HDR and upscaled textures can’t stop Saints Row The Third from feeling like it belongs in the past.
When Saints Row The Third launched in 2011, the games landscape was wildly different. It was a booming year for games: Skyrim, Arkham City, Battlefield 3 and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 dominated the gaming headlines. The industry was only beginning its ascent into the cultural mainstream. Games were still seen as over-the-top, violent and mind-numbing affairs — and there were multiple calls for bans on video game violence.
Saints Row developers Volition took these concerns and ran with them, poking fun at the controversy. The game’s main story follows a group of gangsters known as the Saints as they take over the streets of Steelport and navigate the seedy underworld of pimps, wrestlers, aliens and clones.
At the time, it was called out for its treatment of sex workers, its portrayal of women (for which the developers later issued an apology) and including a giant dildo known as ‘The Penetrator’ in the game.
The Saints Row franchise has always been tongue-in-cheek. The intention was never harmful. The series leant into stereotypes as a means of subversion. But in 2020, it’s hard to take Saints Row The Third as a well-intentioned joke. While missions like Gangstas in Space and The Trouble with Clones remain incredible and wild fun, it’s hard to enjoy a game that appears to have such overt disregard for women.
In Saints Row The Third, women are mostly depicted as “whores” and if they’re not obviously sexual in nature they’ll traverse the streets of Steelport in thoroughly revealing clothes. One of the major antagonistic factions you’ll face in the game is the Morningstar, a group of gangsters who dominate the sex trade. Every woman in this faction wears a red latex outfit complete with thigh high boots, collared chokers and low-cut tops. These women are treated as expendable and killing them sends their bodies ricocheting across the screen in a flash of arse and tits.
Tits which fly and bounce across the screen like they’re attempting to gain sentience and depart the Earth.
Breast physics have a tough time in games. Recently, Fortnite stoked up controversy with a character model that came built in with jiggling, bouncing breast physics. It was replaced with a hard-chested character model after an apology from Epic that deemed the snafu ’embarrassing’ and ‘careless’.
The thing is, breasts do jiggle. They’re weird sacks of fat and tissue. They’re not solid and developers shouldn’t be afraid to create realistic female bodies — but realism is hardly something that Saints Row The Third does well. In the game, boobs wobble like free-standing jelly. Playing a female character means watching your chest bob and ripple with every step. Even one glance across the screen sends your character’s boobs flying. And of course these physics extend to every woman in the game. You can find these strange, liquid-y objects on every street corner and they’re so distractingly unnatural that it’s laughable.
I’m sure the Saints Row The Third developers have seen boobs before, but Saints Row boobs are like half-remembered visions from a dream. It would be funny if boobs weren’t the only thing women are in this game. Even helpful ‘homie’ Shaundi isn’t much more than her flapping, exposed breasts.
The irony of Saints Row The Third attempting to be a parody is that by objectifying the women of the game as they do, they’re still actively objectifying them. It doesn’t feel like a joke when women are singled out for sexualisation and some missions revolve entirely around their sexual exploitation and abuse at the hand of pimps.
It’s a bugbear that pops up often in games because women have so often drawn the short straw when it comes to their in-game portrayal. This isn’t new. Gaming in the 2010s was dominated by white male figures because the industry catered to a slim demographic — a demographic which is no longer gaming’s sole audience.
Saints Row The Third is a heavy-handed product of its time. While it’s ridiculous, fun and over-the-top, its parody leanings have been lost in 2020 because games have risen to become as ridiculous as the games it attempts to parody. The games of 2020 are wild and shocking. Cyberpunk 2077 is leading that charge with dildos, first person sex, active sexual assault and customisable genitalia being the norm for the game. 2020 makes Saints Row The Third look tame in comparison and the humour has suffered accordingly.
In 2013, early internet star Tom Green penned a blog about how his lewd comedy work had been dulled by years of imitation and repetition in the years since the 1990s. The impact and shock factor of his work was lost because wild, injury-laden antics became commonplace. People stopped reacting and it lost its sense of controversy. The same is true for Saints Row The Third. Overt depictions of female sexuality, sex work and abuse of women in games is now commonplace — it’s not edgy or controversial anymore.
Without that shocking humour, Saints Row The Third presents as a straight video game narrative. Re-releasing the game in 2020 only highlights just how far the games industry has come since then.
Today, women carry blockbuster titles like The Last of Us Part II. They’re queens, adventurers, sirens and warriors. When you compare the leading ladies of the modern era of games to the women of Saints Row The Third, the difference is stark and very disappointing.
In 2020, playing Saints Row The Third feels embarrassing.
Saints Row The Third looks like a modern game. A complete visual overhaul makes textures and colours pop. The remastering here is genuinely fantastic, particularly at night. HDR rendering and a new lighting engine makes textures sparkle and builds out the usually drab streets of Steelport. But slapping a fresh coat of paint on this game can’t save it from feeling outdated. It was fantastic in 2011, a parody of video game violence and shock culture. In 2020, it’s no longer shocking or controversial.
Saints Row The Third looks better than ever. But it’s hard not to feel like the game should’ve stayed in the past.