere. I agree with that... about 66%. While the overall arc of the trio battling their various foes is eventually completed, Franklin and Trevor's arc don't really feel complete.
Franklin makes a better life for himself, but remains lonely and is still trying to figure out a future. Trevor has gotten a big score and reached some kind of détente with Michael, but ends as frustrated and screwed up as he was at the beginning. However, I think a lot of critics have missed that Michael De Santa has a successful arc, and that arc redeems Grand Theft Auto V's story, at least a bit.
Let me backtrack for a moment and set the stage.
The chief problem I had with Grand Theft Auto IV (whose story was also pilloried) was the way it was so relentlessly downbeat. Niko Bellic's attempt to build a new life was beset on all sides by fools and corrupt systems both criminal and lawful, not to mention his own massive character flaws. Either ending the player chose was one which left him with a pyrrhic victory.
There was something painfully draining about it all, and while the overall commentary and satire of Grand Theft Auto IV is hard-edged and frequently amusing, it's also lacking in any real insight other than "everybody sucks". Co-creator/head writer Dan Houser seems to view caring about anything (besides your immediate bros) as a sign of intellectual and moral depravity.
I'm not aware of what Dan Houser's political philosophy is, or even if what he believes can be dignified with such a term. Whatever it is, it continues throughout most of Grand Theft Auto V, and it could be argued that Michael, Trevor, and Franklin are not people worth spending time with. Like Niko, Michael is the author of his own problems.
Franklin's entry into his life is essentially Michael finding a surrogate son he can share his interests with, but while becoming a criminal again makes him feel something other than crushing ennui and dissatisfaction, it doesn't relieve much of the stress within Michael. In fact, it winds up making things worse, and it's only when Michael falls into the employ of movie producer Solomon Richards that this starts to change.
Richards' missions are only a small fraction of the game, but Ned Luke (the actor who plays Michael) gives a very different performance in this section. Michael is in awe of Richards, a man whose work has brought him so much joy. Richards, who may be a bit addled, is happy to oblige this worshipful fan. Richards is also one of the few characters in the game that is not duplicitous; he may be a movie producer, but he means what he says and he makes good on his promises to Michael. Richards' missions, structurally, aren't that different from normal GTA missions, but it's easy to get the sense that they mean more to Michael than any of the heists.
The older I get, the more a game's story seems to affect me, and Houser's satire hasn't really changed in the past five years, it's just grown coarser. I'm sure I'm not the first one to write that spending thirty or forty hours in the world of Grand Theft Auto V can wear a person down to the nub, but then the scene in Solomon's office happens where Michael views his credit on the film, and my view of the game completely changed.
Before that scene, I was enjoying the game but couldn't shake the same creeping sense of resentment and enervation that had eaten at me with Grand Theft Auto IV. It seemed that once again, I was about to spend thirty hours getting to a cynical conclusion that would leave me feeling hollow.
Hell, I was almost ready to give up on the game as I was waiting for Houser and his writers to kick Michael's legs out from under him—the movie would be destroyed somehow, the movie studio would be burned to the ground, Solomon would screw him over and remove Michael's credit, or something along those lines would come crashing down. Sure, Michael does run into trouble, but the movie got made. After it's done, Michael tearfully calls his wife with the news and says, "I'm finally DOING SOMETHING WITH MY LIFE!" Soon after, he reaches a détente with his family because he also believes, by becoming a movie producer, that he's finally worthy of them.
This is the crucial thing.
This is what sets the story of Michael Townley apart from Niko Bellic and the rest of Rockstar's former protagonists. In Michael's story, winning the game isn't the end. In fact, it shouldn't be the end. Michael learns to live again not by going back to his old ways, but by taking on a new challenge, and for Rockstar that's a surprisingly positive message.
2013 was the Year of the Bummer in video game stories. Dead Space 3 features horrible imagery and mass murder that its protagonists bring to an end, only to have all their efforts wiped away by DLC.
BioShock Infinite teased its players with the hope of redemption, and then crushed that hope brutally in a final scene that implied we can't get past our original sin, and the only true way out is to kill yourself.
Tomb Raider, while an eminently playable experience, killed all the fun the series had in favor of turning Lara into a grim action heroine.
The Last of Us, while a fantastic experience, is also a withering one, with players forced to contemplate whether the life of one person is more important than a possible future for society.
If you had told me that out of all the games I'd play that in 2013, Grand Theft Auto V would be the one to leave me smiling, I'd have said you were crazy.
Sure, at the end of it all, Michael is still in pursuit of the almighty dollar, but he's not taking anymore, he's building. That's proof of optimism in this game, even if it's sloppily communicated, and Rockstar Games deserves some credit for that—it's the best game about a midlife crisis ever made.