I’ll admit that I haven’t played the first Saints Row game. When it came out in 2006, I considered it just as another of the rash of clones the popularity of Grand Theft Auto spawned. Over the last eight years though, Saints Row has evolved into one of the most culturally aware series in the industry. It routinely references both real-world events and popular culture for a strong comedic effect, but it is simultaneously fun even if you are unfamiliar with the source material. The opening of Saints Row IV, for example, is a perfect send-up of 1990s action films, but you don’t have to be a fan of Armageddon or The Matrix to enjoy it. With the announcement of a new standalone expansion called Gat Out of Hell, in which the player contends with Satan in the city of Hell, it seems lead writer Steve Jaros is confident he can take Saints Row to any setting and any style.
“Basically the theme we’re doing [with Gat Out of Hell] is basically a play on a Disney fairytale. Imagine the beginning of classic Disney movies like Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella. It opens up with a story book. It opens up [and you hear] ‘Once upon a time in a faraway land’ [and you see] illuminated text,” Jaros tried to explain.
He starts to excitedly list off parts of the story:
“Jane Austen is our narrator.”
“It starts off at a birthday party where things go wrong.”
“Johnny Gat has a talking gun.”
“The Devil’s daughter looks more like a Disney princess who’s trapped in a tower and she wants to escape and see the world and be free from her tyrannical father.”
“Or we have a five minute long musical number that is an entire song and dance musical that happens in the middle. It’s like a random gag, a cute little thing.”
Wait, what? Hold on. I have no idea what’s going on, but I know that I’m smiling as I’m hearing all of these crazy ideas. At this point in the interview, Jaros mocks his own enthusiasm. “‘What the fuck am I talking to this guy about? What’s happening?'” he asks imitating the voices in my head.
It appears that Gat Out of Hell is a Disney animated film in Hell, complete with a talking gun as a sidekick for Johnny Gat and a full musical number introducing the characters of Satan and his daughter. Even forgetting the Disney stylization, the subject matter of traveling to the underworld is similar to the myth of Orpheus as well as Dante’s Inferno. It all seems like the product of clever liberal arts college graduates. What does this have to do with the 3rd Street Saints gang that’s in the freaking title of the series?
“How does the tone evolve from Saints Row to where you’re fighting for the boss’s soul inside of hell in an Orphean fairytale? That is a bit of a change,” he admits. But there’s portions of the first game that people don’t often remember. “Saints Row 1 had a zombie as a followable homie and one of your homies was a guy in a chicken outfit with a baseball bat. There were still moments of levity and oddity.”
Taking cues from hip-hop and music videos, the first game was meant to be taken as an intentional exaggeration. “[It was] always kind of larger than life, it was always supposed to not be real [and] supposed to be this heightened thing but the question was always how much could we get away with,” Jaros said. “In the case of Saints Row, the response when that game came out was that people didn’t know that we were in on the joke. People were kind of confused by it, I think. The game did well, but tonally it’s a mixed bag. Again, no one remembers the zombie, everyone remembers the pimps. That was less successful than we had hoped.”
In Saints Row 2, he wanted to push the absurd elements even farther but there was resistance from some of those in charge at Volition. The team had trouble deciding what they could “get away with.” “We tried to put a little more ‘out there’ stuff in [Saints Row 2]” Jaros said. “We had a voodoo gang, we had guys with katanas. Even then there was a debate. ‘Ninja guys with katanas? Will people be really distracted by that?’ Originally we wanted Truck-a-saurus to be in the boss fight. I remember, at the time, the producer was like ‘Truck-a-saurus isn’t even real, you can’t do that.’ ‘It’s awesome, it’s Truck-a-saurus.’ ‘Too creative, too creative, you can’t go and do Truck-a-saurus.’ It’s just a matter of slowly acclimating people to what’s appropriate, what will people go along with. Every step of the way we [tried to] push it a little bit further.”
Jaros said that they tried to deliver a concrete message on the endless cycle of gang violence in Saints Row 2 but that may have been muddied by the silly details. “Each of the three gang stories had a tonally a different feel and one of the things that we were going for was that the Brotherhood arc was going to be really dark,” Jaros said. “The player’s going to be the bad guy. You’re the aggressor, the person doing all of the nasty things, in the same way that people do nasty things to the player in the other arcs. When you go and kill this other guy’s girlfriend, [you] realize that you’re doing the thing you hate these other guys for, and we’ll do this big like message thing about violence.”
It didn’t work, Jaros said. “At the end of the day, Saints Row is not the place for a message piece. It is not what we do. It’s one of those things that got totally confusing where this is kind of fun and then this was a really, really serious [bit]. The player is kind of a sociopathic guy, and I don’t know if that really reads well. Some people really liked it and some people really, really hated it because the player’s really mean.”
There was a lot to consider when the team began drafting up the story for Saints Row: The Third. How should the main character act? Remember, the fully customizable avatar the player creates really does feel like an extension of the player’s self. “In Saints Row 2 the boss is an unrepentant dick,” Jaros said. When he started talking to the lead designer for SR3, they decided to go another route. “He said, ‘I don’t want the main character to be mean.’ Okay, that makes a lot of sense because it was confusing. You can’t be total sociopath. You want to like the main character. Instead of being a sociopathic dick, he’s going to be a puckish rogue. He’s going to be a sassy guy who looks after his people and then you’re going to feel better about that. Then we kind of put that energy in that – He’s a fun guy to hang around with, kind of an asshole, but he loves his friends and that’s what’s important.”
People really responded to this incarnation of Saints Row. Sales of SR3 were higher than the first two games combined. And while some of that could be attributed to brand recognition or successful marketing, I personally think the shift in narrative tone was a huge component of that game’s success. And with Saints Row IV continuing the absurdist pop-culture parody – it is set mostly in a virtual reality program and you mostly fight aliens instead of human gang members – along with continuing the characterization of the boss as a likeable scoundrel rather than sociopath of SR2, and the series seems to have hit its stride. “In Saints Row 4 you don’t feel bad running people over because it’s all virtual reality and everyone you’re killing are evil aliens,” Jaros said. “I’m not really playing a crazy guy anymore I’m the guy who saved the world and I’m fighting aliens this way, that’s kind of fun.”
Gat Out of Hell continues the tradition of allowing the player to experiment in an open world environment without the stigma of simulating violence on real representations of people. “Johnny Gat, the sociopathic killing machine, of course you don’t feel bad killing anybody because you’re in Hell,” he said. “It’s okay for you to go and create chaos. It’s okay for you to go and pick a fight with whomever you want because at the end of the day Johnny Gat is fighting the devil. Fighting the fucking devil. All those things help reinforce this vibe and provide more clarity of purpose of what we’re doing. We want people to go and have fun the whole time and in the beginning we weren’t clear enough in our intention to be fun.”
Did you ever want to start over? Ditch the whole pretext of the 3rd Street Saints and just make a science-fiction or fantasy game? “It’s one of those things where when you start over there’s great opportunity for you to go and reimagine things,” he admitted. “Of course the trick when you do that is how you reimagine things in such a way that they’re fresh and different but speaks to the essence of what made it work. Wwho doesn’t think ‘Oh if I could go and do it again, if I could do it again differently.’ That’s a natural part of making anything.”
Gat Out of Hell provides the chance for the writers to reimagine or revisit character arcs that might have been unsatisfying in previous Saints Row games. Jaros said that you’ll meet a lot of familiar faces in Hell, and maybe get some closure or resolution the original stories didn’t provide. “There are lots of little things that I think are pretty fun for fans,” he said. “We tried to go and bring back some characters that you’ve seen in the past, and tried to put some closure on some other things, put some fun homages [in]. [We tried to] really tie up a couple loose ends that are important to a lot of the fans who’ve been with the franchise from the beginning. One of the main characters who helps you on your journey is Dane Vogel, who is the main bad guy in Saints Row 2 so of course he went to Hell.”
The chance to go back and revisit some older characters is something Jaros relishes, along with including a musical song and dance number with a fully orchestrated soundtrack. He said the willingness of new publisher Deep Silver to bankroll this wacky game isn’t something you see in the industry very often. “I think it’s pretty fucking awesome that we’re able to make a game like this,” Jaros said. “Deep Silver lets us go and say ‘Okay we’re going to make a game, and it’s going to have a musical number and it’s going to be set in hell and we’re gonna have a bunch of homages to a game that came out six and eight years ago and we’re going do all these little things,’ and it’s like ‘Okay yeah that’s cool, let’s do it.’ That they’re really supportive of it is pretty incredible. It’s a thing that you don’t always see.”
It’s definitely a testament to the trust that Deep Silver has in the franchise. When THQ collapsed, and that company’s studios went to auction, the German-based distributor and publisher Deep Silver swept in with little fanfare and snatched up Volition and all its IP, including Saints Row. I don’t know if CEO Klemens Kundratitz knew he’d be bankrolling a fantastical adventure through Hell, but he sure knew he’d be grabbing a company that isn’t afraid to bend genres to their breaking point. Based on everything I heard about it, I’m definitely looking forward to playing Gat Out of Hell, but I’m even more interested in where Jaros and Volition go next.