The news that the new Saints Row will be a more grounded, less offensive game than previous entries in the franchise, has been met with mixed responses. While some are delighted that a series that had previously alienated them might become more inviting, inevitably so much of the reaction has been rooted in tiresome whining about “political correctness” or what have you. Except, that’s not the problem at all. The problem is that Saints Row was a series that understood just how extraordinarily silly video games could be, where almost no others do, and now it too is apparently reverting to the dreary norm.
In the eight years since SRIV came out, undoubtedly the world has changed. Whereas the 2013 game was released at the tail-end of a time when outrageous/offensive comedy was big business, where your South Parks and your Jackasses were just finishing having their day, 2021 is a very different place. Offensiveness has become highly politicized, reactions to it heavily policed by either extreme, and whether you view this as important progress or stifling of speech, no one can pretend things are all the same.
There is no question that attempting to release a game in the manner of the previous Saints Rows would be a whole different deal today. However it approached its offensive content, which through the series shifted from adolescent grotesqueness to often quite sophisticated (if very immature) satire, it would still be received by far more noise and contention than any major developer is likely to want to face. But, here’s the thing — read my description of how Saints Row IV begins:
Saints Row IV was a game that began with your character disarming a nuclear bomb as it fell toward the Earth, and then becoming the President of America, with actor Keith David as your Vice President. However, moments later the Earth is attacked by aliens, the White House destroyed, and you and your gang members are kidnapped and placed in a computer simulation of a ‘50s style sitcom. You escape that, Earth is blown up, and you discover you’re in fact now living in a virtual reality, an alien recreation of Steelport, the city setting for Saints Row: The Third. Oh, and now you have superpowers.
See, what Saints Row brought gaming was not hilariously/revoltingly offensive content, and it wasn’t post-ironic ironic misogyny. It was ridiculousness.
When I finished SRIV, after I was done laughing so hard at the credits gag that I genuinely had a headache, my main thought was: “I cannot wait to see how they top that!”
A game in which you begin as the President of America, and end as the ruler of the galaxy. A game in which they hired Roddy Piper and Keith David to recreate their famous fight scene from They Live. A game in which Earth is destroyed as an incidental detail, and one where the main cast, mid-player-controlled car ride, start gloriously singing along to Biz Markie’s “Just A Friend” on the radio. What were they going to do to one-up all of that?
Funnily enough, the thought was an echo of what followed the release of Saints Row: The Third. As Polygon reported in 2013, Volition senior producer Jim Boone talked up SRIV by saying, “I read all the reviews that were done for Saints Row 3 and they wondered if we could do anything more over-the-top than this. So I suppose it’s a challenge coming from that standpoint of can we do something crazier?”
Yes! It was! And boy did they meet it. Which is why my heart sank so hard when I saw the same person (on the same outlet) this week saying, “By the time you’re done with Saints Row 4, you are the ruler of the galaxy. If you were to think, ‘Where would we take it from there?’ — we went to Hell and conquered that, even, right? So there truly isn’t anywhere to go past that.”
No! Of course there is! This is video games.
My argument here is not about whether you were disappointed that the Saints Row series got so bonkers that driving became irrelevant, where you were a near-omnipotent super-being, wreaking ludicrous destruction in between scripted sequences eviscerating rival games with whip-smart satire (Mass Effect gets such a beating). My argument is that despite the extraordinary freedom offered by gaming, almost no other games are taking advantage of it. Games are, in the vast majority of cases, so chaste.
Heck, Saints Row IV begins with a sequence so many forget, because it’s immediately followed by the bombastic lunacy: a scene in which you’re playing yet another stealth action game. The first thing you do in SRIV is rushing from wall to wall, infiltrating a terrorist base in the Middle East. It’s as generic as… well, as most AAA gaming, and it does it perfectly! It’s so straight-faced, so pious and deadpan, and it does it for just too long, long enough to make you worry that this isn’t the game you were expecting at all. And then seconds later you’re dismantling an atomic bomb in midair as it hurtles toward Washington DC. This was Volition making such a statement. “We can do the same boring crap as everyone else. See, we just did it. And now we’re not going to.”
And when I watched that CGI trailer for 2022’s Saints Row, all I could think was, “Now they’re going to.”
It’s totally fair to say that Johnny Gat, Shaundi, Kenzie and the rest have had their day. Their storyline arc (well, more an exponential curve) had certainly gone some places. Things got so meta that in Saints Row IV there’s a scene in which Shaundi meets the version of herself from Saints Row 2. So yes, let’s move on. But while I have zero time for the ghastly ballbags wailing their ill-informed nonsense about “woke liberals” because the new cast is… young, I do kind of sympathise with the complaints that they look so very, very generic.
Saints Row, for all its awful beginnings (the original game was such a blatant rip-off of GTA that when I confronted the developers about this at a preview event, they told me with straight faces that, “We consider GTA to be a genre, not a game, and we’re making a game in that genre,”), has always been about excess. Certainly that began with an excess of really unpleasant misogyny (the same preview event had scantily clad women serving burgers out of vans marked up with the game’s “Freckle Bitches” decals, including “Chicken Bazooms” and “Big Swallow” shakes), but it quickly grew into an excess of joyful silliness.
Its characters were outlandish cartoons, enormous personalities stored within a wonderfully diverse cast. This lot… they don’t look like they’re going to be that. They might! Obviously so much of this is based on a CGI trailer with which Volition’s developers likely had minimal involvement. But it’s fair to say it really doesn’t show off the incredibly sharp writing and stunning performances the series became known for. Instead it’s heavy-handed, triple-underlined joke-jokes. I was genuinely surprised none of them says, “There’s no way you’ll see me at the big dance at 9 o’clock,” before cutting to them at the party in front of a clock reading 9 o’clock. Nickelodeon sitcom stuff.
The most recently released footage introduces these new guys as, “a set of characters you’re going to want to invite into your living room every day.” I don’t want characters I would want to invite into my living room! Another developer says, “This reset let us add heart in a big way, and that’s like the number one thing about this game.” Nooooooo! Another: “They’re one hundred per cent relatable.” What is happening?!
From what we’ve seen of in-game footage, things look even more significantly muted. Yes, shit explodes, cars get picked up by helicopters, blood pops out of people’s heads when shot. But that’s every other game! It absolutely looks like every other open world game. If you told me this was Ubisoft, I’d not have blinked.
Yes, of course Volition can make any game they want, however they want. And yes, demoralizingly, it does seem horribly likely that making a game that looks like every other game will help it sell a lot better. But what upsets me is that Volition were the only team that seemed to want to see just how big, how ridiculous games could be. And now they don’t seem like that at all. Now they say things about how they can’t possibly top their last game’s craziness, so why even bother? But I believe they could have. If anyone could, it was them.
Video games could be so much more than they are. They could allow such absolute lunacy, such vast-scale nonsense. And yet almost everything coming from major studios is so prudish, so reserved. Excessiveness is woefully missing. It’s why I adored Saints Row IV so much. It may well be exactly what put you off the game, and that’s cool too. But I’d argue that those against such proclivities are more than adequately catered for by this industry. Those who want things to get as huge and silly as is possible to imagine are rather less well served.
Absolutely everyone who’s worried the new Saints Row is going to be “woke” can fuck right off. The last two Saints Row games were, in so many ways, incredibly “woke”, not least with their diverse casts (alongside Kenn Michael, Michael Clarke Duncan, Sumalee Montano, and Danielle Nicolet, the series’ main non-player character, Gat, has been voiced by Daniel Dae Kim since the start, in an industry that all but ignores Asian roles). This is about something very different. It’s about the loss of silliness.
I want more silliness in this industry. I am constantly bemused by the lack of it. And while I’m sure the new Saints Row will have some of it in there, it’s unequivocally not aiming to match what came before, let alone see how much further they could take it.