It’s a game heavily influenced by Fallout 3, but it’s not a first-person shooter, it’s not set in a post-apocalyptic world, and it’s not a game about survival. Instead, you’re a gangster in a purple, fuzzy animal costume whipping passers-by with a giant dildo. Welcome to Saints Row: The Third -- a game that has the most unlikely of influences.
If video games were a sport, the Grand Theft Auto (GTA) and Saints Row series would have once been seen as two different teams playing the same game. The comparisons were inevitable and have followed both franchises, particularly Saints Row, since the announcement of its development. But the game is changing, the rules are bending, and with Saints Row: The Third, the developers at Volition Inc. have started to play a whole different sport altogether – one that doesn’t involve GTA.
It has been five years since the original Saints Row was released to the world -- knuckle-dusters and all – and for five years the series has been accused of being a GTA knock-off brushed with a purple coat of “gangsta” paint. The similarities were there: the two games were the only big releases of that scale that were of the sandbox genre and set in urban environments; both had strong themes of violence and crime; both allowed players to run pedestrians over, and both were used as scapegoats at various points in times for real-world anti-social behaviour. Despite their best efforts to be seen as completely separate from each other, through the eyes of the audience they may as well have been in bed together.
But there was never a shared bed, according to the lead designer on Saints Row: The Third, Scott Phillips. The two games were never even meant to share a playing field. Relationship and sport analogies aside, Saints Row had always set out to be a different game from GTA.
“Similar to how all first-person shooter games were once called Doom clones, as players realise that open world is a genre and not just a singular game, they broaden their view of what games can share similarities while still being unique,” says Phillips.
“Obviously the GTA series influenced us just as they’ve influenced hundreds of other developers. I don’t think it would be easy to find a developer in any studio in the industry who hasn’t played at least one of those games,” he says.
“Beyond that, it would be irresponsible as a video game developer to enter a new genre of video games and not to play the other games in that genre to learn about it.”
It was an original idea... until it wasn't
The original Saints Row was meant to be an open world game with a semi-realistic gang theme and slight over-the-top tones. Like developers working on any kind of open world sandbox game, GTA was always going to hover the game’s development and release -- as a series that brought the genre to the mainstream, it was hard to ignore, and its overwhelming success meant that it shouldn’t be ignored -- but the gang theme was developed independent of the influence of other video games. They believed they were doing something original... until GTA announced San Andreas.
“The Saints Row 1 team had no idea that the next GTA was going to have such a heavy focus on gang and ‘gangsta’ culture,” says Phillips.
“As you might imagine, developers don’t share information about what they’re working on with other developers. When San Andreas was announced, Saints Row 1 was in full production and had been in development for several years, so there was no time to try and change plans.”
“A little known fact: the original colour for the Saints was green. It was changed to purple because CJ’s gang (from GTA: San Andreas) was also green, and changing the colour was something that the Saints Row team could easily do. You can even find online Saints Row concept art that displays the Saints wearing green.”
So what’s a development studio to do when they discover that their original idea is going up against one of the biggest gaming franchises in the world? At the time, there was little they could do. They chose features like free aiming versus GTA’s lock-on targeting, a 100% fully-streaming city, and they focused on not making the game too serious. Upon release, the two games were swamped with comparisons, but side-by-side, the core difference was there, and the over-the-top tone of Saints Row gave it a shine that even GTA couldn’t dull.
The question then became this: if Saints Row’s selling point was that it had an original idea (it being an open-world gang game), and that idea had since become unoriginal (because of San Andreas), what was its selling point now? What was Saint’s Row meant to be?
Re-defining the Saints... with Fallout 3
The lessons came in increments. First, there was the popularity of certain game mechanics in the first game, such as Insurance Fraud, which required players to ping-pong themselves in traffic in other to cause damage and rack up points. Players loved it and, as a result, the ridiculous nature of these side missions would play a more dominant role in subsequent games and influence the direction of the series, but more on this later. The team then looked to redefine the gang culture they represented in the game. Phillips says that they wanted to move away from the reality of gangs and thus began drawing inspiration from Hollywood films like Shoot’ Em Up, Bad Boys 2, and Hot Fuzz. As for video game inspiration? Not GTA, he says.
“In terms of games influencing Saints Row: The Third, I’d actually say that Fallout 3 is the only title that had a significant influence on it. I loved Fallout 3; I think they did a lot of smart things that I learned from and ultimately made Saints Row: The Third a better game because of that gameplay experience,” Phillips says.
“The structure of our reward/upgrade system was changed heavily from Saints Row 2 and was influenced by Fallout 3,” he says.
“Saints Row 1 and 2 required you to play a specific activity in order to get a specific reward and gave no indication of what you'd receive at any point for playing that gameplay. The goal for Saints Row: The Third was to allow the player to see what rewards were available up front and to allow the player to pick their own reward so they could plan a path to get those rewards, while also letting them constantly make progress toward those rewards by gating them with respect levels(XP).”
“That goal was influenced by how the Fallout games have given the player a giant list of rewards right from the start to set a goal for themselves and play the game with that personal goal in mind the whole time.”
Phillips says that Saints Row: The Third has also taken inspiration from Fallout 3 for its player choices. In the first few hours of Saints Row: The Third, the player is put in a situation where they have to make a major decision that will affect the skyline, gameplay, and population of the world. Phillips cites the Megaton mission in Fallout 3 as having a strong influence on the way they designed these early hours of the game.
Turning the crazy to 11
Phillips believes that the comparisons between GTA began to wane after the second Saints Row game because they played it to their strengths, which highlighted the differences between the two franchises. Where GTA IV contained a more serious narrative, Saints Row 2 upped its ridiculousness. And now, Saints Row: The Third is about to get even more ridiculous.
“We’ve steadily moved away from the slightly grittier and darker tone we had in Saints Row 1 and Saints Row 2. Saints Row: The Third isn’t just a game where you’re the leader of a gang bent on domination; instead, you’re a media empire pimping lunch boxes and bobble heads while also robbing banks and skydiving naked out of airplanes,” Phillips says.
The game has gone in this direction not just for the sake of being different, but because this kind of unabashed, exaggerated game with its pinkie toe dipped in reality and the rest of its pimped-out body in the land of the crazy is exactly the kind of game that Volition believes a lot of people want to get lost within.
“What person doesn’t want to be rich and powerful and have the ability to tell others what to do?” says Phillips, speaking on the gang theme of the game.
“Being a gangster is a power fantasy that appeals to nearly everyone in every form of storytelling that exists: books, movies, video games.
“In addition to being powerful, one of the things we’ve found over the course of making three Saints Row games is that, in general, a player’s very first goal when they get their hands on the game is to walk over to a pedestrian and beat them up. Or grab a car and ram into a group of pedestrians. Or get a gun and start shooting at the police,” he says.
“When presented with a real-life simulator, players want to act crazy and do things that they would never do in the real world, partially because it’s fun to be bad.”
After two games, Saints Row: The Third has finally found and settled into its identity. From Saints Row 1 it learned to not be too serious; it tested this out in Saints Row 2 with much success, and now it is almost unrecognisable from when it first released in 2006.
“Functionally, I’d say our biggest improvement over the course of the franchise has been in refining gameplay ideas and tone. From the first game we learned that players loved the off-the-wall activities like Insurance Fraud. They loved the sheer ridiculousless and enjoyment of throwing their character into traffic,” Phillips says.
“Since then we’ve created gameplay like Crowd Control: throwing adoring fans into wood chippers, airplane engines and in front of speeding trains; FUZZ: a send up of TV shows like ‘Cops’ where you impersonate a police officer to stop crimes in the most ridiculous methods possible, and Septic Avenger: where the player sprays sewerage onto buildings and people to lower property values.”
In Saints Row: The Third, they’ve also added a marquee activity called ‘Professor Genki’s Super Ethical Reality Climax’, a take on Japanese game shows where the player fights people dressed as rabbits, beer bottles and mascots to earn money while steering away from traps.
“Saints Row is about crazy, ridiculous, over-the-top summer movie fun,” says Phillips.
“We don’t want to re-create reality. Life can be boring and dull. Driving from home to work is not fun. But driving on the wrong side of the road at 100mph while calling airstrikes and being chased by a military force with tanks and jets firing rockets and laser beams … THAT is an experience of what Saints Row is all about.”
It’s fine to be ridiculous, but not everyone is going to find elements of the game funny. Saints Row: The Third will feature Tank Mayhem, an activity where the player hops into a tank to try and flatten a city. The player can also call in air-strikes, use microwave lasers, and the ability to vacuum people up off the street and firing them across the city. You can do it to yourself, too. Conveniently, you have a parachute strapped to you. There’s also the Apoca-Fist, where you can deliver a single punch that causes your victim to explode, and you can walk down a street and beat civilians with a giant dildo. After this interview was conducted, THQ also announced that there would be a “Whored Mode”, which is perhaps either a terribly clever parody of the “Horde Mode” in Gears of War or... just terribly offensive; we will have to wait until the game is released to pass judgment.
“Violence is obviously prevalent in the game, but our violence is always done with tongue firmly planted in cheek,” says Phillips.
“Our violence looks somewhat realistic but it’s always sold in a bit of a silly way. In addition to the more standard weapons we have enemies explode in a shower of goo when you punch them with the Apoca-Fist or mind-controlling an enemy with an octopus fired from a gun.”
If there’s one thing that can be said for Saints Row: The Third, it’s consistent. The player assumes the role of a gang leader, they’re in a criminal organisation -- outlandish behaviour is not only acceptable, it is rewarded. Phillips points out that if the player character was a police officer and soldier, then they would need to prevent or punish the player if they were to kill a non-combatant or commit a crime; it would be out of line and create a dissonance. But with Saints Row, the context of the player being an over-the-top criminal allows not only for anti-social activities to take place in the game, but for them to look at whatever ridiculous thing they are doing and having a laugh.
“We don’t often take anything too seriously,” says Phillips.
“We want players to be laughing along with us at the level of insanity and simply focus on having a great time playing the game.”