The following article contains spoilers for Saints Row 2.
All I want from the upcoming Saints Row reboot is to be a scumbag. That might not seem like a big ask, but ever since it was teased, I’ve been dreading what sort of insincere, wafer-thin motivation it might foist upon me.
Why? Because Saints Row 2 is where the series peaks, and it’s all down to your character’s temperament. Yes, flinging yourself around for the insurance money or spraying upscale housing developments with dung is fun. But what really makes Saints Row 2 shine is that your character simply does not give a shit.
Aside from some scant loyalty to their fellow gang members, Saints Row 2’s protagonist doesn’t care who they hurt. They’re driven by revenge for their own attempted murder, not remorse, and are the kind of amoral individual who’ll flirt with a bartender and then yank them over the bar and use them as a human shield. Later games mellowed them, but in Saints Row 2 they’re exactly the kind of character you want from a Grand Theft Auto-style open-world game.
Because the problem with a lot of open-world games, ones where you get to interact with other living beings, is they give you the freedom to go on the rampage — then try and put a positive slant on your character.
Take the Just Cause games; the cutscenes paint you as a freedom fighter, toppling dictators to save the harried local populace. You’re protecting American interests, but you’re still (just) on the side of the angels. The problem is that as soon as a cutscene’s over, you can use your grappling gun to attach a hapless villager to the back of a car and watch them get dragged to their death.
“Ludonarrative dissonance” is a term that’s been coined to describe this kind of situation, defined as “the conflict between a video game’s narrative told through the story and the narrative told through the gameplay.” Grand Theft Auto IV is another example. Arriving a few months before Saints Row 2, it undermines its “Poor Nico” narrative even if you choose not to go around gunning down civilians. No matter how much of a, er, saint you are outside of the story missions, it still has you smuggling heroin.
Grand Theft Auto V tries to lean into the relationship between Franklin, Trevor, and Michael, but it’s still more fun playing as Trevor. Why? Because there’s precious little disconnect when you drive up onto the pavement and plough through a crowd; it’s the kind of deranged behavior Trevor would revel in if he were in control.
Then there are games that tell you to care, expecting you to ride through hell and high water for a collection of polygons you only just met. They don’t do the legwork of properly introducing the character; they just point at NPC X and expect you to sob your eyes out when they’re dispatched by the same gunfire that’s been bouncing off you.
Saints Row 2 does have a cutscene where one of your gang members dies in your arms, after being given the Just Cause treatment. But that’s more of a blip than anything else; you’re hunting down his killers anyway because they’ve dared to stand against you. And your character gels with Johnny Gat because they’re similarly devoid of morality.
I don’t need to be Saints Row 3’s whimsical rogue, embraced by the public even though I’ve got a triple-digit kill count. Let me bathe in the mayhem without the narrative wrangling of having some “noble” motivation, a kidnapped girlfriend, or any other motivation than sheer, murderous malevolence.
Please, Saints Row, let me be a heartless, irredeemable scumbag – is that really too much to ask?