A Saints Row Retrospective: The Journey of a Street Thug to the White House, or the Greatest Video Game Epic Ever Told.
If I were to play the “if you were trapped on a desert island, and you could only bring one…” exercise with video games, my answer would easily be Saints Row (given I could choose a whole franchise). It’s not a stretch at all to state that Saints Row is and will likely remain my most favorite video game franchise of all time.
While this probably isn’t the most shocking personal revelation, it might be odd coming from someone who has had a tendency to expound the importance of proper mechanical systems, consonance between narrative and gameplay, and proper cohesion or consistency across entries within the same series. Especially when considering that Saints Row has more often then not completely disregarded what can be considered as correct practice or form at least by standards set forth informally by both the industry and player base at large.
Saints Row has had no issue with constantly rewriting or tweaking its canon to fit proceeding titles, nor has it held back from taking the series in drastically unexpected and ridiculous directions. And when considering the franchise as a whole isn’t even a decade old and spans just four titles, it becomes a bit jarring or confusing especially when one directly compares the first entry to the most current.
While the core identity of Saints Row has inarguably remained intact, it’s a series that has been through a rather epic transformative journey. One that sees a video game rooted in a rather questionable attempt at cloning the successes of GTA: San Andreas while presenting a caricature of thug life, to the most current iteration that sees the same player character as the President of the United States fighting invading alien forces. And on a side note, the franchise also conveniently bookends the beginning and end of the last console era, with the release of the first Saints Row in 2006 on the Xbox 360, to the cross-platform release of Saints Row IV last year shortly before the Xbox One and PS4 hit the market.
In regards to mechanics, Saints Row can easily be linked to GTA. It’s fairly obvious that the first entry was an attempt to cash in on the wide success of GTA: San Andreas, and in many ways Saints Row is more of a spiritual successor to what GTA used to be. Rockstar with its eventual release of GTA IV shifted away from the low brow nature of its predecessors and an in attempt to legitimize themselves, rebranded the franchise with a more serious tonality that in many ways came off as almost ashamed of its roots.
It’s debatable whether this was the right move by Rockstar as there seems to be an equal number of players that were largely critical of the new direction, as there were those that were in utter praise of it. What cannot be argued however is that Rockstar essentially stripped away much of what made GTA: San Andreas so successful. Assets such as rich player customization, an abundance of diversionary activities, and vast opportunities for sandbox play were stripped out in GTA IV. Instead focus was redirected at an attempt to craft more seemingly sophisticated narratives, intelligent characterizations, and utilizing the medium as a means for social commentary instead of a vehicle merely for directionless recreation.
In doing so, Rockstar largely segmented their player base into two distinct camps, one that was perfectly willing to embrace this new more seemingly serious attitude towards game development, and others that were sorely missing the boundless fun presented by all the various sandbox tools that were at their disposal prior in entries like GTA: San Andreas or GTA: Vice City.
In many ways Saints Row answered this call while also completely casting out any illusions that they would ever take themselves seriously at all. The player character of Saints Row embodies both the troubling and somewhat conflicting nature of the GTA of old that promoted what can only be described as psychotic behavior as a mode of enjoyment. The first GTA lacked any strong narratives, rather relied upon its notions of freedom allowing players to engage with the world space in any way they saw fit. Largely this meant going on killing rampages, or driving along sidewalks mowing down whole crowds of innocent bystanders. It was a form of play that engaged in what it knew was incorrect behavior, but within the simulated space of video games was a perfectly acceptable and desirable escape.
Whether or not Rockstar was ultimately influenced by the expected and continuous media backlash to their franchise, or was possibly disillusioned with their seemingly juvenile past, they largely did away with these notions of psychosis with the release of GTA IV, that while still criminal in nature saw them presenting a stripped down sandbox that didn’t directly promote or incentivize players to engage in play akin to a mass shooter. While one can write at length about the issues of dissonance that ultimately arose from GTA IV and its failures to transplant actual smart writing into the franchise, it is beside the point.
Volition on the other hand seemingly set out to create a franchise solely based upon what players wanted regardless of notions of political correctness or maintaining appearances. Unlike GTA, Saints Row is fully aware of its nature and the player character completely reflects that. For example, regardless of its appropriateness it is simply not the norm to allow players to smack random pedestrians in the face with a dildo bat or launch them into the air through sodomization with “the Rectifier” in Saints Row IV.
“The Playa” or “Boss” in later titles, is clearly psychotic and abnormal. The fact that players will engage in violent behavior outside of the main narrative is both expected and written into the characterization. The Playa has an inclination for violence, destruction, and at least initially has a questionably low level of empathy. They are pure ego, and their actions within the development of the continuing narrative consistently reflect that.
Whether intentional or not, the player character of Saints Row is completely in harmony with the expected patterns of play. Unlike the dissonant notions of “asshole-simulation” seen in titles like Watch Dogs where the heroic protagonist is at odds with the manner in which players will most likely engage mechanically, Saints Row is quite consistent. It is fully aware that their protagonist is an asshole, and none of the diversionary play outside the scope of the main narrative is at odds with this. The franchise has even gone so far as to systemize what used to be emergent gameplay in titles like GTA as programmed activities into the game space. Players can cause mayhem, run into cars to commit insurance fraud, work as a hitman, and hold up stores. All of which earns the player respect points, which is a requirement to progress the main narrative in the earlier titles of the series.
Also outside the scope of the characterization, a wide element of player input is reflected as well both from the player themselves and from within the game space. Players are not limited to what gender, ethnicity, or body types their characters inhabit. Saints Row 2 in essence had no clear genders at all with players able to create characters on either side of a spectrum, a mix of both, or something completely different.
As the franchise has typically been fully voiced acted, players could also amazingly choose between several different voices from each gender, and occasionally something else entirely as is the case with being able to be a zombie in Saints Row The Third. In regards to customization, this is singularly unique. No other game or developer would ever think to pay upwards of six or seven different actors to fully voice a lengthy work, simply to provide more choice to the player. And at least with Saints Row The Third and Saints Row IV, the scripts weren’t even identical, with variations depending on both the gender of the character, and the specific actor voicing them.
What is even more fascinating is that player characters are not even static and can be changed at any time. This transcends simply being an option to the player, rather is an integral part of the game world with the large abundance of plastic surgery clinics that allow players the ability to surgically change their characters in any way they please. Saints Row The Third even utilizes this mechanic as part of their main narrative when the Boss undergoes surgery to imitate Cyrus Temple to great comedic effect. And it’s worth noting that for female “Boss” characters, this involves going through an obvious sex change with subsequent comedic exchanges.
But above all else, Saints Row as a whole stands out because of its rather strange and unconventional journey. A game that initially had players hustling street corners to taking over a whole city, then becoming global media icons, and finally of all things being elected the President of the United States. And this transformation hasn’t simply been in the written narrative, rather in its attitude and tonality. The most significant transformation isn’t the transplant of a thuggish street gang to the White House, rather the paradigmal shift and redefinition of the player character from psychotic criminal to fully fledged hero, or in the words of Saints Row IV, puckish rogues. One who is still unhinged, but is in some ways rehabilitated to express certain sympathetic qualities that makes them an altogether unique study.
From a nobody, to “The Playa”
As a quick disclaimer, I have personally never played the first Saints Row thus it will be largely glossed over. This isn’t due to a lack of interest or merit, rather it’s simply a title I haven’t had access to being a primarily PC gamer. And like many fans of the franchise, my introduction to the series has been with the much maligned PC port of Saints Rows 2. That said, to provide proper context for the remainder of the series that I have clocked countless hours in, it does need to be discussed.
Saints Row begins in the city of Stilwater, a large metropolitan area that is plagued with crime, much in the same manner as Detroit or Chicago. The city is controlled and divided between four competing gangs, all of whom blatantly present a caricatured stereotype of organized crime, primarily based upon ethnicity or race.
As a side note, while intentional satire, the first Saints Row title and to an extent the second one, still proved to be somewhat problematic in these various characterizations. This simply doesn’t encompass race, rather extends to other facets like gender misrepresentation and an almost embarrassing depiction of organized crime stereotypes. And it shouldn’t come with much shock that Saints Row was a frequent target for accusations of misogyny and sexism. While much of this criticism was blown out of proportion, it would be completely dishonest to say none of it was deserved. Steve Jaros, lead writer of Saints Row even copped to this himself in recent tweets shortly before his departure from Volition to Valve.
Getting back on point, the Vice Kings represent the token Black gang. Clearly modeled after groups like the Crips or Bloods in that their origins weren’t directly criminal, rather a means to defend against other gangs or encroaching neighborhoods. The criminal enterprise that inevitably grew out of these groups was more of an unintended consequence rather then the direct motivation for their creations. The history of the Vice Kings pretty much mirrors this and its leader Benjamin King while most certainly criminal, is also to a degree a respectable figure. Someone who acts on his own perceived code of morality and ethics, and returns much of his financial gain into philanthropic causes.
The more obvious parallel however is to the transition of gangsta rap to the mainstream that occurred in the 1990s. Benjamin King with his Kingdom Come Records, is blatantly modeled after Death Row Record’s Suge Knight. He even has his own stand-in for 2Pac seen in the character of Aisha. And in retrospect of where the series ended up heading, the first Saints Row can easily be seen reflecting the more harsh and dark edge of gangsta rap before the deaths of both 2Pac and Biggie Smalls.
While Saints Row 2 was equally harsh, it also presented a transitional period into the more absurd and lighthearted entries that would follow. The faked death of Aisha (and collapse of both the Vice Kings and Kingdom Come Records) in Saints Row is in obvious reference to the death of 2Pac and the conspiracies surrounding it. But more importantly it marks the decline of Death Row Records and the harsher-edged gangsta rap of the West Coast, and the proceeding rise of Bad Boy Records under Sean Combs on the East Coast with its fusion of its similar mafioso rap sensibilities into the mainstream, pairing gangsta narratives with overall more upbeat production. Ultimately this crossover saw albums like the posthumous The Notorious B.I.G.’s Life After Death with tracks like Mo Money Mo Problems that characterized this notion of cleaning up the grit of the genre in a transition to make it more radio-friendly. Whether intentional, this conveniently reflects the broadening scope of the franchise after the conclusion of the first Saints Row.
This isn’t to say that Saints Row eventually got “clean,” rather it shifted its absurdities into different directions. That said this genre evolution sees more applicability to the Saints themselves. Of whom go from petty street thugs in the first two Saints Row games, to eventually becoming mainstream global media icons in Saints Row the Third. It’s a shift that sees them going from a hard and brutal criminal past, to the arguably softer luxuries that celebrity status brings. And thematically, much of this shift is what makes up the central focus in Saints Row The Third. Of which sees the Saints questioning who they have become, but also who they ultimately want to be.
As for the other street gangs of the first Saints Row, there are the Los Carnales which clearly draws off of common Latino stereotypes and the Westside Rollerz who rather then being a homogenous ethnic caricature, are instead an urban collective of Fast & Furious-esque Import tuners.
And last on the list is the 3rd Street Saints, a newly formed gang with very deliberate intentions not rooted in self gain or criminal endeavors. Unlike their rival gangs, they are also not easily characterized by simple racial homogenization. They represent a more ragtag group of diverse individuals, of whom the “Playa” ends up joining. If anything can be said to be their encompassing feature it would be their color of choice, a royal shade of purple.
The Saints are led by Julius Little who was originally part of the Vice Kings and best friend to its leader Benjamin King. His motivations for leaving the Vice Kings and forming the Saints is rooted in his displeasure at what the Vice Kings had become. He desired to rid Stilwater of the competing gangs, and bring peace back to the streets. Because of this he concocts an intriguing plan of action. To form a new gang with the specific intent to take over the city by dismantling every other gang one by one, then returning peace back to the streets.
Ironically while Julius’s intentions are in some ways noble, they are not at all in sync with the Playa. Of whom isn’t interested at all in Julius’s grand scheme, rather is purely interested in furthering their own gain. And as the Playa, players themselves take part in questionable behavior and have fun doing so. This characterizes the Playa as the psychotic murderer he or she truly is. Saints Row ultimately ends with the Playa seemingly being killed by Julius with a bomb to prevent the Saints from becoming exactly what Julius was trying to prevent.
As someone who hasn’t actually played Saints Row, this was always somewhat of an intriguing narrative, especially taken on its own which would seemingly cast the Playa in a rather antagonistic and unsympathetic light. This is relevant since we know Saints Row 2 continued the narrative, and to a degree sort of recast its characters on opposite sides.
The Playa survives and Julius while not entirely sympathetic himself, gets depicted not as the misguided but somewhat well-intentioned man that he was, rather the leader that betrayed his gang. While not part of the main narrative, there is a hidden bonus mission players can access that resolves the Julius storyline. One that sees the Playa ultimately killing Julius and cementing one consistent trait of that character for the rest of the series, that of loyalty to his gang.
The Playa becomes “The Boss”
Saints Row 2 largely operates on the assumption that players are already familiar with the franchise. There is very little exposition or lengthy reintroduction to the series and its characters. While there is a five year gap between the two titles, the narrative more or less picks up right where it left off.
The Playa is in prison, both incarcerated for their crimes but also recovering from the bomb blast which left them in a coma. It is also implied that the Playa may have gone through a degree of reconstructive surgery with various characters throughout the game commenting on a change of appearance. Players can once again customize the Playa to their liking, but with the start of Saints Row 2, also play a non-male character. While this could be considered retconning if working under the assumption that the Playa was definitely male in the first game, it is just as logical to assume the Playa got a sex change, as this is a completely viable option that players can utilize throughout the remainder of the franchise by visiting their local Image As Designed clinics.
Saints Row 2 definitely stands out in the series, often considered as the franchise’s strongest entry. For many like myself, it was the initial entry point and for that alone holds a great deal of significance. This is largely due to its cross-platform availability as opposed to the exclusivity of the first title on the Xbox 360. And while the devoted fanbase of Saints Row may not be the titans of other IPs, most are diehard as they come and their love of the series more often then not stems specifically from this title.
Quite possibly most telling is the fact that so many people on PC like myself still enjoyed Saints Row 2 and have clocked numerous hours into it, despite being a completely broken mess. The PC port of Saints Row 2 is arguably one of the worst of all time. If it had been any other game, I would have considered it unplayable. But the appeal of this title was so immense that most were able to cope with the nearly constant crashing, stuttering, numerous game-breaking glitches, and other performance issues simply to be able to play it.
And this dedicated fanbase of PC gamers even started to heavily mod the game which only served to expand the game’s reach bringing in more players. Modders like IdolNinja caught the attention of Volition themselves, who went out of their way to get input directly from him when Saints Row IV was getting ready for release and eventually even hired him on as community manager at Volition. Volition themselves even started working on SDKs and tool kits for the modding community, some of which has just recently started to trickle out.
Mechanically speaking, Saints Row 2 doesn’t shift away from its predecessor a great deal, rather polished some of its rough edges to deliver a more refined experience. Contextually though, there has been a subtle change. One that sees the misguided but somewhat noble intentions of Julius literally shot to death and buried. And where the ego-driven desires for power by the Playa now “The Boss,” can fully be realized.
While the first entry saw the Playa going from a nobody to becoming canonized as a Saint, Saints Row 2 acts as a more proper origin story. One that see the Playa becoming “The Boss,” the leader of the Saints and in doing so, redefining who they are.
Much like the first game, Saints Row 2 largely involves taking over the city, once again controlled and divided between rival gangs that have emerged from the power vacuum left from the Saints’ absence. After escaping prison and getting their bearings, the Playa begins to essentially rebuild the Saints with their own recruitment of new lieutenants. There is the perpetually stoned and carefree Shaundi, the strategic minded Pierce who is often the butt of ridicule, Carlos who aided the Playa in escaping from prison, and finally Johnny Gat who returns as a second-in-command and best friend to the Playa.
What is most striking about how the Boss shifts in regards to characterization is how he or she adapts to the personalities and attitudes of these new homies. If anything, leadership ironically acts as the humanizing element that begins to take the Boss from selfish sociopath to a more loyal and somewhat heroic sociopath. One who is still clearly psychotic and ego-driven, but also instills a degree of sympathy from the player.
The homie call system and the presence of cooperate play reinforce these notions mechanically. The Boss can call any of the homies they have unlocked through their cellphone and play along side them. This isn’t merely a means to aid in combat, rather presents bonding opportunities through assets like ambient dialogue. And while completely dissonant with the game world, a friend can in fact join one’s game to play along side the player in a co-op session. While this obviously allows the player to experience the game’s narrative with a real world friend, it also serves to mechanically make the experience a more communal affair. One with a heavy emphasis on playing with either real friends or the simulated in-game homies as opposed to going it alone.
And it is also important to note that Saints Row 2 makes the leap from a silent protagonist to one that is fully voiced. While this hinders the ability for players to inject themselves deeper into the game world through roleplaying mechanics such as in The Elder Scrolls, it also allows Volition to create a more focused but complex characterization. One that isn’t merely characterized by the player’s actions, rather reflects a combination of the written narrative and different flavorings offered by the various voice actors.
The bulk of the narrative of Saints Row 2 is largely similar to the first entry in the series. Mechanics and the narrative progression are styled after the same city takeover systems of play, where players must conquer certain slices of the city that are controlled by different gangs. In the absence of both the Saints and the gangs they previously defeated, new ones crop up to fill the void left behind. The Ronin, Brotherhood, and Sons of Samedi divide Stilwater amongst themselves, and once again the Saints have to build up from nothing.
While nearly identical in its setup to the first game, Saints Row 2 injects the presence of the Ultor Corporation as a massive conglomerate that truly controls and manipulates much of Stilwater. Dane Vogel its head of Special Projects, uses the various gangs to do his bidding, pointing to the implication that much of the present gang presence is there because it works to Ultor’s benefit.
Because of this, while the Saints are once again successful in defeating their rival gangs, they ultimately have to face off against a massive corporation. Despite the similar nature of the city takeover mechanics to the first game, this new conflict offers a starkly different context that shifts away from a mere territorial expansion.
As the Saints dismantle rival gangs, buy up businesses and stores, they themselves step above simply being a petty street gang. While they retain their rather blunt and brute-force method of dealing with competition, they themselves take on qualities of corporatism.
And with their ultimate takeover of Ultor themselves, become more then simply a street gang. While they might have had millions of dollars at their disposal prior from their street enterprise, with the ownership of a fully fledged corporation, their influence reaches past the confines of the singular Stilwater paving the way to Saints Row the Third, where they have essentially stepped out of the shoes of being hardened criminals.
With their limitless wealth and power, there is no longer a necessity to take part in petty crime to fuel their decadent and hedonistic lifestyles, rather they can utilize their celebrity status to sell products, themselves, and ultimately become a marketable brand.
Returning to the musical genre parallels, this reflects the mainstream entrance of hip hop into the globalized culture. A shift that saw a genre of music going from a niche market, to one that brought in huge endorsement deals seeing rappers and artists entering into a widely different narrative then the more humble origins on street corners. It was this notion of becoming royalty and fully engaging in the libation and enjoyment their criminal storytelling brought. In essence, these newly crowned figures of hip hop royalty became bigger then life figures, based more upon an emergent fiction, then the real life accounts of hustling on the streets.
Saints Row 2 strangely as it might seem began a trend for the franchise that inadvertently saw the Saints becoming an allegorical device that acted as a critical mirror to organizations and groups not normally seen in the same negative light common street thugs would receive. With the Saints becoming a corporate entity themselves, Volition seemed to present that at least in the limited scope of Stilwater, that the biggest gang of them all didn’t reside on the streets or out of a dingy rundown church, rather in the lavish offices of high-rise buildings downtown, overlooking a city in a spiraling decline. And true to these notions, with the merger of the Saints and Ultor into an actual corporate conglomerate by Saints Row the Third, the line between criminal street gang to legitimate corporation becomes completely nonexistent.
And ultimately, Saints Row 2 can in some ways be viewed as the absolute glorification and reveling in the quintessential rap fantasy. The extent of the successes of the Saints isn’t realistically something that could ever have been attained by the type of characters glorified in the gangsta rap rhetoric. Characters that were outwardly flamboyant and concerned more with the glamor and pop the position brought, rather then the laid-back and disciplined mindset actually required to grow such a massively diverse business.
It is the polar opposite of individuals like “Freeway” Rick Ross or Frank Lucas who built lucrative criminal empires by primarily playing it smart and staying hidden, instead of cockily engaging in the spotlight. In this manner, the Saints present an amalgamation of both sides of the spectrum. Taking the reach and successes of someone like Rick Ross, but presenting it as a possibility through the glorified fiction of the rap rhetoric.
But moving past its narratives, it needs to be mentioned that Saints Row 2 is ultimately memorable for its enormous sandbox potential. Saints Row 2 is a title where players often clocked into the hundreds, if not thousands of hours. A game that has both an abundance of activities to fool around with, as well as great potential for countless replays.
Simply running through the game with different Boss characters, experiencing the narrative with each of the voice actors is a worthwhile venture and one that most players do. Much in the same fashion as players of Bioware’s Mass Effect would play through the series as both genders as well as both moral alignments.
And within a single play through, there is an extraordinary amount of content to keep a player busy. Everything from customizing cars which can be an utterly massive time-sink by itself, as well as the multitude of diversions.
Of the many diversions, examples include street racing, spraying houses with a septic tank to lower property values, committing insurance fraud by purposely getting hit by cars, and starring in a Cops-like reality show where players engage in police brutality to boost ratings.
And while most of this play is separate from the main narrative, it isn’t completely dissonant with it either. Most of the diversions have proper context or enough explanation that it doesn’t feel out of place to engage in one of these activities, then progress to a story mission right after.
Ultimately Saints Row 2 is memorable because it is simply a great deal of fun. It is free of any notions of pretension or living up to any standards set forth by others. And on some levels, it is still certainly a problematic game. One that has questionable characterizations of both racial and gender stereotypes, as well as some embarrassingly juvenile writing.
But on the other hand, it is a game that conversely transcends these very same stereotypes by allowing a diverse range of players to mirror themselves (or someone else entirely) into the game world to participate in “questionable” play typically reserved for the heterosexual male demographic. For once females as well as those not able to be forced into a binary categorization of sexuality or gender, or simply those with unconventional body types could play as an altogether badass protagonist entirely relatable to themselves. But in the end, what truly makes Saints Row 2 unique from the rest of the sandbox open world titles, is that it isn’t at odds with what players themselves ultimately want.
The Boss isn’t an “asshole” hero against the expectations of the game world like with Aiden Pierce in Watch Dogs, rather they are characterized exactly by how players will play. And this lack of constraint upon the protagonist character coupled with extensive player customization provides for an altogether freeing experience. One where despite the linear and confined nature of the heavily produced series, a player can fully inject themselves into a character wholly not themselves (assuming one isn’t actually a psychotic murderer).
Slinging and hustling on Saints Row, to slinging “Saints Flow”
The shift from Saints Row 2 to Saints Row the Third is definitely a drastic one. Not only did the overall aesthetic get revamped, but various characterizations and the general aesthetic took a noticeable turn towards the completely ludicrous. While the series has always been rooted in its comedic and non-serious tone, Saints Row the Third truly turned it up to eleven.
The opening moments of Saints Row the Third explicitly differentiates itself from its predecessors and also quickly establishes the new status of the Saints. The game begins with a scene of Pierce being attacked by an unidentified mob in a basketball court. He then looks up and out of nowhere an anthropomorphic can of an energy drink appears granting him the power to defeat his assailants with some wicked kung fu, hadoukens, and then finishes by performing an alley-oop, flying across the court to dunk a basketball. It then becomes clear the whole sequence is merely an advertisement.
The Saints have in other words sold out. No longer are they the ruthless and badass criminals of the past, rather media whores who blatantly sell themselves off as a brand with no shame. In the aftermath of Saints Row 2, the Saints merged with Ultor to form the Saints Ultor Media Group. The Saints have become globally known and completely capitalize on their notoriety by selling their own energy drink (Saints Flow), operate a massive clothing store franchise (Planet Saints), and through Ultor run numerous more mundane businesses like in waste disposal and technology. Most of the lieutenants also have their own separate careers outside of merely selling the Saint’s image; Pierce is a successful singer, Gat is featured in popular comic books, and Shaundi has her own dating show.
And while the Saints themselves have traded in their saggy jeans and hoodies in favor of well-tailored suits and private jets, they still keep up the fiction of being petty thugs. The first sequence of gameplay has the Boss, Shaundi, Johnny Gat, and actor Josh Birk robbing the Stilwater 1st National Bank. Not because they need the money, but as a publicity stunt to bolster their public image of being hardened criminals.
This practice of fiction reinforcement is somewhat similar to the manner in which certain established and wealthy MCs of mainstream hip hop still rely upon the perceived notion of still being criminal and spouting its subsequent narratives, yet luxuriating in the immense wealth that their now legitimate careers bring.
Kanye West’s “Power” plays frequently throughout the course of the game and can easily be seen as sort of the main anthem of Saints Row the Third. In the announcement trailer for the game, the track plays over a CG sequence that works to both reintroduce players to the Saints, as well as reveal their new members and adversaries. And while West’s track can easily be linked to the franchise’s broadening appeal reflected by the shift into mainstream hip hop already discussed in Saints Row 2, it also works to signal a modernization of the franchise.
While Saints Row 2 was by no means antiquated mechanically or technically, it did have a sense of being outdated culturally. While most of this was intentional with its direct and explicit callbacks to the height of gangsta rap and its sudden decline, there was also a sense that its satire and characterizations missed the mark, being more insipid then proper nostalgia or homage.
Saints Row the Third feels fully modern in contrast. The announcement trailer ends with both the reveal of the high-tech STAG and a reinvented Saints with a more diverse crew fitting their new roles in society, seeing them in lavish exclusive highrise penthouses as opposed to being in a rundown church. Scored against this the trailer ends with the line “21st century schizoid man” which marks both the shift out of the 1990s into the next century, as well as referencing the King Crimson song of the same name that while originally critical of the Vietnam war and the moral value contradictions of the men of that era, can be applied to same sort of internal conflict within the characterization of both the Boss and the Saints.
Saints Row the Third begins to question ultimately who the Boss is, hero or villain, eccentric or psychopath, and whether loyalty ultimately beats out a thirst for power and revenge. Mechanically Saints Row the Third is the first entry to introduce an aspect of choice which reflects many of these dichotomies. The ending itself can resolve in two drastically different ways, each of which serves to define exactly who the Boss is, and by extension who the Saints are.
And ultimately Saints Row the Third is thematically a game focused on the Saints questioning where their journey has taken them, and whether they are comfortable with their current positions. The narrative more or less is focused on whether they want to return to the glory days of their criminal origins, or accept the fact that this is no longer who they are and instead fully embrace their elevated statuses.
The conflict that frames much of this identity exploration is largely similar in structure to what players experienced in Saints Row and Saints Row 2. Once again the Saints find themselves combating several other gangs and organizations to takeover a territory. Unlike the previous entries however this conflict has been amplified to present a worthwhile opponent to the now incorporated Saints. With their heist of Stilwater 1st National Bank, they inadvertently gain the attention of an international criminal organization named the Syndicate, of whom happens to own the bank they are robbing.
In the aftermath, the Syndicate’s leader Phillipe Loren captures the Saints where he begins to interrogate them on board his private jet. In typical Saints fashion, they do not cooperate and fighting ensues resulting in the destruction of the Jet, the deaths of many Syndicate members, as well as the supposed death of Johnny Gat heard through an intercom by both the Boss and Shaundi.
Gat’s death essentially fuels the Saints back onto the offensive into an all-out war with the Syndicate. Saints Row the Third shifts from Stilwater over to the city of Steelport which serves as the home base of the Syndicate’s leaders. And like they have always done, the Saints defeat each leader one by one eventually taking control of Steelport itself.
On a side note, it is worth mentioning that with the release of Saints Row the Third, the franchise had quite literally disconnected from it’s own title. Not only did Saints Row the Third completely abandon the “Saints Row” district where the 3rd Street Saints originated, it left behind Stilwater entirely. Saints Row IV as well steps further away by moving the space away from Earth altogether.
It is also worth noting that in its general aesthetic and possibly in efforts to broaden the scope of the franchise that Saints Row the Third no longer was confined to the framework of gangsta rap and its shift into mainstream hip hop. Musically while the series has always had a more diverse range of selections especially featured within the in-game radios, the mirrored aesthetic was always narrowed into the narratives of the rap rhetoric. Beginning with Saints Row the Third, the new world space of Steelport and its inhabitants were no longer representative of the same type of street gang caricaturization present in previous titles.
And because of this, Saints Row the Third largely doesn’t suffer from the problematic racial and ethnic stereotyping that plagued earlier entries. While this isn’t to say that these new “gangs” are more deeply complex, instead they present thematic caricaturizations. So while there were previously gangs like the Ronin, Samedi, or Vice Kings, now the Saints were facing off against the Luchadores, Deckers, and Morningstar.
In regards to the main narrative of Saints Row the Third, the basic structure follows Saints Row 2 quite closely. The Saints finding themselves in enemy territory once again taking part in a city takeover scheme by combating several different gangs, each of whom holds a certain slice of Steelport. And like in Saints Row 2, the Boss begins their takeover by recruiting several new members to their cause. There is Kinzie Kensington a former FBI agent, Angel a disgraced luchadore, Zimos an auto-tuned pimp, and Oleg the intellectual brute.
And while the Saints are as gung-ho as ever, there is definitely a sense that they no longer operate under the “shoot first, ask later” mentality. The Boss is surprisingly a bit more diplomatic and ready to make choices more beneficial to their cause as opposed to simply killing everything that gets in their way. This is most clearly presented through various in-game choices that allows players to make decisions largely based upon whether they want to spare an enemy in favor of a better reward, or simply indulge in their thirst for revenge. For example whether to not unmask Killbane for knowledge of his Apoca-Fists or ultimately to let him go to save your friends at the end of the game.
The eventual recruitment of Viola DeWynter as well signals a similar shift that sees the Saints joining with former adversaries as opposed to simply killing them. And this is a trend that continues well into Saints Row IV with the return of both Matt Miller and Benjamin King into the Saints’ fold.
The manner in which much of the gang conflict takes place within the narrative and gameplay does get colored slightly differently then what was apparent in the past. While more likely then not the Saints do go in “guns blazing,” they just as likely will rely upon working their public image to their favor. Because of this, large segments of gameplay have players engaging in non-destructive forms of play. The Boss takes part in photo ops, gives out autographs, and participates in the game-show “Professor Genki’s Super Ethical Reality Climax.” The game space as well is littered with the Saint’s presence, with countless Planet Saints locations, fans running up to the player on Steelport’s streets, and the faces of the Saints themselves plastered all over billboards, TV ads, and comic books.
The Saint’s adversaries as well engage in this media war in addition to the physical fights that inevitably will take place. Killbane of the Luchadores is frequently in the media giving interviews where he spins the public perception in his favor while subsequently smearing the Saints. STAG as well hires actor Josh Birk to take part in some rather embarrassingly bad recruitment ads that serves to paint them as noble saviors of the city from these other invasive gangs.
STAG much like Ultor in Saints Row 2, serves as a step up for the Saints in terms of both the type of adversaries they are facing as well as hinting at the next step in their evolution. In their fight against STAG, the Saints literally go up against the federal government backed by the whole might of the military and all of their high tech gadgets.
The Saints themselves have much more power at their disposal then before. While players still largely use small arms to combat enemies, the extent of their new arsenal transcends normal standards of shooting play. The Boss has the ability to call in both drone and airstrikes causing both extensive damage and doing so from the comfort of a large distance away. This might raise alarms of unbalanced gameplay but it’s hardly a factor for a game that allows players to have unlimited health and ammo anyways.
But more importantly, STAG plays a pivotal role in what future direction the Saints ultimately choose to take. While it is hard to argue that the Saints are anything but villains through the course of much of Saints Row the Third, by the end of the narrative there are subtle shifts in the power balance at hand. STAG while clearly there to rid Steelport of its heavy criminal elements becomes just as destructive if not more so then the gangs ever were. They also completely fail to defeat the gangs making their collateral damage completely unjustified. Furthermore while the Saints are in Steelport for largely selfish means, their success at dismantling the Syndicate does in some ways bring about order. It just so happens that this order comes at the cost of being under the Saints’ control.
Saints Row the Third draws to a close shortly after the defeat of Killbane with the Boss conversing with Pierce stating they are “done being corporate whores” in response to both the events of the game as well as their appearance in the upcoming film “Gangstas in Space”. Before the conversation can continue, the city breaks out into an all-out war between the remnants of the Luchadores and STAG. The Boss takes to the streets to quell the fighting and ultimately bring back some sense of order. During the chaos the Boss is informed of Killbane’s intentions to flee Steelport but before they can pursue him, they are also told by Kia of STAG that she has kidnapped Shaundi, Viola, and mayor Burt Reynolds intending to blow them up with the Magarac monument to frame the Saints as terrorists.
The player is then given a final choice, whether to pursue Killbane or ultimately let him go to save their friends. Volition has stated that the latter choice is canon and that Saints Row IV ultimately assumes this was the choice made. However, it is still worth taking a look at both outcomes as I feel there are elements within both that feed into the direction the Saints head towards in Saints Row IV.
If players choose to pursue Killbane, the three aforementioned characters perish along with the monument. The Boss does finally kill Killbane but it is unclear whether the Boss is regretful of their decision. Pierce calls in and asks “was it worth it?” to which the Boss doesn’t respond. With the destruction of the monument and the death of the mayor, Kia is ultimately successful in painting the Saints as terrorists giving STAG the authorization to bring in the Daedalus and begin shelling Steelport.
This leads the Boss to have a climactic showdown with Cyrus Temple, STAG’s commander aboard the Daedalus. The Boss manages to bring the whole craft down after defeating Temple, then proceeds to walk in on a live news feed to announce to the world that Steelport is now a city state under the Saint’s control and threatens anyone that tries to come after them, that they’ll “go home in a fucking box.”
On the other hand if the Boss chooses to save their friends, Killbane ends up escaping but everyone else is saved. More importantly however is that Kia’s action are instead seen negatively and STAG is forced to withdraw. The Saints on the other hand are finally cast as heroes by Senator Monica Hughes for saving a treasured monument and rescuing the mayor. The game then ends with the Saints taking part in the “Gangstas In Space” film they previously shunned and called off.
While the “save friends” ending is considered canon, both endings have merit in regards to the shifted characterization of the Saints into Saints Row IV. With the declaration of Steelport as a city-state under the Saints’ control, they in essence become their own self governed state which parallels nicely into Saints Row IV where they officially run the United States.
Much in the same way that Ultor provided the means for the Saints to elevate themselves from street gang to corporation, STAG provided the groundwork to step into the realm of running their own state. And in the same way Saints Row 2 held up a mirror to corporations as merely larger corrupt criminal organizations akin to street gangs, Saints Row the Third and eventually Saints Row IV did the same for government bodies and officials.
And while Kanye West’s “Power” provided an anthem throughout much of the introductory gameplay, during the ending sequence the game opts instead for Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding out for a Hero” which underscores both the transition of the Boss from criminal to hero, as well as the tonality shift the franchise had taken. By the end of Saints Row the Third, the franchise had largely abandoned the confines of its thuggish origins in favor of presenting a broader sampling of pop culture holistically. Saints Row the Third was as satirical and tongue-in-cheek with its earlier rap rhetoric overtures as well as with popular science fiction, bad 80’s one-hit wonders, and the videogame medium itself.
The notion of the Boss becoming a hero at a more personal level sees someone who would choose loyalty over ego, not necessarily someone with larger benevolent aspirations. While it might not seem all that shocking for the Boss to choose to save Shaundi, it is equally a departure for them to let Killbane go. The Playa in previous titles was never so forgiving of their enemies as can be seen with Julius or any of the other previous gang leaders they faced off against.
And while the Boss is still as psychotic as ever, he or she definitely seems much more friendly and sympathetic in Saints Row the Third then they have ever been. Mechanically much of this can be linked to the vocal presence of the various skilled voice actors, but also through the genuine bonding opportunities the game provides through homie interactions.
In continuing an ongoing trend, the Boss and Pierce engage in a memorable bonding moment where they sing along comedically to Sublime’s “What I Got” when it comes on the radio and in response to Pierce stating they “need some driving music”. The experience itself is rather simplistic but fully communicates both the playful but extensive depthful friendship they have. What makes matters more impressive is how Volition had to record such interactions seven separate times given that was the number of possible protagonist voice options players had access to.
The sequence itself is a direct continuation of a similar moment that took place in Saints Row 2 where Pierce after continuously criticizing the player’s choice of radio station finally gets control and turns it to Ne-Yo’s “So Sick” which to the horror of the Boss, he starts to sing along to and subsequently states “now this is what we need, some drive-by music.”
Also Saints Row the Third had an excessive amount of ambient dialogue amongst homies that both provided similar means of bonding, but also to add complexity to the relationship between many of these non-playable characters. For example, calling Shaundi and Viola to come assist you would result in unique conversations contextually appropriate to those specific characters. In their case, conversations were tense and somewhat hostile given Shaundi blamed Viola and the Morningstar for Gat’s death. And given the abundant number of homies that players could call, the extent of dialogue to be discovered was nearly limitless.
And lastly while Saints Row the Third definitely didn’t abandon its rather juvenile and crude humor, it was also arguably the first entry that garnered a positive substantial response from a diverse group of gamers outside the white male heterosexual demographic. It is a game that has been publicly loved by female gamers, those of various sexualities, and one of the few mainstream games to allow for a degree of transgender representation.
While the game isn’t completely free from popular notions or markers of sexism or misogyny, Saints Row the Third ultimately still works because it is equally offensive or crude to all groups regardless of gender, sexuality, or culture. So while players playing a female Boss can give her a massive chest, male Bosses can also similarly adjust the size of their junk through a “sex appeal” slider.
But more importantly, it allows anyone to be in this somewhat questionable position of power. Dependent on the player and their choosing, the Boss as the instigator of chaos and destruction isn’t cast as a singular demographic. Females as well as anybody else can freely engage in this same behavior with the proper contextualization to back it up.
And the fact that most non-male gamers have had little to no issue with Saints Row the Third should be a clear marker that the industry doesn’t need to get the supposed universal whitewashing to make everything politically correct as certain critics seem to cry out for. And if anything, I personally find it a bit ridiculous that a title like Saints Row the Third that is explicitly ludicrous has any need to defend itself when critically acclaimed titles like Mass Effect have had little backlash in contrast.
While I want to stress that I am a fan of the Mass Effect franchise to a point, it is a series that I found deeply troubling for these same reasons. Ironically it’s a franchise that has been given the honor of apparently promoting correct gender representation, and including same-sex characters and relationships. However, anyone who has played a female Shepard from the first Mass Effect to Mass Effect 3 is probably aware that her bust has gained a few cup sizes each time with no other explanation aside from giving the character more sex appeal. Other female characters like Ashley have gotten significant makeovers as well as subsequent additions to their anatomy and let’s not forget Miranda’s “ass cleavage.”
Probably most troubling of all is that if players conversed actively with Yeoman Kelly Chambers aboard the Normandy in Mass Effect 2 and assuming she wasn’t killed by the Collectors, she would perform a sexy dance at the request of Shepard after the game’s completion. While the sequence itself doesn’t cross into any seriously questionable areas, it does seem completely jarring and dissonant in the larger context of the game. The whole sequence is blatantly there for viewers to gawk at, and isn’t at all in the same vein as the narrative-appropriate romantic sex included in the first Mass Effect.
On the other hand while Saints Row the Third is unavoidably sexual, nothing felt jarringly out of place considering the different world these events take place in. And Volition even took steps to rectify what they personally found troubling with their previous titles in Saints Row the Third. Steve Jaros has stated that characters like Viola and Kiki who run a large scale sex business who would expectedly be sexualized, were instead fully clothed and purposely depicted as intelligent businesswomen as opposed to sexed-up dolls. And in personal speculation while the new characterization of Shaundi was largely disliked by players, it could largely be justified as an attempt to shift away from who she was in Saints Row 2, that being someone who had fucked everybody and liked doing a bunch of drugs.
To a rundown church, to a spaceship.
For a franchise essentially defined by doing the unexpected, Saints Row IV is truly the entry that completely went off the rails. And if Saints Row the Third turned it up to eleven, Saints Row IV twisted the knob past its breaking point completely shearing it off.
To start, it is probably worth mentioning that the very existence of Saints Row IV is a miracle in itself. Shortly after the release of Saints Row the Third, THQ went under filing for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy. THQ then proceeded to auction off all of its assets and IPs individually to whoever would take them. While Deep Silver did eventually end up obtaining both Volition and the Saints Row IP, it was anybody’s guess if Saints Row would have a viable future. At best, Saints Row IV would prove to be successful allowing Deep Silver to greenlight future installments, at worst Saints Row IV itself could have been dead in the water already dependent on what its new owners wanted to do.
It is all too common for videogames and whole franchises to get put on hold indefinitely when owners have changed hands. A recent example can be seen with the acquisition of Lucasfilm by Disney back in 2012 and Disney’s subsequent decision to close its subsidiary LucasArts thus killing major projects at the time like Star Wars 1313.
Luckily for fans of Saints Row, Deep Silver was fully intent on backing their new acquisition and the eventual success of Saints Row IV all but ensured the series was here to stay. But while the fate of Saints Row was ultimately saved, being on the brink of destruction may have possibly injected an overarching attitude that was present in the final product, but was likely not there before THQ’s collapse. That being both a nostalgic love letter to itself and the massive body of pop cultural artifacts that fed into it.
Saints Row IV begins with the Saints on an undisclosed covert mission somewhere in the Middle East. The Boss is once again joined by longtime Saints Pierce and Shaundi in addition to newcomer MI6 agent Asha Odekar. As the group stealthily makes their way through a hostile base, it is revealed that the Boss has been tracking down Cyrus Temple who has become a terrorist after the events of Saints Row the Third and is planning on launching a nuke at Washington D.C.
After finally defeating Cyrus Temple in hand to hand combat, the Boss learns that they are too late and that the nuke has already activated. As Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” starts blaring in the background, the Boss leaps onto the now launching nuke attempting to disarm it mid-flight. The elongated QTE sequence with the track from Aerosmith is an obvious reference to the quintessential 1990s Michael Bay film Armageddon. As the Boss makes their way up the nuke pulling out various wires and dodging debris, various characters call in to share their over-the-top heartfelt goodbyes.
The Boss then dismounts off the nuke which explodes in the stratosphere, while the Boss in typical cocky fashion flies away unharmed to eventually crash down into the Oval Office, of which the Boss finds to be a comforting fit.
Thus while the Saints found themselves as representatives of a city state by the end of Saints Row the Third, in Saints Row IV they are literally running the whole of the United States. The Boss has been elected “the President” with Keith David as their Vice President. Worth noting that this is Keith David himself, not Keith David playing a character. Benjamin King also makes a return as the President’s Chief of Staff, while the rest of the returning Saints rounds out the Cabinet.
And while these new positions once again see the Saints shift further away from their former selves, they largely run the country in the same manner they operated as a street gang. Issues are dealt with head on, and no regard is given for bureaucratic nonsense nor correct legal procedures.
On their way to a press conference, the President is interrupted by Shaundi who says that of all things aliens are about to attack Earth. Before the President can respond, the White House is bombarded with fire and the Zin descend upon them. In the chaos, the President’s cabinet and the Saints get abducted. The President themselves armors up in the oval office and takes the Zin head on. They eventually make their way to the Zin’s leader Zinyak, and is eventually captured.
From this point on Saints Row IV primarily takes place in Matrix-like simulations that act as virtual prisons for both the President and the various other Saints. The ongoing narrative involves fighting back against Zinyak to ultimately save humanity by taking control over the simulation which is simply a virtual Steelport.
However as the President cockily and carelessly engages in their fight against the Zin, Zinyak retaliates by blowing up Earth essentially dooming the rest of humanity that wasn’t already abducted prior. In typical Saints fashion, the drive to fight back becomes more a quest for revenge then one of explicitly being saviors.
I’d argue though that the main narrative of Saints Row IV is largely insignificant in the larger scheme of things. If anything, Saints Row IV’s focus is upon revisiting the long and arduous journey that the President has taken from the streets of Stilwater to now a spaceship, but more importantly of the friends they have made along the way.
Much in the same way that Mass Effect 3 meticulously reinforced the strong bonds and relationships between the player and their companions, Saints Row IV is largely centered upon individual one-on-one encounters between the President and his longtime friends. For anyone who has played through the Mass Effect franchise, Garrus while purely fictional did in fact feel like a legitimate old mate or war buddy. Someone that had been by your side for the long haul through both dark and good times. And while Saints Row hasn’t particularly been known for emphasizing smart character writing in the past, the bonds highlighted in Saints Row IV are legitimately real.
Mechanically this is achieved with the same methods employed in both Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3. Each character has personalized loyalty missions that players can optionally complete. These missions while often comedic, are personally tailored to both explore certain character conflicts as well as bring depth to their individual histories with the President.
So with the long time Saint but often ridiculed Pierce, the President engages in a sequence that sees him move past his feelings of inadequacy and realizing how much the President has depended on him in the past. With Shaundi they finally address the stark shift in her character from Saints Row 2 to Saints Row the Third, in a self-satirical and slightly meta moment that see Shaundi literally arguing with herself and simultaneously providing explanation into why she ultimately became such a different person.
For the non-Saints or other newcomers, these loyalty missions are decidedly different. With Keith David, the President aids in breaking him out of a nightmarish version of the film They Live where he is perpetually caught in the elongated fight sequence with Roddy Piper from the same film. For the ex-leader of the Vice Kings Benjamin King, the President returns to the first Saints Row to bring about resolution to the events leading up to his downfall. And for others like newcomer Asha, their loyalty missions revolve around satirical examinations of popular gaming conventions. In the case of her mission, the President finds themselves illogically crawling through air ducts, shooting out lights, and sneaking around in cardboard boxes in addition to eventually facing off against an evil clone of themselves in obvious reference to Liquid Snake from Metal Gear Solid.
In regards to the gameplay and whether it drifts away from the systems of play of earlier Saints Row titles, Saints Row IV includes nearly all the same systems but is markedly different in its approach. Because of the change in game space to a simulated space that isn’t bound by the laws of physics, Saints Row IV introduces a system of super-powered abilities. Now the President can not only shoot guns and drive cars, but run at ridiculous speeds, fly in the air, use telekinesis, and launch elemental projectiles.
While Saints Row IV doesn’t explicitly strive to achieve the status of being a superhero simulator, it does succeed in creating systems of play that would allow this to be possible. Ironically, Saints Row IV provides greater superhero play then actual superhero games have been able to do thus far.
And while this brings about a large tool set for players to sandbox and ultimately interact with, its inclusion isn’t completely a positive attribute. The one dilemma or flaw that Saints Row IV suffers from is that it essentially renders many of its core systems of play redundant.
Everything from shooting guns, melee combat, driving vehicles and customizing them are all downgraded into being nothing more then legacy systems of play. While there is nothing directly stopping players from engaging in the same “grand theft auto” gameplay of titles past, with the inclusion of super powered abilities, there is no longer a reason to hop in a car and be constricted by streets when one can simply jump into the air and quickly glide to their destination. Nor is there much use for guns when most enemies can be defeated with super-powered takedowns or abilities in a fraction of the time.
But there is definitely something to be said when a game’s biggest flaw is that it happens to include extra systems of play that players will largely ignore. In full honesty, there isn’t any better flaw or quirk to have. And mechanically the shift from shooting guns and stealing cars might have more direct connotations to the redefinition of the Boss into the more heroic President. No longer do players mechanically simulate the thuggish acts of shooting guns and stealing cars, rather take part in a form of interaction closer to notions of being a super-”hero”.
And while the President is still a distance away from being in the same moral alignments as the caped crusaders of comic books, the extent of humanization of a once apathetic sociopath to someone who could legitimately care about and run a large group of people is one that is quite startling. Whether that group is merely a street gang or a whole nation, it is apparent that the Playa, Boss, or President has in many ways grown through the position of leadership instead of being corrupted further by it.
But despite this epic transformation, Saints Row IV is both a departure from itself but also a return to its roots. It unashamedly doesn’t turn away from its murky past, rather revisits it in full seen in both the missions centering around the returning Johnny Gat or Benjamin King. So while the Saints may have softened up a touch and lost their thuggish character, they still embody the carefree but liberating attitude of self proclaimed “puckish rogues”. Not entirely uptight hero, nor psychotic villains out to do purposeful harm.
Saints Row IV continues to step further into a contemporary tonality moving away from its glorified gangsta origins and the sci-fi overtures definitely lend strongly to this. But the choice of musical samples and what can be heard on the ingame radio also reinforces these notions while simultaneously making callbacks to an earlier time. Most of the long-standing radio stations like “The Mix” and “KRhyme” make a return, but there are also new additions like “Mad Decent” which primarily plays dubstep. Worth noting but completely irrelevant to the topic at handis that the game does include a “Dubstep Gun,” which awesomely shoots explosive wub wubs while making everything around you dance and move to the beat of a dubstep track.
Conversely, the tradition of the President and Pierce singing along to the radio makes several appearances throughout Saints Row IV, all of which are distinctly more nostalgic in their choice of songs and in the context of their occurrences. The completely dated and by today’s standards cheesy 80’s single “Opposites Attract” by Paula Abdul has both characters switching off verses while players drive to the next mission objective. Among long time players by this point, these interactions are both expected and highly anticipated. On replays, I almost always purposely drive slow simply so I can hear the whole exchange and from the plethora of Lets Plays on Youtube, it doesn’t seem like I’m alone on this.
Closely following their last interaction the same duo of characters take on the Biz Markie classic track “Just a Friend” which contextually ties in closer to the genre favorings of Saints Row in the past. And to the surprise of the characters and players, Zinyak joins in operatically singing Biz Markie’s lines and in the words of the President “Zinyak fucked up Biz Markie”. While the choice of Abdul’s single is a bit more broad, the Markie track is distinctly more in line with the Saints Row aesthetic in regards to its musical narratives. Of interest however is how Biz Markie’s track predates the advent of gangsta rap detailed in earlier Saints Row titles.
While it is still difficult to easily ascribe heroic qualities to the Saints, Saints Row IV in regards to characterization seeks to do just that. But also making it clear that the Saints still retain their unique methods in accomplishing their goals and fighting adversity.
With the eventual defeat of Zinyak (and assuming players got the “good ending”), the President takes control of the Zin empire thus becoming a leader of galactic empires. But furthering this rise to power and domination is the reveal that the Zin have the ability to time travel. And while players have learned not to take everything that happens in a Saints game as concrete canon, the credit sequence shows the Saints traveling throughout history leaving their mark throughout the course of humanity.
And it has to be mentioned that with the whole game narrated by Jane Austen that the implied direction of the franchise is all but obvious. The Saints have indeed come along way, with their ranks being drained and replenished numerous times. But I highly doubt that if players of Saints Row back in 2006 were to be told that the Saints would become time-traveling vagabonds with historical figures like Jane Austen among their ranks, they would think you were full of shit. But that is indeed where the Saints have come to, and the just announced Saints Row: Gat out of Hell even exceeds expectations of what other ridiculous lengths the franchise could have possibly headed towards.
So while the next game may have Johnny Gat invading Hell and fighting demons, the Saints have still held onto what makes them who they are fundamentally through the course of the series. They may have gone from villains to heroes or thugs to government leaders, but they still do things their unique way. Thus it is absolutely fitting that the game ends with the Saints in full celebration engaging in a rather ridiculous dance-off to Montell Jordan’s “This Is How We Do It” where each Saint shows off their individual unique styles.
Ultimately describing the exact methodology of the Saints is a bit tricky. However the simplest way to put it would be that at the leadership of the Boss, the Saints have typically favored just going in the front door “guns blazing”. In other words, their way of doing things has been carelessly stupid.
In Saints Row 2, Pierce planned out an elaborate casino heist which was ultimately ignored by both the Boss and Johnny Gat who literally chose instead to go in the front door with guns drawn. While the Saints ultimately succeed, the collateral cost has often exceeded the bounds of their goals. And while the Saints may have gone through an alignment shift, their presence has been questionably detrimental throughout the course of the series.
In the absence of the Saints in the “Saints Row” district between Saints Row and Saints Row 2, the area went from gangland to a lavish downtown. And while it is certainly not wholly on the shoulder’s of the President, the destruction of planet Earth comes as a direct result of Zinyak stating that any retaliation would result in that very outcome. Worth mentioning is that players are in fact given this choice personally, where shortly before these events, they can choose to kill themselves to save humanity, although this simply ends the game.
In Errant Signal’s take on Saints Row IV, he makes the following statement in comparison to GTA:
“…and that’s kind of what I love about Saints Row IV, where Grand Theft Auto was a comparatively dumb game that wants very hard for you to think its smart, Saints Row IV is a smart game that wants very hard for you to think its dumb.”
Fittingly, while Saints Row has admittedly suffered from downright poor writing in the past, Saints Row IV is entirely cohesive and clever within the context of its own created world space and canon. It has no airs of pretension like GTA however and is fully embracing of its self-admitted juvenile nature. And while much of the ludicrousness of Saints Row IV is merely present for its own merit, much of it embodies a larger thematic body of nostalgic remembrance of all the things that essentially made Saints Row possible.
Saints Row IV both pays homage and satire to the game medium itself, the industry at large, and draws influence from a wide array of beloved pop cultural artifacts that the developers and writers hold dear. Thus, Saints Row IV easily jumps from making references to genre favorites like Star Wars, to something entirely unexpected like staple romantic comedy Love Actually.
Mechanically the game injects satirical elements of play that quite deliberately criticizes practices adopted by other acclaimed works and revealing them as being quite shallow in reality. The option to romance your fellow Saints without any prior work or proper context is obviously aimed at the countless titles post-Mass Effect that attempted to ineffectively capitalize on it’s romance system as if it was just another technical feature like a high degree of visual fidelity or RPG mechanics. Asha’s mission while explicitly poking fun at stealth titles like Metal Gear Solid or Splinter Cell, also pays a great deal of respect to it as well. Saints Row itself isn’t free from its own critical eye. The process of collecting data clusters is questioned by the President asking why Zinyak would simply leave these “power-up” collectibles just lying around.
Ultimately Saints Row IV regardless of its quantifiable merit or whether or not it objectively did things well is a game that constantly had me grinning throughout my whole play-through. While even most critically acclaimed games have had moments of boredom, tediousness, or downright frustration, Saints Row IV was a title that was relentlessly uplifting and enjoyable. It combined the liberating free roam and diversionary play characteristic of the series in the past, with a tight and thoroughly engaging narrative.
But above of all else, Saints Row IV is an experience quantified by the numerous small and isolated moments that by themselves count as entirely memorable points in gaming. Whether that be rescuing Johnny Gat from his virtual prison in the form of a side-scrolling beat-em-up arcade game complete with its own “Winners Don’t Use Drugs” disclaimer, being able to perform Gob’s chicken dance from Arrested Development as a taunt, or watching Gat hilariously trying to bust a move only to do the Elaine dance from Seinfeld.
And past references, the abundant character interaction in Saints Row IV is at its strongest. Loyalty missions and breaking your fellow Saints out of their prisons were all unique and carefully crafted to fit their subject matter. While this could prove to be a slight detriment to new comers, to veterans of the franchise it offers revisitations to past conflicts that may have been left unresolved. Mat Miller for example has to face his old fears in the form of Killbane via old-school text adventures and Shaundi has to relive through what she thought was Johnny Gat’s death.
The system of calling homies to aid in play makes a full return as well with an exorbitant amount of characters to choose from. Not only do players get access to the core Saints member themselves, but through the simulated space of the Zin prison, players get to call in pretty much every character from the series canon from deceased members to old enemies.
Overall though, this over-the-top inclusion of the series as a whole into one title with a heavy dose of nostalgia does communicate a sense of finality. And while the game experience is absolutely saturated with play potential, once those credits roll players are left feeling directionless and otherwise stagnant. Unlike past titles, Saints Row IV incentivizes players to complete the bulk of the diversionary play before heading into the last mission. It is a requirement for the extended “good” ending, and because of this Saints Row IV lacks the replayability of titles past.
This isn’t to say that simply replaying the game from the start isn’t a worthwhile venture, rather that the time spent on a post-game save will be largely minimal given there is absolutely nothing to do past grinding through numerical challenges or achievements.
But my reasoning for bringing this up isn’t to highlight a flaw of the game, rather the idea that Volition was completely clueless on whether this was truly the end. Thus one definitely gets the sense they put every last ounce of passion and effort into Saints Row IV as if it might have been the franchise’s last hurrah.
And while with the convenience of looking back one can safely state that this is far from the end, if this had been the case it would have been an absolutely fitting and worthy last entry to an altogether unique series. One that left the Saints in a good place but also posing the question of where they could go from here? From a normal perspective, Saints Row IV leaves off with such a conclusive and elevated status that it is difficult to even imagine how the Saints could progress further.
But then again in retrospect, this has been the modus operandi of Volition. That being outdoing themselves again and again with no regard for how they would follow it up. Completely at odds with nearly every other ongoing franchise like Assassins Creed which does everything to slow progression to a crawl to milk fans for every last penny.
In conclusion there isn’t much to be said further on the matter or any sort of grand statement to be made to tie everything together. Saints Row is simply a game series that should be played by anyone who has even the smallest inkling towards gaming. Its a title that I have full confidence that anyone with a right mind would absolutely love. To that end, all I can say is that for anyone who has yet to experience Saints Row, go out immediately and grab yourself a copy, a friend, and play the damn game.