The New Saints Row Rings The Death Knell For Silly Games

The New Saints Row Rings The Death Knell For Silly Games
One of them's so wacky he doesn't even wear a shirt!!! (Screenshot: Volition / Deep Silver)

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!”

It seems somewhat unlikely the new game will feature a three foot purple dildo (Screenshot: Volition / Deep Silver) It seems somewhat unlikely the new game will feature a three foot purple dildo (Screenshot: Volition / Deep Silver)

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.

This could be from absolutely any game in the last ten years (Screenshot: Volition / Deep Silver) This could be from absolutely any game in the last ten years (Screenshot: Volition / Deep Silver)

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.”

The cast of Saints Row IV were more... fun-looking (Screenshot: Volition / Deep Silver) The cast of Saints Row IV were more… fun-looking (Screenshot: Volition / Deep Silver)

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.

My core argument here is: I just don't think the new Saints Row will feature an armchair machine gun (Screenshot: Volition / Deep Silver) My core argument here is: I just don’t think the new Saints Row will feature an armchair machine gun (Screenshot: Volition / Deep Silver)

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.

Comments

  • There is a lot to agree with in the article, and a lot that is a swing and a miss since it seems that the author falls into the same trap that the anti-anti-Saints Rowers are having. By draw a non-existent line between people complaining about the cast being woke and making it seem like they’re being racist and that it has anything to do with the diversity of the cast.

    Since diversity was always a thing with Saints Row from the first game. In fact, I greatly doubt that the minimalist cast of the reboot (unless they’re hiding half the cast) is as truly diverse as the cast of Saints Row 4 was since diversity is far more than the colour of your skin. Its sexuality, interests, ages, beliefs. Humor. Attitudes.

    I mean, how many AAA games has a character out themselves as a Furry and speaking of groups of fursuiters as being ‘her people’ like the previous games did?

    Instead, this looks like an incredibly non-diverse group. ‘Hip’ 20 somethings that tick all the generic CW show boxes.

    • I mean, so were the Saints in SR1, right? And by the time they hit SR4, they were the mid-30s or something… Mind you, I ALWAYS had my boss one of to ways.

      GINAT Russian Women or Mutton Chop Brit Man. XD

      I really just wish I could have played the first one. Never came up on PC tho. 🙁

      • You aren’t missing much. Saints Row was a buggy mess that didn’t really have much to make it stand out in terms of plot. Tons of fun to play at the time but in hindsight it’s just an early build of SR2.

        • I enjoyed Saints Row 1 except for that one storyline race. There was some hideous texturing issue involving facial hair tho.

          It set up a number of long running plot threads, gags and jokes. The ‘mute’ protagonist having a single line of dialog at the end of each story arc was fantastic. So lots of context would be missing without it.

          • I absolutely loved it, it’s one of the key reasons why I put so much time into the XBOX 360 at launch, but stepping back to such a primitive version of it is rough.

  • Self made
    Start up
    Badass
    Relatable
    Podcasts

    Everything about the game so far reminds me of that “how do you do fellow kids” meme. It feels like it was entirely designed by a bunch of old suits sitting around asking what the kids today are into.

  • I was just mislead, I saw the Rebooting post, I saw people cry out “Wowee, a reboot!” So I figured we were going back to the roots of thug life and gang violence, you know, segregated heavily religious Hispanic vs. illegal entrepreneur Caucasian vs. misogynistic Black vs. the unity of whatever the main characters are supposed to be. Things like drug use and bashings and racism and sexism and minority suffering and death from having your face pulled off by a speeding car, and all the hallmarks of old Saints Row, away from Saints Row IV’s wacky hacky sacky satire.

  • The story looks like to me its more for the people who were “SaInTs RoW 2 Is ThE BeSt” and yes, FU, the woke CW crowd, because the problem you dont seem to understand is that the OLD SR chars were that, well rounded chars, these will just be token minorities who all have the same personality just a different role.
    As long as the gameplay IS FUN, ill be right with whatever storyline they maybe throw at us.

  • I think you need to suck it up and get used to this being called woke. The word has such a loose definition that the way the cast looks immediately triggered a bunch of people who will now go out of their way to project a woke take onto anything the characters say or do. All it will take is something mundane like a female character having a prominent role and they’ll go into a frenzy.

  • There is a big difference between “woke” and just “taking things too seriously” when it comes to what is happening here. While Saints Row was a clone/copy of GTA in the beginning, it really made a mark in the genre by being the over-the-top cousin to the GTA series, and people loved it. With the reboot, it looks like they are just wanting to “play things safe” and the result is a boring-looking GTA clone again.

    The developers said it themselves when talking about the previous games in the series, they have no idea how to top what they did with Saints Row IV, so they decided to go backward instead of actually trying. As John says in the article, it’s video games! There is no limit to how crazy things can get. Hell, Saints Row IV is basically a parody of every GTA/Action game out there… Why not play on that some more? Have the already self-aware Saints characters realize that they are in a video game (much like the simulation element of Saints Row IV) and just go full ham with the parody, have them hop from game to game, making fun of everything from retro games to modern trends.

    Then you have the usual “miscommunications in marketing” where, even in the recent gameplay video, there was too much focus on how “diverse” the game and the programming staff are, to the overblown point where “diverse” has become just another marketing term in order to play up to the overly loud and obnoxious censorship/social control happy Late-Millenial/Gen-Z’s that will complain about everything, pretending they are the target audience, while never actually wanting to play the game, just control the way people act and create in the environment.

    The more I’ve read about this “new” Saints Row, the less I want to play it. This is a shame since Saints Row is one of my favorite series to play. There seems to be too much focus on getting things “right” so the social control internet mobs don’t “attack and cancel” this game instead of looking into just making a good fun name that holds up to the Saints Row brand.

  • I haven’t played any of them but Keith David v Roddy Piper makes me realise I have missed the f*ck out. My pile of shame probably excludes me playing it, but “They Live” will be on tonight.

  • SR4 was too much for me, I wasn’t a fan of all the superpowers and stuff… but SR3 is the PERFECT mix of absolutely batshit and the more over the top gta type game of the first 2. Super sad this one doesn’t feel like that

  • I mean, I get the argument… but when I first heard they were going with a more grounded reboot, literally my first thought was: “Oh, OK, so this is giving them somewhere to go with future sequels.” Because honestly after galactic space emperor supreme, you don’t have a whole lot of room to get much wilder.

    • Well, after that the ending has the Saints travelling through time to various eras, so they could have had some fun with a cross-time game where you go to different periods to take them over. Maybe even have things you did in the past affect later eras. Having a scene with someone giving a speech about the mysterious logo found on a paleolithic cave of the Saints symbol would’ve been fun.

      But I think a fresh start is definitely good, although it seemed like AoM was meant to be one.

      • AoM was OK, just didn’t really feel like it ‘fit’ I guess? The world was so… paper-thin. No changes, no consequences, everything was a light layer of background for you to do crazy shooty stuff with your Overwatch-style diversity roster. I kinda dug the Trine/Genshin Impact-style team synergy/switching mechanic, and the art was nice, but my interest definitely trailed off before I could make too much progress in completing it.

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