Extra Punctuation Transcript
Assuming I wasn’t overruled at some point in the editorial process the asshole clickbaity title of this video should be “Where Saints Row Went Wrong.” And in the grand clickbait asshole tradition I’m not going to provide the information teased by that title until I’ve vacillated around it for five minutes. Because first I want to establish where Saints Row went right. They had a good innings. They were doing it right for longer than most. It’s just the new one and all the poor reviews it’s getting that’s fucked things up. So allow me to provide an itemised list of what the Saints Row franchise did right.
Number 1: Did the opposite of what Grand Theft Auto did
There’s a lot of debate over who really invented the concept of sandbox gameplay. Games like Elite and Ultima were arguably letting the player do as they please right from the earliest days of gaming. But I think Grand Theft Auto was the first example of what I might call a “cathartic” sandbox. Where the focus was on setting up a nice functioning city full of interconnecting systems and active NPCs and letting you go the fuck to town leaving a trail of corpses and explosions in your wake, with an appropriate wacky over the top tone to the setting and theme. This continued through the first wave of 3D GTAs, 3, Vice City, San Andreas etc, but the series changed tack for Grand Theft Auto 4.
The signs that GTA wanted to get more serious were there in San Andreas and its plot dallying with themes like disaffected urban youth in America, but GTA4 was fully a product of the brown and bloom gritty realism wave of its time. There was some wackiness mainly from the way all the shops and businesses had silly names punning on something obscene, but the plot was frontloaded with weighty themes and emotional characters and with the all new realistic vehicle physics it just wasn’t as cathartic to drive around smearing fat people across your windscreen.
Saints Row, which at the time was one of many GTA knockoffs spoken of in the same breath as games like True Crime: Streets of LA or The Getaway, was smart enough to realise that GTA4’s turn into gritty seriousness had left vacant a gaping niche for light hearted wacky cathartic crime sandbox games, and that’s what Saints Row 2 was. It wasn’t very realistic to be a colour-coded gang leader taking over the city by blasting liquid shit at people’s houses, but it was a lot more fun than taking your fat cousin bowling.
Hey, I’m not dissing GTA4. I like it. I think it’s underrated. It’s really immersive and well-written and Niko Bellic is one of my favourite protagonists in gaming. But there are times when we want to stroke our chins and ruminate on weighty themes and there are other times when we want to spray shit all over a house.
Number 2: Really good character customisation
Lots of games have let you design your appearance right down to bridge of nose length and eyebrow wiggle potential but somehow it hits different in Saints Row. Every time I play a Saints Row game I recreate the same character. He’s a pale skinny dude with ginger hair and mad starey eyes and as soon as I’ve unlocked the necessary clothing shops I always dress him up like the Riddler in a brightly coloured suit and matching bowler hat and he speaks with the English cockney voice, obviously. In my head, his name is Spider. I was replaying Saints Row 4 recently and my wife, who also likes Saints Row, watched Spider going to town on the screen for a while and then commented on how strange it was to see these games with the wrong protagonist.
Because of course she does the same thing, she has her own main character she always plays as in Saints Row games. As do most of the people I’ve spoken to about it. Saints Row does something that gets us more attached than normal to our avatar. In stark contrast to the Dark Souls thing where we completely forget what our custom protagonist looks like the moment they put a helmet on.
My personal theory for this is that while the Saints Row protagonist is highly customisable, they are not, as is usually the case, a blank slate. They have a personality, part of which is brought across by the appearance and voice, which we control, and the rest by their dialogue and the actions they do in cutscenes, which we don’t. And this goes back to what I was saying about interactive storytelling – the best results come when it feels like a collaboration between the player and the author. So when the boss of the Saints does something really cool like jump out of and then back into a crashing airplane or trick Michael Dorn into killing his own girlfriend our brain goes “We helped make this happen. That’s our creation on screen doing all this.” And you feel like a parent watching their kid absolutely nailing the school play.
Number 3: A. B. E., Always Be Escalating
When you deliberately sell yourself as wacky and over the top, you’ve already made a rod for your own back, because now you have to keep the energy going. You’ve got to keep getting progressively more over the top until you can’t see the top without a glass bottom boat. Because every new excess creates the new baseline and you can’t let it go back down again. If you let the pace drop it’s like when the audience stops laughing at a stand up gig – everything goes quiet and awkward and given a moment to think we start to wonder why we’re even listening to the twat with the microphone.
This is the problem with the Borderlands series among others – it’s going for wacky and over the top but then it keeps rolling you through samey shootouts and stopping the action after each one while you laboriously loot all the bodies for better equipment, and all the time some twat is ceaselessly banging on in your ear in the standard Whedonesque misunderstanding of wit.
But Saints Row actually managed to keep the energy up. It earned a reputation as the series that keeps finding new notches on the volume knob beyond eleven, and actually did push things to new heights with each sequel. So in Saints Row 3 the Saints go from gang leaders to international icons fighting supervillains and zombies and in Saints Row 4 you’re the president fighting space aliens . Which was about the only place it could’ve gone by that point. It did the Mario thing of going from land, to world, to galaxy.
Thing is, though, that was where it had to end. As the Jason films once learned, you can’t top going into space. If they’d made a Saints Row 5 that was more space adventures it would’ve been boring because it wouldn’t be moving off the new baseline. Space is, to coin a phrase, the final frontier. It adds literally infinite potential to your setting. And ironically that means you’ve got no more room to grow. There was nothing they could have done to follow up Saints Row 4 that wouldn’t have felt like a flagging of energy or a step back. And for a series that up to this point had defined itself by constantly stepping things up, that wouldn’t just be a disappointment, that would be a complete loss of identity.
It also didn’t help that Saints Row 4 was, to a large extent, taking the piss out of itself and all previous games. That’s definitely something you only do when it’s the last of the series. It’s like when they let you bring in games on the last day of school. And that made it even harder to follow up. You can’t take your hat off to show everyone the hamster wheel that’s powering your brain and then try to put your hat back on and pretend there was never a hamster. What am I on about.
Well I guess this sums up the hot take promised by the asshole clickbait title up there: Where did Saints Row go wrong? In brief, the new Saints Row game went wrong largely by existing in the first place. Well. The unlikeable characters, disjointed plot with low narrative stakes and complete lack of gameplay innovation sealed the deal, but it was already off on the wrong foot by then. Firstly be existing, secondly by no longer having the English cockney voice option. Rest in peace, Spider, we hardly knew ye. May you smile down upon us as you spray liquid faeces into the face of God.